Do DNA tests help you discover your family's story? A graphic

 Tantalized by the entertaining commercials? Promotional discounts tap dancing across your feed? Do DNA tests help you discover your family story? Should you take one?

The answer depends…

Despite the advertising, DNA testing shouldn’t be a knee-jerk decision. There are a few things to consider before you decide if you’re ready to test.

As we review some points to cogitate over, I’ll try to point you to the experts. Though other sites post reviews, steer towards articles by genealogists. Their analysis comes from a  deep understanding of family history research.

In addition, the International Society of Genetic Genealogy (ISOGG) website is filled with all sorts of explanations and links. If you want a reliable definition of something, refer to ISOGG.

Here are some points to cogitate over before ordering a kit..

Your “DNA Story” Isn’t the Same as Your Family’s Story

DNA tests help you discover your biological ancestry. For some people that will include evidence of a big, fat, hairy story.

However, shocking or not, those dry facts don’t make a story.

Often, DNA tests give you clues. Sometimes a test can tell you the who, but it won’t tell you the whys and hows. It misses the heartbreaks and losses. The hugs from grandmas and love fed down through each meal and bedtime.

Ferreting out the backstory will require some difficult conversations and research.

But remember, family often transcends blood and chromosomes.

DNA Test Can Help You Discover Surprises.  Are You Open to Them?

DNA testing results aren’t limited to warm and fuzzy outcomes. You may learn things you’d never expect.

Worse case scenarios include not being related to siblings, but there are other unexpected findings that could be troubling. For instance, descendants of enslaved individuals often find the amount of their European ancestry disturbing.

DNA tests can debunk cherished family traditions. Indicate that ancestors strayed outside the paper lineage.

If you’re not emotionally prepared to see evidence of family skeletons, you’re probably not ready to open the closet door of DNA testing.

A Lot of Us are Mutts

You might sign up thinking you’ll have to trade in your kilt for Lederhosen, but the reality is apt to be more complicated. Your ethnicity is likely to be a pie chart of differing ethnicities. And, due to how DNA recombines, your siblings may have different percentages than you have.

Further, DNA companies regularly refine their algorithms for their ethnicity estimates. Your “pie” may evolve into thinner pieces. Or Ireland might morph into something more general, like “British Isles.” (See Am I Really 37% Irish?.)

Adoptive DNA:  Your Story is Intermingled with Other People’s Stories

The impetus to find birth parents isn’t a “Wow, there’s $40 off on this test today” type of decision. There’s a lot to think about, including how adoptive and biological and adoptive family members will react. That journey can be life-altering.

If you’re wondering on whether to pull the trigger on that, DNA Adoption, a 501(c)(3)—which is USA jargon for a bona fide charity, can help.

DNA Testing versus Traditional Family History Research

It’s really not an either-or decision. Or it shouldn’t be.

The two approaches are complementary. DNA testing may point you in the right direction for a paper search. Traditional research can help you determine what family members you might want to test to confirm theories.

To read more on this, check out Lynn Serafinn’s Why DNA Tests Are NO Substitute for Genealogical Research.

Know what DNA testing entails

I don’t mean whether you spit or swab your cheek.

Which test will you take?

Start by understanding the differences between Autosomal, Y-DNA, and mitochondrial DNA.  DNA Adoption’s What DNA Test Should I Take?  and Roberta Estes’s Which DNA Test is Best? make good starting places.

What about your privacy protections?

These vary by testing companies. Read the terms of service carefully. For more information, Judy Russell’s TheLegalGenealogist.com site explores the legalities of DNA testing.)

What about matches?

Do you want people who share your DNA to contact you? If so, that may determine which company you want to start with. The DNAGeek has an exhaustive comparison of big five in The Pros and Cons of the Main DNA Testing Companies—2018 version.  Note: Most genealogists recommend testing with more than one company (if not all of them) to maximize matching.

Are all the ethnicity estimates the same?

Each company has its own methodology.

Diahan Southard’s article DNA Q&A: The Best Ethnicity Estimates for FamilyTree Magazine has a good overview of how testing companies stack up on ethnicity estimates.

Your Turn

Do DNA tests help you discover your family's story? pinnable imageWhat do you wish you’d known or thought about before you bought a DNA kit?  Did DNA tests help you discover your family’s story?  Please comment below.

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