The Questions We Don’t Ask Our Families but Should

Many people don’t know very much about their older relatives. But if we don’t ask, we risk never knowing our own history.

photograph of a family at the beach
Smith Collection / Gado / Getty; The Atlantic

You might think you already know your family’s stories pretty well—between childhood memories and reunions and holiday gatherings, you may have spent hours with your parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles soaking up family lore. But do you really know as much as you think?

As a professor of anthropology, I have always been fascinated by the stories that families tell, and a few years ago, I started researching the tales that are passed down from generation to generation. Part of my motivation was personal. When my mother died in 2014, I realized how much I didn’t know about her life. I never asked the questions that haunt me now—questions about what interactions she had, what it was like to live in her time in the places she did. I wish I had a fuller sense of her as a person, especially how she was when she was young, with a lust for life.

In my research, I have been astonished to find that so many other people also know little of the lives of their parents and grandparents, despite the fact that they lived through some pretty interesting decades. Even my students, some of whom majored in history and excelled at it, were largely in the dark about their own family history. Our elders may share some familiar anecdotes over and over again, but still, many of us have no broader sense of the world they lived in, and especially what it was like before we came along. The people I interviewed knew so little about their grandparents’ or parents’ early lives, such as how they were raised and what they experienced as young people. Few could remember any personal stories about when their grandparents or parents were children. Whole ways of life were passing away unknown. A kind of genealogical amnesia was eating holes in these family histories as permanently as moths eat holes in the sweaters lovingly knitted by our ancestors.

As I interviewed more people, many of them parents or grandparents themselves, I became interested in hearing their stories and learning about their childhood. I developed a set of questions designed to get a person talking about the past in a way they never had before. Their answers opened whole new worlds to me, and reflected each person’s unique place in history. I heard some things I expected, but I was also surprised and delighted. I gained a new appreciation for those I interviewed—and for humanity as a whole. And I became convinced of the value of preserving these family histories. Doing so helps you learn more about not only your relatives, but also yourself and a period in history that might otherwise feel remote.

book cover for "The Essential Questions"
This article has been adapted from Elizabeth Keating’s new book, The Essential Questions. (TarcherPerigee)

The questions I created, which I lay out in my new book, The Essential Questions: Interview Your Family to Uncover Stories and Bridge Generations, span 13 different topics. They include basic background information, such as where someone was born, as well as more abstract inquiries, such as how someone conceives of their identity, what they believe in, and what they’ve noticed about the passage of time. Specificity is key, so after asking a relative about the home they grew up in, follow up with requests for details: What did their windows look out onto? What did they hear when they woke up in the morning? When you ask for descriptions of an elder’s childhood home and the neighborhoods they roamed around, you’ll hear stories that place you in a rich sensory world you knew little about. So ask what family dinners were like and what your relatives were taught about expressing emotion. Ask about their worst first dates and where they bought their clothes. And remember that the most important questions can also be the plainest. One of my favorites is just “What do you wish people knew about you?”

The reason many people don’t know very much about their grandparents or even their parents is surprisingly simple: They’ve never thought to ask and didn’t have the right questions. When I saw how much I was learning as I interviewed families, I decided to ask my students at the University of Texas at Austin to do the same, tasking them with interviewing one of their grandparents using my questions. My students loved it. They enriched their understanding of their own beliefs and cultural habits, as well as the forces that had shaped their family history and, in turn, their own identity. They felt closer to their older relatives too. As Cole, one of my students, put it, “I learned things about [my grandparents], their lives, and their relationship that I had never heard before.”

In one interview, a grandmother shared that when she was a girl during the Nazi era, one of her classmates suddenly disappeared, and none of the adults around her would talk about it. Another student’s grandma talked about having to wait at the back of a restaurant to have her food handed through a window, because she was Cajun and couldn’t go inside. After hearing about moments like these, people came to see their grandparents in new ways. The grandparent was no longer an elder but a lively teenager who was told that if she didn’t marry by her 20s, she would become an old maid; they were a boy who was sent out to hunt rabbits to supplement family meals, or a girl who worked in a tuberculosis lab to pay for college classes.

Your parents and grandparents may have experienced modernization, new technologies, changes in parenting attitudes, and even political revolutions. You may hear fascinating snapshots of what it was like to be a child when World War II gasoline shortages suddenly brought back ponies and carts in Ireland, what it was like arriving on Ellis Island with only a few articles of clothing, or what it was like to grow up when the stock market crashed in 1929, your family struggling to survive in a world falling apart. But even hearing about ordinary life can be interesting—because what was ordinary for your grandparents is likely not what’s ordinary for you.

So give it a try. You may be surprised by how much your parents and grandparents haven’t told you, perhaps because they thought you wouldn’t be interested, or they weren’t sure how you’d judge them. Just as the precious oral literatures and histories of whole communities are being lost the world over through rapid change, migration, language death, and a failure to ask, there is a risk that your family’s personal stories, too, will be lost forever. Your parents and grandparents have unique snapshots and memories of the world they knew, and in learning about them, you can not only preserve the past but also create lasting meaning and connection. In families and communities, there are secrets to be discovered.

This article has been adapted from Elizabeth Keating’s new book, The Essential Questions: Interview Your Family to Uncover Stories and Bridge Generations.

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