Questions for Mom and Dad
April 23, 2008 4:43 AM   Subscribe

I just got a video camera, and the first project I would like to do is a family history. I'm going to see my parents this weekend (76 and 80 y.o.). What are some creative and interesting questions to ask to get them started talking?

I'm looking for fun and unusual questions - I have googled the topic of family histories for some of the standard ones. I want the stuff you really wish you knew about your folks but never asked. Thanks!
posted by extrabox to Human Relations (15 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
This Smithsonian Guide about folklore and oral history might be helpful.
posted by stefnet at 5:09 AM on April 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Even though my parents have always told me and my sister lots of stories about their lives, I find more and more that I don't know much about their life together in the early years of their marriage (before my sister and I came on the scene). Are there any periods of time in your parents' lives like that for you?

Another trove of information was when my parents were cleaning out under their bed a year or two ago and found a stack of letters they had written to each other during their engagement when my father was at a summer job in Cincinnati and my mother was in Alabama. Reading those letters was both wonderful and strange—it became so clear that they were different people then than they are now. If your parents have letters or other things like that, having them read them on camera and then talking about it could be great.

Of course, no matter what you end up asking, the video you take will be cherished. We have a tape of my great grandmother from the late 90s (both for her and for the 20th Century) and even though her memory and connections between stories had faded, it's still great just to see her there as she was.
posted by ocherdraco at 5:14 AM on April 23, 2008

Not a question to ask, but it might be fun to watch some parts of Creature Comforts on's funny and it has a lot of oral history stuff going on, and might loosen everyone up.

Just a thought.
posted by sully75 at 5:59 AM on April 23, 2008

I'd avoid asking questions at all-- it puts the subject on the defensive and reminds them they're on camera. A really valuable skill (that's harder than you think to develop) is to use "conversation starters" to get them talking, then keep quiet while they talk, nodding and smiling instead of saying, "uh-huh," and "yeah," to keep them going.

Remember that you can edit out anything you want from your footage. Get the camera rolling, set it down (don't sit behind it looking throught the viewfinder), and chat a few minutes about anything before you focus on their past. Keep your conversation open-ended so they can't just say yes or no as an answer: "Boy, things have changed," "That must've been tough," "I remember you mentioning X a few times, but I never heard the whole story."

Have fun and good luck-- as ocherdraco mentions, you'll cherish your footage no matter what.
posted by Rykey at 6:19 AM on April 23, 2008

StoryCorps has an online thing where you can select and print out interview questions. It's a really great site.
posted by lockestockbarrel at 6:27 AM on April 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

"Tell me your love story (how you met and fell in love)."
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 6:36 AM on April 23, 2008

Not very creative, but very effective -- haul out the old photo albums and let them just wander around. They'll be prompted by the images and you will be able to sense what sparks them, and stop there for some more in-depth conversation on an event or character from their lives.
posted by thinkpiece at 6:38 AM on April 23, 2008

If your father was in the service ask about his experiences there, particularly if he saw any combat action. Vets typically just don't talk about that stuff, but you don't want to find out after he passes away that he had a box full of medals for heroic deeds stashed under his bed.

Get those stories now, before it's too late.
posted by COD at 7:19 AM on April 23, 2008

By the time I sat down with my dad to ask some of these questions my Dad was sick enough that I decided not to record him. His voice and appearance were too far gone to want to remember. I did, however, take detailed notes.

My advice, hardly unique, is to keep things open ended. "Tell me about..." is better than "Did you?"

Also, think about significant moments in your life and ASL about the equivalent in theirs. In retrospect I can hardly believe I waited decades to ask if my dad played sports in high school.

Nobody seems to believe that other people want to know the "trivial" details of their life. You may have to keep prompting to get the details, at least at first.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 7:53 AM on April 23, 2008

One of my favorite things to ask parents/grandparents about is what types of trouble they got into as children. One story seems to lead to the next and usually has everyone cracking up.
posted by agentwills at 8:16 AM on April 23, 2008 [2 favorites]

I used Legacy with my mom and dad. I didn't really follow it step by step, but it was a place to start. Also, my parents were a bit skeptical/meh about the project, so having a book setting out the steps (I sent them a copy, too) seemed to reassure them. I sat at the computer with a parent and asked questions, and wrote up the responses in each parent's "voice." Legacy is set up by time frame (childhood, young adult, marriage & early marriage, having children, etc.), and that seemed to work well as a simple way to organize and start talking.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 9:07 AM on April 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Don't just ask about "what happened" to get a timeline, ask about things or folkways that simply don't exist anymore. Ask them about their childhood experiences with religion, and how that might be different now -- be it changes in organized religion, conflict between old ways and new ways, increased or decreased importance in their families' lives, etc. Ask about any old family traditions or ethnic traditions, or odd superstitions, or foods that were eaten on special occasions, or common sayings. Try to recapture a sense of what the culture was like for them back then. And if they were immigrants, well, you've got a ton of stuff to ask about the old country, and what life was like back there.
posted by Asparagirl at 4:19 PM on April 23, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks these are all really great answers! The story corp site is great, and I recommend it too after just spending a lot of time browsing. THANK YOU ALL!!!
posted by extrabox at 9:55 PM on April 23, 2008

extrabox, thank you so much for asking this! I am in the same position as you (just got a video camera in order to do this) and this is so helpful and inspiring. I am going home in a couple of weeks and now I am so excited to start recording!
posted by inatizzy at 12:48 PM on April 24, 2008

"Tell me about a time when you were really scared..."
posted by hulahulagirl at 12:58 PM on April 24, 2008

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