How to Interview Your Parents About Their Lives
One of the greatest gifts you can give your parents (or grandparents) is the story of their lives. It is a thoughtful way to show them how grateful you are for the life they gave you. It is a fantastic way of preserving their legacy for your children and grandchildren. It is the best way to add beautiful leaves to your family tree!
Seniors often have a tough time talking about their lives. They do not know where to start. They do not know what to include and what to leave out. They fear they will embarrass themselves, especially if they are not good writers or storytellers. Sadly, they often think no one will care about their story if they do tell it.
This is where you come in! You become your parent’s biographer. This series of articles will teach you how to do that. You give them motivation and structure. You help them pull it all together into a presentation they will love, and that your family will cherish forever. You preserve their legacy as an anthology, not just a single story.
Part 1: Set up the Interviews
1. Explain to your parents why you would like to help them tell their story.
It is for your family’s heritage. It is for them to see how rich and important their lives have been. It is to preserve the lessons they learned to pass on to future generations. It will help them put their lives into perspective and, if need be, come to terms with the past.
One day, their grandchildren will want to know more about their heritage and how their grandparents helped to make them who they are.
2. If you will be interviewing both your mom and dad or your grandmother and grandfather, let them know you would like to schedule some time with them individually and together.
It is important to do separate interviews because even though they may have lived much of their lives together, they also lived their own lives and have unique perspectives on their shared experiences.
3. Set up the schedule of interviews with each of them, and with them together. Generally, 1-2 hours per session works best at least once per week. These can be in-person, by phone, or by video chat. You can do 30 minutes with mom and then 30 minutes with dad on the same topics. If you opt for longer sessions, take a 10–15-minute break every hour.
4. Give your parents the topics you want to interview them about ahead of time. A list of suggested topics is included in this series of articles. Feel free to come up with your own list.
Tip: Have them complete their Leaves Summary Biography at https://www.leaves.us/sign-up. This will get them in the groove to revisit their lives.
5. Ask them to think about the topics you will be discussing in advance of your sessions. What are their most vivid memories about the topics? After each session, give them the topics for the next session.
To help them recall and relive memories, suggest they look at old photo albums or home movies from that period prior to the interview. Ask them to look at their diaries, journals, and old letters. Have them listen to songs from the era to be discussed or watch an old movie from that time. Anything that helps to transport them back in time will stimulate memories and conversation about the topics you plan to cover.
Tip: The Leaves Summary Biography App will provide them with key historical flashbacks to various periods in their lives.
6. Ask them WHAT topics they for sure want to see in their story. They may have different ideas about what is important in a life story. For example, your dad might want to talk about his glory days playing high school football, but your mom could care less. Conversely, your mom might want to talk about her first love, who may not have been your dad, and your dad certainly doesn’t want that in HIS story.
This is the tricky part about being a good life story interviewer. Everyone lives their own life. Their story is uniquely theirs. Later, we will talk about how to structure mom’s story, dad’s story, and their story together.
7. Assure your parents that everything they share is confidential and owned by them unless and until they give you permission to share it with others. Establish the guidelines in advance for those who can see their story. Just certain family members? Extended family members? Friends? The public? They should have final approval on the story you capture, edit, and publish for them.
One aspect of Leaves is the ability for people to release stories or messages at a future date. Your mom or dad may confide a story to you that others don’t know and they may want you to share it only after their passing, or at some other date in the future.
8. Set the rules for how “deep” you can go. Are some topics or periods of their lives off-limits?
9. Ask them if it is okay to record the sessions. Some people are uncomfortable with being recorded. If one or both are uncomfortable with recorded interviews, you can assure them the recordings will only be used for transcription so you do not miss vital details, and then you will destroy the recordings. If that still makes them uncomfortable, plan to take copious notes!
10. Encourage them to write or record memories outside of your sessions with them. Often, once this process is started, memories come flooding back. They can’t always wait until the interview. Mom and dad can jot notes to themselves, or record memories using their phones, then share those notes and recordings with you.
By following these steps, you will no doubt unleash a treasure trove of memories. Do not be surprised to hear stories you never heard before! You may become overwhelmed by the volume of content you will amass. You might start to worry about how to organize it and how to present it. You could get enough material for several books. No worries. We have your back! See our piece on editing and publishing your parent’s life stories.
Part 2: Conduct the Interviews
- Be prepared with your list of questions. Each session will cover several topics. Compile questions centered around the topics. You may even provide these questions to them in advance of the session. For a comprehensive list of questions by topic, see our article, “The Life Story Arc.”
- Get comfortable. Conduct the interviews on their turf, in familiar surroundings. If being done via video chat, do not forget to record the session. Make it a conversation, not an interview or therapy session. It is good to do it with refreshments. People tend to be more open and social when “breaking bread” with others. Once mom and dad are relaxed, set the stage.
- Set the stage. Reiterate what topics you would like to discuss. You should have given them the topics in advance. Reiterate the time allotted for the interview. Let them know they can take a break whenever they need one. Reiterate that you will be recording the sessions and, only with their permission, might you use parts of their recordings when editing and producing the final product.
- Warm up the conversation with simple, yes/no factual questions. Don’t make them think too hard or raise controversial (or possibly painful memories) too early in the session.
For example, if the session topic is ‘early childhood,’ you might start with easy-to-answer questions like these:
- When and where were you born? (MM/DD/YY | City, State, Country)
- How did you get your name? Were you named for someone?
- Where did you grow up? Where did you go to elementary school?
- Who are your siblings? Where do you fall in the lineage?
- What is your earliest memory?
Tip: A great way to start the interview is by watching together their Leaves Summary Biography. It provides the foundation and framework for one’s life story. You can create this for them in advance, or they can create it before your interview sessions.
5. After you capture some of the factual information on the topic, move the conversation to open-ended questions and reflections. Questions like:
- What was your relationship like with your mother? Your father? Your siblings?
- What was your first day at school like? Were you excited? Scared? Did you ride the bus?
- Was your childhood happy? Why? Why not?
PROMPT, LISTEN, and PROBE. Once you ask a question, listen carefully to the answer. Do not interrupt. They may be thinking out loud as they reminisce. Jot down follow-up questions to ask when they have exhausted their recollections on the topic.
Probe for truth and context. Carefully drill down to surface their “real” feelings and sentiments about that person, time, or event. Your job is to capture the “essence” of their lived experiences, not just the names, dates, and places. Probing questions might include:
- “What made you do that?” What was your thinking?”
- “How did that experience make you feel?”
- “Why do you think you did that at that point in your life?” “Would you still do the same thing again knowing what you know now?”
- How did that experience shape your outlook on life? Relationships? Your sense of self?”
- Take breaks when your mom or dad seems tired or is becoming less engaged. If they start to babble incoherently, it might be due to ‘memory overload.’ Reliving one’s life, especially the deeply emotional parts, can cause people to short-circuit. Your job is to slow these recollections down and bring them into focus. This requires patience and empathy. It especially requires you to be non-judgmental.
- Look for opportunities to capture the “essence” of your parent’s life. The chronology of their life is not as interesting to future generations as their unique experiences and perspectives. The names and dates of a person’s life can be found on genealogy sites like Ancestry.com. Your job is to get the “stories” behind the chronology. It is the “how” and “why” of their lives, not just the “who”, where”, and “when”, that makes for a great life story.
To capture the stories and the essence of lived experiences, you may need to ask things they have not thought much about or feel uncomfortable talking about. It is up to you to “feel” them, reassure them, and get them to share these more meaningful tidbits of their story. Try to slip these questions in over the multiple sessions you have with them. Some examples:
- What is something almost no one knows about you, including your spouse or kids?
- What was the defining moment, or turning point, in your life?
- What was the biggest mistake of your life? What did you learn from it?
- If you had to do one thing over, what would it be? How would you do it differently? Which decisions would you change?
- What are you most proud of?
- What was your biggest accomplishment, or contribution?
