Every detective needs good informants to help crack a case. Who are the best informants for your family investigations? Older relatives, such as your grandparents, great-aunts or -uncles, even your parents’ older siblings. They can tell you their memories of your family from before you were born.
Grownups like to share their memories, so don’t be shy—call an older relative to set up an interview. In-person is best, but you can do it over the phone or computer if your relative lives far away.
Be sure to bring your detective notepad and a pencil to take notes; you also might want to bring an audio or video recorder (or a smartphone) to tape a face-to-face interview. Just ask your interviewee’s permission first; some people feel uncomfortable being recorded.
Here are questions to ask:
- When were you born?
- Where did you grow up and what was it like?
- What were your parents’ and siblings’ names? Were you an oldest, youngest or middle child?
- What do you remember about your grandparents?
- What kind of jobs did your parents do?
- What are your happiest family memories?
- How did you like school?
- What did you want to be when you grew up?
- What were your chores, and what did you do for fun?
- What are your strongest memories from your time in the military?
- How did you meet Grandma/Grandpa/Uncle ____/Aunt ____?
- Tell me about your first date.
- Tell me about the day my mom/dad was born.
- What was my mom/dad like as a child?
- Do you know any stories about ancestors immigrating to America? Where did they come from?
- Do you have any old photos, papers or a family Bible you could show me?
Tips for parents
Use this question list as a guide, but it’s OK if the conversation leads your child to ask questions not on the list, or the relative to tell stories not related to a particular question. Looking at old family photos may spark the relatives’ memories, too.
You and your child can edit the list together based on the length of the interview, what your child wants to ask about, and any school project requirements, if applicable (for example, their teacher may want them to focus on a particular topic such as military service).
Using family interviews to learn historical lessons
With your help, your child may want to jot down significant historical events that occurred during their relatives’ lives, such as the Great Depression or the day President Kennedy was assassinated. Then he or she can ask about them it with a question such as, “What’s your most vivid memory of growing up during the Great Depression?
If they’ve been learning about the Great Depression in school, they’ll see how it affected everyday people and maybe even find themselves an answer to that perennial question, “Why do we have to learn this?”
They also might be interested in how their relatives’ childhoods compare to their own: Did they have similar hobbies? What chores did they have to do around the house? How did they like their brothers and sisters?
Make sure you record the interview for posterity (and in case your child needs it for a report) using a digital voice recorder or an app on your smart phone.
If filling in a family tree chart along with the interview is part of a school assignment, browse our collection of free downloadable forms. Your relatives would probably love to see the finished project!
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