How do I get to know my parents as people?
March 26, 2014 4:07 PM   Subscribe

After seeing and reading about the death of parents, one of the biggest regrets seems to be not knowing them better. I have a cordial but distance relationship from my parents and while I don't ever see us being BFFs, I would like to know them better as people and their life. How do I do this, considering I live 6 states away?

This may be morbid and I hope not bad luck or superstition but I truly don't know who my parents are. They are still in their early 60s so I have time but it's quickly depleting. I've never had an exceptionally close relationship to them and it's only been in the past 5 years that I've let go alot of the anger I held for them due to an almost deadly cancer experience in my childhood during prime development phase (ages 9-13). I realize that I blamed them for alot that was beyond their control and held onto anger that wasn't justifiably towards them. So overall, I was a pretty shitty son for more then a few years. I've apologized for that and I do believe that they have forgiven me but I would still like to make up for lost time and get to know them as people. I will admit that the relationship still isn't perfect, they still annoy me given long streches, my mom's hippieish meets conservative christian attitude on social issues angers me, and my dad's silent except when anxious deamonor still frustrates me (and the fact that he asks for IT advice then does the exact opposite...) but they are my parents and I do truly love them and respect what they went through raising 3 kids.

The only problem is I don't actually know how to do this, I know the base and major events in their life but I don't know the small things that make up the majority of life. They are coming out for two weeks in a month and I would really like to spend some quality time with them rather then the normal, get drunk and tolerate each other while having scratched the surface meaningful conversation. So how do I make up for lost time and get to parents better? If not alive, what do you wish you would have done when your parents were alive?
posted by lpcxa0 to Human Relations (21 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
I've started taping oral history interviews with my dad. It gets him talking about stuff that is important to him and can be good bonding.
posted by steinsaltz at 4:10 PM on March 26, 2014 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Start filling in a family tree. You will need to ask them to supply a lot of the data. You might find it interesting, and a clue to who you are.
posted by Cranberry at 4:15 PM on March 26, 2014 [7 favorites]

"Mom, Dad, I'd really like to get to know you better as people. Could we go out and talk about your experiences and whatever is important to you?"
posted by xingcat at 4:24 PM on March 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Help them go places and do things when they come. Do those things with them.
Use that five-states-distance difference to your advantage.
Eg, if dad is interested in car shows (or whatever) and you're in an area with some pretty awesome ones, then take him to one and spend the afternoon there together, and just be engaged, so incidentally learning about what interests him and why.

Talk to them before they come about what sort of things your area offers that they might be interested in visiting/doing/seeing, so you can research/plan/etc. Tell them that you'll help or take care of transport etc (if you're able to do so).

They might have no idea what your area offers that intersects with what they'd like to do, so you might have to dig around to come up with a list of best-guess ideas beforehand. Also maybe think about things along the lines of dreams they might have discarded - things they meant to do but forgot or which got squeezed out as they settled down.
posted by anonymisc at 4:26 PM on March 26, 2014

There are a bunch of parlor games that pose questions that often get at weird little things you never would have known. Here's one, but there are a gazillion out there. If you feel awkward just quizzing them on who they are, you could propose a drunken game of "If..." Who knows what will happen?
posted by janey47 at 4:27 PM on March 26, 2014

This is a goal of mine too. What I've started doing is calling more often, for shorter periods of time. You can get a better idea of how they spend their time, and if your parents are like mine, sometimes they'll just volunteer stuff..."you know, I drove by the old barn out on 12 today, and it just made me think of my dad, because...".

I have also made it a point to try to ask my parents for...not advice, really, 'cause I'm an adult, but how they reacted to situations similar to ones I find myself in. I've had a lot of meaningful conversations from volunteering a challenge I'm facing and asking if they ever faced something similar; for example, I asked my mom about a situation I was having with a friend, and ended up hearing about some of her friendships in her twenties--it was relevant and helpful, and it made me feel much closer to my mom, being able to picture her in her twenties with her friends.

I'll also say that therapy has made it much easier for me to relate to my parents as flawed, wonderful people, through allowing me to share more of myself, but YMMV.
posted by stellaluna at 4:27 PM on March 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's true, family research can lead to a lot of interesting questions. Especially if you ask questions about their parents and grandparents - what they were like as people, what they enjoyed, etc. This will then open up paths to ask your parents directly about themselves. Where they went to school, who their best friend was when they were a kid, etc. I ease into these conversations myself.

In my family that sort of conversation goes best when you are doing something together that is not eating - cooking, sorting photographs, working in the garden.

Besides asking questions, observe. Notice preferences. Things like hating tomatoes and loving jazz are also part of who people are.

Be patient - they may need time to adjust to being asked a lot of questions. Sometimes one parent doesn't want to discuss certain aspects of their life in front of the other parent. Notice when they are comfortable and when they aren't and respect that.

You can also bring up things you remember from childhood, especially those vague memories that you wish were clearer, and ask how they remember them.

