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Breaking the ice with reluctant family members to learn their childhood stories

Today, I'm sharing possible strategies to help you reach those who are reluctant, pained, or seemingly closed to talking about their stories and experiences from childhood. It's important to respect their space and pace with which they answer, or if they answer ever. But don't ask once and give up.

It's like a breath of fresh air to talk with a family member who delights in sharing childhood stories. It helps remind you and the younger folks in your family of family traditions, of your connections, of similarities you share. But I want to encourage you not to give up on asking the family members who seem reluctant to talk about their memories of the past.

Does some variation on this scenario sound familiar to you? You ask a cousin or uncle or parent about what it was like being a child; they answer something along the lines of "My childhood is something in the past. I don't like to think back to those times. Too painful. Or maybe even traumatic."

One idea is to think of specific and concrete questions to start the process. Don't leave questions so wide open that it seems like a monumental task for the person being asked. Eventually, you can move from the concrete questions to the more abstract like the last question listed below about school. I'll give you an example from me and my sons when they were going to school. I'd ask them "How was your day?" Many times they'd say something like Okay or fine. But if I asked them "What doodles did you draw today? What did you do at recess?" then I got some detailed answers.

Informal Questions about childhood that create space for genuine answers:

  • What were your favorite hobbies, toys, books as a child? As a teen?

  • What were your favorite places in your childhood home? In the neighborhood? Etc.

  • Any special treat or dish you liked well? What was the dish you avoided?

  • What was a favorite holiday?

  • What chores did you often do at home?

  • What was school like? Elementary? Secondary?

Other factors to consider is when, where, and how you ask the questions. Some folks feel freer to write answers. Some prefer to talk in-person. Some find it easier to do over the phone. They might respond more favorably to being approached by letter, by phone, by an in-person visit. I wrote this blog after I just placed a stamped letter in the outgoing mail to a family member of mine. I'm optimistic. I'll post later what I learn.

One other strategy is to find old photos and ask to get some help writing in pencil the names or info for them on the back. I can't count how many photos we have that look fascinating but have no idea who is in them or where they were taken. And the photos that have names and info let me breathe a sigh of relief.

I'd like to hear if these ideas work for you. Or what did work for you.

I believe it's vital that we preserve these family stories so we can share them with our children and/or with the local town where this family member lived. Genealogy isn't just a string of dates, places, and names. It's the stories that captivate us most. And it's not selfish to nudge a little more with reluctant family members. Just be patient. Just give them time and space to return again and try again.

Nana's 90th birthday celebration with four generations together at her home years ago.

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