Family history books can often reach back for centuries and dozens of generations, filled with remarkable stories of ancestors in other countries and time periods. But that is not where it begins. Your family history begins with those closest to you—your parents. How much do you know about their childhoods and history, their friends and memories? Often, the best place to begin with your family history journey is with your parents. If you’re not sure what to ask, this list of 20 questions (plus sub-questions!) should get you started.

General Tips

Before we dive into the questions, here are a few general tips to follow during your interview with your parents:

  1. Ask both short-answer questions (e.g., “What year were you born?”) and long-answer questions (e.g., “What are some memories you have of your mother?”). Hopefully though, even the short-answer questions can trigger memories, stories, and discussions.
  2. Don’t be afraid to ask the “obvious” questions. Even if you know the answers, it’s good to have a written record of them; and, again, they can lead to further conversations and memories.
  3. Try focusing on one person or time period at a time. For example, instead of asking about their parents, ask about their mother and father one at a time. And, instead of asking about “school,” in general, ask specifically about elementary school first, and work your way up through high school and college, etc.
  4. Always ask follow-up questions. For example, you might ask, “What was your favorite subject in school?” Then, follow it up by asking why it was their favorite.
  5. Don’t just hunt for facts. Ask lots of “why” questions to get their personal take on matters.
  6. Try not to interrupt. If they mention a person or place you don’t recognize, make a note of that name, then come back to it after they’ve finished answering the question or telling the story.
  7. Allow pauses to happen. Often, those silences don’t necessarily mean they’re done talking. They could just be thinking, remembering, or searching for the right words.

Now that we have some guidelines to follow, let’s get down to the questions!

Questions to Ask

1. What is your full name?

  • Why did your parents choose that name?
  • Were you named after a cherished relative or close friend of your parents?
  • Did they consider any other names?

2. What year were you born?

3. How many siblings do you have?

  • Where do you fall among your siblings? (Oldest, youngest, in the middle?)
  • How did that position affect your childhood? (Did you have extra responsibility due to being the oldest? Were you spoiled because you were the youngest?)
  • Which sibling did you feel closest to while growing up? Did that change as you got older?
  • Share one memory or association you have for each sibling. (For example, a cherished experience you had with them; or a toy or game you recall that they loved to play.)

4. Where were you born?

  • Why were your parents living in that place at that time?
  • Does your family have roots in that area, or were your parents the first to move to that place?
  • What was the name of the hospital in which you were born?
  • Do you know the name of the doctor who delivered you?
  • Were there any special circumstances surrounding your birth? (Did you arrive early? Late? Was the delivery planned, or did you arrive in the middle of the night?)

5. What is your earliest childhood memory?

6. Did you live in the same place during your entire childhood, or did you move around?

  • If you moved around, why did you move, and how often? Which was your favorite place to live?
  • Did you live in the same house for your entire childhood?
  • What are some memories of that house (or one memory of each house you lived in)?
  • Who were your friends that lived on your street?
  • Were there adult or elderly neighbors that influenced you?
  • Did you live near family?

7. Who were your best friends as a child?

  • Share one memory you have regarding each friend.

8. Where did you go to elementary school? … Middle school? … High school?

  • Share one memory about each school.
  • What was your favorite subject? Why?
  • Who was your favorite teacher? Why?

9. What sports or activities did you participate in as a youth? Why did you choose that activity?

  • Did you win any awards or competitions?

10. What do you consider your biggest triumph?

11. What was your greatest disappointment?

12. What were the lessons you learned from each of those?

13. What would you do differently if you had the opportunity? And what would you never, ever change?

14. How did you meet the love of your life?

  • How old were each of you?
  • Where were you?
  • Did someone introduce you to each other? (If so, who did that, and why did they think you would hit it off?)
  • Did you know the moment you met, or did they grow on you as you got to know them?
  • What did you do on your first date or outing?
  • Talk about your first kiss with them…
  • What did your parents think of them?

15. Share one memory about each of your children.

  • What was the moment you were proudest of each of them?
  • When were you the angriest with them?

16. What was your first job growing up?

17. What was your favorite job?

18. When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? Why? Talk about both the realistic dreams (“teacher” or “doctor”), as well as the perhaps unrealistic ones (“play 2nd base for the Dodgers” or “star in a Broadway production”).

  • Did you achieve this dream? What helped you achieve it? Who helped you achieve it?
  • If not, why not? What did you learn from that? How do you think your life would have been different if you had?

19. What was your career?

  • What was the name of the company or organization you worked for?
  • Did you work for the same company your entire career? If not, which was your favorite, and why?
  • What was your greatest success in your career?
  • If you could do it all again, would you? What would you do differently?

20. What are your hobbies?

  • How did you first get into that activity?
  • When did you first get into that activity?
  • Who shared that interest with you?
  • Why did you love that activity?

We hope this list helps you to get the conversation started with your parents. You’ll be amazed at how much you never knew about them, and how much information you can gather to start you on your family history journey. Most importantly, ensure that their stories are preserved—because stories are forgotten if left untold.

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