Was going to suggest looking for some of the games that ask questions, but then janey47 posted.

Good luck!
posted by bunderful at 4:35 PM on March 26, 2014

The family tree idea is outstanding. Do that.
posted by jpe at 4:57 PM on March 26, 2014

Family tree, definitely. And also, asking them to tell stories about their families, their own lives. Mom, how did you and Dad meet? what was your 1st date? Did your parents approve? etc. My son asks me for advice, or just to listen when he has some problem; it's really gratifying. He's just 26, so it's been a big part of the change from adolescent distancing to being close as adults.
posted by theora55 at 5:09 PM on March 26, 2014 [5 favorites]

For their trip to your city, what if you don't get drunk?

You could start planning a surprise retirement party for whichever parent will be retiring first. By collaborating with the other parent just things like making a guest list would provide lots of chances to learn about not just your parents but their circles of friends and how they grew with, and perhaps grew away from each other. As part of the party have a slideshow. This will require more collaboration with the other parent and going through old photos, again giving opportunities to find out more about your parents. The party itself doesn't need to be anything either expensive or elaborate, but the preparation for it would be a great way to learn about your parents and do something nice for them as well.

Also, I may have missed it, but do you have siblings? Talking with them may help fill in some of these gaps as well.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 5:50 PM on March 26, 2014

I think it might be somewhat like mining for gold, you never know when you are getting close.

I often wonder what my grown kids may or may not know about me (from other sources), and what they might or might not find interesting. Do they know I had no social life in high school and an insane one during college? Do they know how lonely it was traveling around the country in my first job out of college? Do they know how many mistakes I know I've made, and how much I regret the ones that caused the entire family to miss out on opportunities? Do they know how proud of them I am? And so on.

So I think you should just invite them to share stories about various times in their life, and see where it leads.
posted by forthright at 6:14 PM on March 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

I just read about StoryWorth and Memloom, web subscriptions for archiving personal/family stories. I'm in a similar situation as you and I'm thinking of signing up for StoryWorth to - like you said - get to know my relatives as people.

NYTimes article: Preserving Family History, One Memory at a Time
posted by Signed Sealed Delivered at 6:20 PM on March 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

I was a willful child, which is a nice way of saying I was a pain in the ass to my folks. Left home at 16 and pretty much did "cordial but distant" relations for a long time. Over time I came to realize what you have--parents are people, too! I consider it one of those psychological bridges to genuine adulthood. Alas, it's one which my sister, now in her 50s, never managed to cross. My now deceased father and my mother had (have) regrets over that.

In my case, it took some time after the realization to build a more intimate friendship with my folks. It was a progressive dynamic--a little at a time. So, don't feel compelled to rush things. On the other hand, I didn't truly get to know my father until he began descending down the slope of illness (and eventually the early stages of dementia.)

My best suggestion would be to do this, if possible: Sometime in the future, when it seems appropriate, take a trip with your parents to where they grew up. Walk the old neighborhoods. Be a good listener. Nostalgia isn't necessary a bad thing in proper doses. Get the stories about how they grew up and how events large and small affected them and your appreciation for their simple humanity will strengthen your bond with them. And they'll recognize your growing love and reciprocate--not in parental terms because that kind of love is a given, but in human and friendly terms.
posted by CincyBlues at 6:21 PM on March 26, 2014 [3 favorites]

Great question. I second asking advice so long as it's sincere. I used to ask my dad home repair advice (when I needed it) by posting photos of my problem on Flickr and then calling him and we would talk through the problem. The explanations were lengthy and I didn't always follow what he said. Turned out he is not the kind of guy who insists that you take his advice. He simply enjoys giving it. And I enjoyed the contact. It did not seem at all superficial. And a bonus was that that once we did that, it made it easier to post photos of my life and get him to go through those with me also. Good luck on this!
posted by Prayless at 7:58 PM on March 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

for what it's worth, a cordial but "distance" relationship with your parents puts you in the upper half of good parent-child relationships. six states away is not too far to establish your own identity on your own terms. when my parents were alive, i had a 72-hour rule for remaining under their roof, any longer than that, and hostility would ensue.
posted by bruce at 8:36 PM on March 26, 2014

Best answer: At 70, I'm getting these kind of questions from family members. On behalf of your parents, I beg you, please please be very careful about what you ask and how you ask it. The longer you live, the more joy you will have to look back on, but the more pain and loss and regret there will be, also. Just blurting out personal questions you're curious about can be very painful, although I doubt your parents will admit to it (I don't). But it's not fun. And remember, some of us like to tour the old neighborhood; my husband, for instance. But I subscribe to the "Don't look back, something might be gaining on you" school of thought.

Non-personal questions are often much more welcome. What was the first movie you saw? How old were you? What did you wear in high school? What's the first big news story you remember? What do you remember/did you think about the Freedom Riders, the Black Panthers, Vietnam War protestors? Where were you when Kennedy was shot? Martin Luther King, Jr? John Lennon? What little things have changed so much? (Long distance telephone calls. Ball point pens. The F word.) These memories can lead to much more personal stories.

