A professional genealogist’s thoughts when considering this holiday gift.
DNA testing has gained popularity over the years and is often touted in ads and commercials as the ultimate Christmas gift. But is it really?
As a professional genealogist, I use DNA information constantly as an added resource for solving family history puzzles. The genetic science has truly revolutionized genealogical research in many positive ways! Problems that could have never been solved before are suddenly being cracked open with clues from a person’s saliva! For me, that is pure magic! However, the way I use DNA information as a professional genealogist can be very different from how someone given a DNA kit for Christmas may use and experience the product.
What a DNA test is, and what it is not
Most of the recreational DNA testing companies (like Ancestry, 23andMe, FamilyTreeDNA, MyHeritage, etc.) examine what’s called autosomal DNA. This is a specific type of DNA you inherit from both parents, which they inherited from both of their parents, etc. Hence, you carry autosomal DNA that has been passed down through your ancestors for many generations. From this information, genetic scientists can tell specific things about your origins and your family history, and there are also things they cannot. Here are some of the big ones:
An autosomal DNA test IS a way to discover what parts of the world your ancestors came from — at least back several hundred years. There are other tests that can look at other specific types of DNA for much deeper origins (like Y-DNA or mitochondrial DNA). The ethnicity portion of the test is the pretty little pie chart (or percentage list) many people think of when they think about DNA tests. Yes, you can learn what percentage or your ancestral lineage is Irish, Indigenous American, Spanish, West African, etc.
An autosomal DNA test IS a way to discover and (potentially) connect with other relatives you match with! This is perhaps the most exciting thing for genealogists about DNA science. From your DNA results, you can discover that you have second or third cousins in other countries; adoptees can identify their birth families; and, for brick wall genealogy problems, I can find third, fourth or fifth cousins who descend from my mystery ancestor’s siblings, use clues from their known family stories, and connect dots! It’s really remarkable!
An autosomal DNA test is NOT going to magically generate a family tree going back to King Edward I, Charlemagne, or Adam. That’s a big misconception! Sometimes people are underwhelmed with that data received from their test because their expectations are in the realms of the unrealistic.
An autosomal DNA test is NOT a way for people to steal your identity or clone you. A few years ago, news broke about police catching the Golden State Killer. However, when people learned that genetic DNA testing was used to identify the killer, many freaked out and became very skeptical. They assumed their DNA information was wide open to anyone and everyone and that it could be used for incriminating and nefarious purposes. Sadly, however, news outlets did a terrible job conveying the real story. How DNA was used in the Golden State Killer case is a LONG story and I won’t go into it here. However, it’s important to know that most testing companies have very strict privacy policies that protect your data. I can’t speak for all companies, but I at least know Ancestry is very careful with privacy and does not allow their databases to be used for law enforcement purposes or other third-party uses that customers do not choose to opt into (like special studies).
Considerations for DNA as a Gift
So now to the original question: Are DNA kits good Christmas gifts?
My answer: They can be!
Here are few tips I offer to make the DNA kit more useful to your intended receiver:
Be familiar with the product yourself before you give it to someone! Unless you know the person is a family history/science geek or something, then you can get by. However, buying kits for your parents in their 70s when you, yourself, haven’t done the test might not go well. This is because many people may need or want help going through the results after they have taken it. Or, they may not really understand what it is; and so if you can show them your results after they open the gift, it will make them more excited to actually take it! Sadly, many kits given as gifts never are taken and activated because people feel intimidated to actually do it.
Consider a 6 or 12-month subscription to a genealogy site in conjunction with the test. Sometimes the test itself doesn’t provide people with all of the data they imagined. Or, they just don’t know how to really mine the information hiding in their results. Hence, giving them something else to use in tandem with their DNA kit will go a long way. For instance, if you give Ancestry’s DNA kit to a friend or relative, they will get much more out of the test if they actually take the time to build a family tree and gather historical documents about their ancestors on the Ancestry site itself with a subscription. The test really comes alive in a different way!
Prepare your receiver for potential surprises! This is important! I can’t tell you how many people I know who have taken a DNA test only to find they have unknown half-siblings, or dad turns out not to be their dad, or grandpa turns out not to be grandpa, etc. Really, folks, it happens. A lot. Our ancestors weren’t always the virtuous, chaste people they often portended. For me, though, I LOVE seeing the humanity in our ancestors and how people have always been people. And, the fun part is learning something new and finding new family! So, just know that DNA testing can, at times, reveal some pretty earth-shattering surprises for people.
Use the product features fully! This goes back to my first point of using the product yourself because there are lots of great ways to connect with relatives and learn about yourself through DNA data! However, if your receiver just look at your ethnicity pie chart, the gift may be lackluster. So, dive in and learn more about the different ethnicities and genetic communities that show up on your pie chart! Reach out to and connect with cousin matches who show up in your results! Really LEARN more about yourself through your ancestors by using this incredible tool!
Check back often for updates! Yes, there are often updates to your results! New people are testing all the time, which means you will have new cousin matches showing up almost on a weekly basis! Then, as more and more people test, and the respective testing companies gather more testers for their reference panels, the accuracy of the ethnic communities refines and becomes more accurate and specific. Hence, it’s important to know that your results may show you’re 22% Irish today, but overtime, that may refine and change a bit because the science continues to evolve and get better. So, see a DNA test as a gift that keeps on giving!
My Final Takeaway
In short, get DNA kits for your people! They are fun, unique and meaningful gifts! Just know there are ways to make the gift even better and to really turn it into something that will be a tremendous value and insight to the people you love and share it with!