- What is the secret to happiness; to living a good life?
- What do you wish for your children and grandchildren? What personal message do you want to leave to each of them?
- What words of wisdom do you have for future generations?
In summary, interviewing your parents about their lives is more art than science. Try to think of yourself less as their child, and more as their biographer. Interviewing your parents is harder than interviewing relatives or strangers. But you are uniquely qualified to do it because you know them as well as anyone. You are an integral part of their story.
Part 3: Assemble Records and Reach Out to Others
Part of being a good biographer is doing some research and touching base with people who can provide more context to your parents’ lives. Your parent’s stories will be enriched by the input of others. Your parent’s stories are also enriched by including historical information about the events and periods that no doubt influenced their lives.
This step is purely optional. It takes extra effort to assemble, but it will help your parent’s anthology stand out like no other. Here are some ideas for reaching out and researching historical events:
- If your grandparents are still alive, this is a wonderful place to start! Few people know more about your parent’s childhood years than your grandparents. Arrange to speak with them in person or by phone. Bring your notes from your sessions. Ask them about their recollections of the memories and stories your mom and dad shared with you. Ask them to share a story few people know but would love to hear for family heritage.
- If you have siblings, interview them about the memories and stories they may have about shared experiences and life events with your parents.
- Identify your parent’s closest relatives and life friends. You probably already know who they are. Make a list of the people still alive who shared important life events and milestones with your parents.
- How did they meet?
- Who was at their wedding?
- Who did they go to school with?
- Who did they work with?
- Who did they travel with, or socialize with?
- Are there clergy members or teachers who knew your parents?
Ask these folks about their recollections of certain experiences and life events they may have shared with your parents. Ask them the most important question: “What do you want others to know about my mom and dad?” They may share stories that are not on your radar and that your parents didn’t think to talk about.
It is often very heartwarming to moms and dads to see quotes and reminisces of others in their stories. It is a way to surprise them and makes their stories that much more special.
Check out the historical record of your parents. You can find these on Ancestry.com, MyHeritage.com, WikiTree, FamilySearch, and other sites. Sometimes, just showing your parents’ records of them in the U.S. Census, or listed in other sources, helps them to appreciate the record of their existence. Printouts of your family tree and documents from historical records make a great appendix to the story you are writing. Some of the documents you might include:
- Birth Records. This can usually be found in the Census and state and county records. Also check the hospitals your parents were born to get a copy of their birth certificate if you do not already have it.
- Towns and Residences Records. The Census usually has a record of the street addresses your parents lived throughout their lives.
- Marriage records. If you do not already have a copy, these can sometimes be found in the church records where they were married, and in the county clerk’s records.
- Military Records. Dates of service can be found in The National Personnel Records Center, Military Personnel Records (NPRC-MPR), a division of the National Archives.
- Religious Rituals and Ceremony records. These are usually kept by the places of worship.
- School Records. High schools and colleges keep records of attendance, classes taken, and degree earned.
- Work Records. Often, employers will provide records of past employees. This can include titles held, years worked, and commendations received.
Summarize the periods in which your parents lived. These periods can be generational (usually 25 years), or by decade. These time capsules can spice up a story. We are all partly products of the times in which we lived. Growing up during WWII was much different than growing up during the civil rights and hippie era.
As you tell your parent’s story, or piece together recordings of them telling their own stories, you can weave in a few time capsules. For example, when introducing your dad, you might write, “Dad was born in 1929, a member of The Silent Generation. Herbert Hoover ran the country and people sang along to Carolina Moon, by Gene Austin.”
The time capsules many people like to see and hear that give context to one’s life are:
- Who was the president?
- Top songs and artists.
- The name of the era, as characterized by historians.
- Fashion and dance trends of the period.
- Significant national and world events.
Tip: The Leaves Summary Biography application provides many of these time capsules at no charge. Just enter the dates your parents were born and Leaves serves up historical content in ten-year increments. These historical vignettes can then be woven into their stories.
You got this!
See the next series of articles, How to Tell the Story of Your Parents’ Lives.
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