But you can still trip up. As a much younger woman I sent cards to my grandmother. In one card I innocently asked about her mother; I didn't even know her maiden name. Huge explosion in the family, calls back and forth (long distance calls, at that), my father berating me for upsetting his mom so much. Turns out my great-grandmother had the same last name as her husband, but they certainly WERE NOT cousins, no matter what anybody said, and what kind of trouble was I trying to cause, anyway. No more stories from Grandma after that.

It's wonderful you're doing this. And don't forget to share some of your unvarnished life and opinions with your parents!
posted by kestralwing at 10:49 PM on March 26, 2014 [10 favorites]

What has worked for me is finding shared hobbies and interests.

My dad and I are remarkably similar people. We're both sharp, a little critical, a little serious, but with very similar tastes and very similar senses of humor. They say that parents and children who are similar often run into tension, so needless to say, we butted heads quite a bit up until my mid-20s. I was an obnoxious son for a good 5-6 years there, and he was an equally obnoxious father during that time. While he is still a conservative religious believer, I've left the faith a while back (not noisily, but not really hiding it either). That's caused tension too.

But over the last few years, what we've discovered are our many shared interests and that has been a really nice entry point for good, meaningful conversations and a good relationship. We enjoy supporting the same football team and every year we have our 6-7 games we attend together. I also found out that he's become a big craft beer fan (but the type that is of the opinion that it's better to drink better beer, than drink more beer).

So now, I keep an eye out for fun, off the wall IPAs. Every time I go over to the house (every week or two), we'll crack open a couple of bombers and do taste tests and watch beer review videos online (we love a hilarious Youtube series called Greg's Beer Reviews, for any beer fans who might have heard of him).

We'll usually end up sitting around the grill, cooking up some good food, enjoying a great beer, and having a nice conversation. That conversation helps us learn a lot about each other that we might not have picked up before.

Connecting through those small shared interests has made both of us realize that our relationship is bigger than our religious differences, and bigger than whatever past troubles we had. And we now know a lot more about each other.

He is nearing his 60s and he and I both realize our time to connect is limited. I bet your parents might feel the same way you do, so don't hesitate to give it a shot. Don't forget that millions of us are going through this same experience- finding ways to connect with our aging parents who we might not have gotten along with that well in the past.

It really just starts with the small things.
posted by Old Man McKay at 11:16 PM on March 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

In addition to family history, ask them about YOU as a child. My mother is currently going through and finding people she went to elementary and middle school with (she grew up on a military base overseas). The #2 stumbling block she has had to finding her classmates is that most of the parents have died and she has no way to trace the kids (#1 being that she can't find any of the women since they have since married and changed their names). She's said several times how she wished she had started earlier, when her mother was alive and her father didn't have Alzheimer's, so that she could have gotten information from them.
posted by chainsofreedom at 5:44 AM on March 27, 2014

Seconding kestralwing about the types of questions to start with.

I wanted to know all about my Grandma's younger days, but she just wasn't much of a reminiscer. But she was a great cook, and I had just watched a fascinating TV show about cooking during WWII rationing. So, I told her about it and asked her about her experiences with rationing: Where did she go to get her ration books? How many did she get per child? What did she do with them then? Did she ever run out of anything? Did she ever trade anything? And we had a really interesting talk.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:51 AM on March 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

I agree with starting a pattern of weekly phone calls, just to chat. Let them into your life, as you try to get to know them better.

You can start out asking small questions, and be sure to offer up information about yourself. Reminisce with them, sharing your memories of events, then see how they add on or shift perspective. For instance, I remember a sledding event as uncontrolled and fun, while my parents remember me screaming in terror down a hill.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:38 AM on March 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

I lived several states away from my parents (who are both dead now) and it was at about age 30 when we started to have a meaningful dialog where I was capable of seeing them as people, not just my parents. Good on you for thinking about this. My suggestions:

* Keep your expectations reasonable. As odd as it sounds, just because you are related doesn't mean you will ever really become close. Most relations tolerate, rather than love, each other.
* To help your mental framework, think about the age when they started having children. How close are you to that age? It is kind of freaky. Yeah, they were just regular people muddling through life too.
* The relationship for much of your life is being the receiver of care and attention (I'm assuming, realizing there are always exceptions). They were minding your scholastic progress and watching you run track or whatever you did. Many people go into adulthood giving nary a thought that maybe this should change, which leads to...
* Take a genuine interest in what they are into. Do they have hobbies or travel interests? Take a sincere interest and ask them about the things they love to do. This isn't a tactic. It is a habit. When you really take an interest in what the other person cares about you get a good view into what makes them tick.

Best luck. You seem like you are already pretty self aware so you may be well beyond needing the above advice, but I hope it helps.
posted by dgran at 10:49 AM on March 27, 2014

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