A SINGLE WORD CAN START THEM TALKING. IF IT’S HEARTFELT.
Conversation starters are simply that – just a start. The words below suggest categories of things you may want to ask about. And the questions that follow each word may be helpful, but not necessarily as a formal script for you to follow. Use them as starting points to create your own list of questions. The feel, the pacing, the subject matter of the talk will depend in part on who you’re talking to: parents, grandparents, other relatives, friends. So be natural. Be casual. Don’t try to cover everything in one conversation. And enjoy yourself – both of you!
Getting them to relive childhood memories can be nostalgic for them – and a revelation for you. Chances are, many things were much different “back when”…yet some experiences may be surprisingly similar to yours. Either way, a talk about it can be enjoyable for you both.
- What’s the earliest thing you remember?
- What were you like as a child?
- Where did you grow up? What was your home like? Your room?
- Where did you play? Who did you play with? What did you play with…favorite toys, games?
- What was your favorite food? Who made it for you – mother, grandmother, another relative? Did they teach you how to prepare it yourself?
- What schools did you go to? What were they like? What was your best subject? What did you participate in (sports, fine arts, choir, math/science clubs, drama, band)? Tell me about a teacher who influenced you.
- Did you have pets? What kind? Which was your favorite?
- What is your best memory from back then? The funniest? Scariest? Happiest?
- How did you get your name? Are you named for someone else in the family? Did you ever have a nickname?
- Where did your family come from? What’s your ethnic background? Did you have family traditions that you still follow – or that you no longer do?
- The future. Back then, what did you think future life would be like? How is it different?
People mature at their own speed and in their own ways. Some grow up quickly because of life situations. Others stay a kid longer. What was their experience? What were the defining moments – the best and the hardest?
- “Wow! I’m a grown-up!” When did you first feel like an adult? Did you realize it suddenly or gradually?
- College. Did you go to college or straight into work? What were your favorite courses? Your favorite activities? