If you’re fortunate enough to have grandparents in your life you’ve got a wonderful opportunity to learn where your family came from. You may even get a glimpse of where it’s headed. Though looking at our own mothers and fathers is the default crystal ball we glimpse into as we imagine our futures, the lives of our grandparents can be hugely influential in what lies ahead.
“The world is changing so quickly, it’s important to ask your grandparents how things were,” explains Michael Ceely, a marriage and family therapist who specializes in family dynamics. “Hearing stories from your grandparents is like going back in time. You’ll get a first-hand report of what life was like long ago.”
Paradigms, he adds, change over time, so it’s interesting to hear how your grandparents lived and acted when they were your age. “You might find out that your son or daughter may not only have your grandpa’s eyes, but also his personality,” he says.
Our grandparents might not be fixtures in our lives the way our own parents and children are. Instead, their visits are usually reserved for special occasions, making their company precious and rare. During these times, we can listen and learn about their lives and use those lessons to help us become better fathers.
So what questions should you ask your grandparents? Dr. Celly offered a dozen that will get your grandparents reminiscing, contemplating, and advising you about what life was like, so that you can start making memories to tell your own grandkids one day. Here are some questions to ask your grandma, grandpa, or both.
1. What family values were stressed in your home?
Amidst all the clutter of history, it’s easy to forget that universal family values have been around for a long time. And there’s a good chance your grandparents grew up learning the same lessons about love, togetherness, and being good people that you hope to teach your kids. Even if they weren’t as readily expressed.
“This is an eye-opening question,” says Ceely. “You’re asking about a gap in generations between you and your grandparents, but I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised to learn that the values most of us believe in were present. We tend to think about ‘back then’ as very black and white, and we either agree or disagree with how people lived. But even if you disagree with your grandparents’ answer, you can find value in knowing what was important to people in their day.”
2. How was affection expressed growing up?
Grandparents likely grew up in times of great challenge. So it was important to stay strong. But that doesn’t mean that they weren’t shown affection in daily life, and in unique, meaningful ways. “You might expect the typical clichés, like fewer hugs, or demonstrations of outward affection,” says Ceely. “So ask them using examples. ‘Did you hug a lot?’ ‘Did your parents kiss you?’ You can point the question and use it to help them answer more specifically.”
3. What was a difficult situation that your family overcame together?
This is a question to be asked with care because your grandparents’ generation experienced a range of hardships. But its answer can be a window into the resilience that you literally came from. “You might get an answer that’s fairly traumatic for that person to talk about,” says Ceely. “And that’s okay. You just need to be respectful and prepared. Infant mortality was more common back then, for example. They lived during the Depression Era. You’re probably going to get a heavy answer. But, as a father, you can use that to frame your own perspective regarding difficult situations your family might face.”
4. What’s one of the best childhood memories you can recall?
The great thing about good memories, no matter what the generation, is that they’re rooted in the same universal emotion: joy. Your grandparents’ answers may surprise you in their specificity, but you can definitely expect the same broad themes you would recall if asked the same question. “Learning to ride a bike. Playing with a best friend. Unless you’re going back 500 years or something, your grandparents’ answers aren’t likely to be too different from your own,” says Ceely. “These types of memories are universal. And you can bond over the shared emotions of happiness and joy that go with them.”
5. What was a difficult childhood moment for you?
Depending on how tough times were for your grandparents, you’re asking a question that could lead to some serious answers. So be prepared. “In those days, it wouldn’t be uncommon for your grandparents to find themselves facing anything from an unexpected death, to their parents’ financial crisis and its effect on the family. Really emotional, difficult stuff. But, you can take their answer as a way to shape your perspective. Hearing a tragic story from a grandparent that you couldn’t possibly have ever imagined might make something you perceive as difficult seem less daunting in comparison.”
6. What was your favorite childhood toy?
The Red Ryder BB gun was invented in 1938. The Slinky was invented in 1943. And even if one of these novelty items did hold a special place in your grandparents’ heart, Ceely thinks the answer to this question might speak to its lasting power. “Books. I bet you’ll hear a lot of books,” he says. “I think our grandparents’ generation appreciated the power of books, and you might hear well-known answers, or really obscure ones. And think of how you can use that information as a father, by then reading their favorite stories to your own children. Maybe they even still have their original copy, which would add to the memory even more.”
7. When did you know you were ready to have your first child?
According to Ceely, our grandparents’ generation likely relied on financial independence to signal the start of a family. But even then, is anyone ever really ready to have a kid? “Parents today usually over-prepare for their first child,” he says. “They want everything to be perfect, which means having children later in life for many couples. Back then, it was really about finding basic stability, then immediately starting a family. Cultural norms were obviously different back then, and ‘ready’ is relative. You might find out that your grandparents weren’t ready in the sense we think of the word today, but starting a family as soon as you were able is just what you did in those days.”
8. What was it like being a first-time parent?
You’re likely to hear about stress, uncertainty, and the comedy of errors that is raising your first child. But keep in mind that, while you may be able to relate to those concepts fairly well, your grandparents didn’t have much of a choice with what they were getting into. “Today, we have the luxury of not having kids,” says Ceely. “That wasn’t really the case, culturally, with our grandparents. Today, there is a huge emphasis on giving up personal ambitions to start a family, or checking off certain accomplishments before having kids. You won’t hear those stories from your grandparents. Maybe you want to see Europe before you start a family. Well, back then, most people didn’t have the money to do stuff like that. So starting a family was the accomplishment.”
9. How many times have you been in love?
Grandma and Grandpa didn’t swipe right. That’s because they were busy being in love, instead of looking for it everywhere. “People are more picky today,” says Ceely. “They’re looking for the perfect partner. In the days of our grandparents, courtship and marriage were more practical. So there’s a good chance you’ll hear that your grandmother or grandfather knew their spouse was ‘the one’ right away. And that doesn’t mean it’s not true, it just means that people were looking for love in different ways back then. You met somebody. You fell in love. Why complicate it beyond that?”
10. How did you handle stress as a couple?
“As a therapist, if a couple came into my office with marital issues, I’d try to get them to open up and work together. We’ve learned through evolution that, as humans, it’s an approach that is beneficial. No one was going to couples therapy back then,” says Ceely. This question, he explains, is bound to yield answers that focus on uniting over basic needs, and not worrying about much else. “I think you’ll hear a lot of answers that focus on maintaining the family unit. You might hear some cliches, like how your grandfather was the strong, silent type who just ‘handled it’. That doesn’t mean they weren’t stressed, it just means that anything beyond preserving and protecting their family wasn’t as big of a priority.”
11. What do you think happens when we die?
Read the room before you ask your grandparents this question, obviously. And be prepared for a lot of honesty, according to Ceely. “It’s another universal question,” he says. “No matter what your grandparents’ faith, it’s going to be an insightful answer. And, in my experience, it’s not something older people are afraid to talk about. Even if your faiths differ, this is a question that will give you an intimate look at someone else’s beliefs. It’s not exactly a fun question, but it’s definitely one that could provide thoughtful answers.”
12. What’s a recipe you want to stay in the family?
A bit of a curve ball amidst the deeper cuts, the levity of this question will provide your grandparents with an opportunity to reminisce about one thing everyone loves: food. “This is a great question, because I think every family has some iteration of a recipe that they’re proud of,” says Ceely. “Recipes are part of family traditions, which bind us more closely as parents – and grandparents – and children. Whether it’s grandma’s pound cake, or grandpa’s lasagna, there’s a lot of room for togetherness when food is involved.”