While our relationships with our mothers and fathers are all vastly different, they’ve been around longer than we have, seen things we haven’t, and are in a position to offer us genuine, potentially life-changing insight. But we need to ask first, which isn’t always easy. If we don’t, we risk the possibility of having to piece together answers after they’re gone from what we remember, what we’ve heard, and what we think we know about them, rather than hearing the truth right from the source.
Learning more about the lives of your parents can give you a better idea of where they came from, why they acted the way they did, and what might have been going through their minds, hearts, and souls while they were raising you. And, possibly more importantly, the answers to such questions might even shed light on your own parenting style. Because parenting is a process of learning from both mistakes and successes, we all know we need as much help as we can get. Who better to ask than the parents that raised us?
We spoke to a dozen dads, all of whom reflected on questions they wished they would’ve thought to ask their parents before it was too late. Some of their answers are pragmatic, while others are abstract. Some stem from anger, others from admiration. All of them remind us to seize the chance to ask such questions while we still can. Here’s what they wish they would’ve asked.
1. How can I be a good parent?
“I wish I would have asked my mom and dad more about being parents. I was lucky enough to have parents who were always there for me, and I’d love to know what advice they would have given me as a dad. I know my dad had a really rough childhood, but my parents never really talked about it. And my mom was born in India, so she had a much different upbringing than I did. I’ve been a stay-at-home dad for the past four years, and I’ve learned a lot during that time. But I know I could have learned even more if I had talked to my parents about it. They were both really great parents, and I’m sure they would have had some great advice for me.” - Lawrence, 40, Spain
2. How did you do it?
“My dad had a rough life. He was the only child of an alcoholic and abusive dad, and spent time in a foster home before his parents took him back. He worked three jobs to finance his education and ultimately became a successful commercial real estate developer and vice president of finance and acquisitions for carnival hotels and casinos. Because of him, we grew up in a beautiful home, riding around in our parents exotic European cars, and attending the most prestigious prep schools. But, that’s about all I know. I wish I would’ve asked him to make a video or something, sharing his life story. I don’t know much about where he came from. And an answer to that question could help me learn more about where I come from.” - Greg, 38, Hawaii
3. Why didn’t you tell me?
“In the last hours of his life, I sat alone with my father as he hovered in and out of consciousness. I am a doctor, so I knew that his time was coming soon. I knew my father was not perfect, but he was a good man and lived a life of many challenges. On his last night, for a brief moment, he confessed to me that he fathered a child, named Maria, who would have been the same age as me. I was shocked. But I was old enough to realize that life is a little bit more nuanced than mere black and white experiences. Knowing his time was short, I confessed my love and gratitude to my father for telling me, and asked for more detail. He said that he would tell me in the morning. Unfortunately, when morning came, my father passed away, leaving the question I’ll always wish I had time to ask.” - Tane, 46, New Zealand
4. Who are your family and friends?
“Parents have a wealth of knowledge that we can only hope is passed on to us before they leave this earth. Apart from hoping that they teach us everything they know about surviving — especially surviving without them — there are other topics I wish we could’ve discussed. I would have inquired more about my extended family, so that I would be able to have more family support while they were gone. And I would have loved to also know who their closest friends were so that they could remind me of how great my parents were after their death. I would have jumped at the opportunity to ask about ways of dealing with difficult family situations from the people who knew them best.” - Ken, 32, Australia
5. What is your best memory of me?
“I hope that doesn’t sound arrogant. It’s just, I bet they’d tell me something that I wouldn’t even think of as an answer to that question. As a parent myself, I cherish everything my kids do. Even the seemingly inconsequential stuff. I bet my parents would have memories like that. Stuff that would seem really ordinary to most people, but it meant something to them. I know it would be almost impossible for me to choose a favorite memory of my kids, and I’ve only been a father for 13 years. It would be interesting to hear what Mom and Dad would say if they could choose their favorite memory of me, that’s for sure.” - Erik, 43, Indiana
6. What were your parents like?
“Before my dad passed away, I wish I'd asked him more about his parents and grandparents. His grandparents had all passed before I was born, and his parents died while I was young, so they were never really part of my life as far as I can remember. Because I never knew them, I wasn’t very interested in them when I was younger. Now, I wish I could have learned more about them from my dad to fill in some blanks. I've been able to find out bits and pieces from aunts and uncles that are still alive, but it would have been nice to get more of my dad's perspective on them.” - Dan, 36, New Zealand
7. Will I be okay?
“My mom and dad always made everything seem like it would be okay. Even during the roughest times of my life — my divorce, specifically — they just kept reassuring me. They were good at a lot of things, but comforting me was where they shined the most. When they said it, I just believed that things would work out. When they died, they were both in rough shape by the end. My father couldn’t speak, and my mother was barely able to. I wish I would’ve asked them both, just one last definitive time, if I would be okay once they were gone. I know they would’ve said yes. I know it. But I wish I could’ve looked into their eyes and heard it, too.” - Dave, 50, England
8. What were you like in high school?
“I learned more about my parents’ high school lives from their friends than from them. They went to the same school, and stayed close with all of their pals for the rest of their lives. I heard stories from my parents’ friends all the time, but I never really heard much from my parents. They were a part of all the stories, of course, but they never went out of their way to reminisce, or talk about the ‘good ol’ days.’ The thing is, they would always smirk and laugh when these stories were being told. So I know they had fond memories, and probably plenty more details to share. I just never bothered to ask.” - Jason, 50, Pennsylvania
9. What events shaped your life?
“I think most of us — parents, that is — have a different perspective on just about everything after COVID. It brought out the best and the worst in everyone, for a bunch of reasons. It was the same with 9/11, too. There was a world before 9/11 and COVID, and now there’s a world after. I’d want to know what events genuinely shaped my parents' lives like that. I remember them talking about Vietnam, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. But it was more historical, and less personal. Even if it was something less tragic — like Woodstock, or The Beatles — I’d want to know what moments of their lives made them feel like things would never be the same again.” - Dustin, 46, Ohio
10. When were you most scared?
“I never saw my parents scared. Even when they both died - within a year of each other - they were both completely at peace. I remember times during my childhood when I was scared. Like when I broke my leg, and then my arm. But neither of them ever did anything but reassure me that things would be okay. They were always just so calm. As a parent now, I’m terrified of something like that happening to my kids. But I imagine it would be even scarier for my daughter if she saw me being scared as well. So I’d like to know about the times that they were genuinely afraid. It probably happened more often than I can imagine.” - Steve, 41, Texas
11. What was the best decision you ever made?
“There’s a good chance that each of my parents would’ve said it was getting married to each other. But, I’d challenge that and ask for a less cliched answer. I’d want to know if there was a time in their lives when they had to make a decision that was unpredictable. Or unpopular. Or scary. Something that turned out better than they ever could’ve imagined. Something they didn’t plan on, and had to react to quickly. Something they didn’t expect. Something I wouldn’t expect. Maybe they would stick with the ‘getting married’ answer. But I’ve always wondered if there’s something less obvious that would check those boxes.” - Ray, 57, Utah
12. Are you proud of me?
“It’s not something I considered on a meaningful level until my parents were gone. Of course, I always wanted them to be proud of my grades, or winning at sports when I was a kid. They told me they were proud of me when I got my first job. They said they were proud of me when I got married. But I never thought to ask them if they were proud of me, the person, rather than my accomplishments or life milestones. I’m grateful for all of the support they showed, and the times they did express their pride in me. I just wish I knew what they were most proud of. Hopefully it would’ve been something meaningful.” - Sam, 59, Oregon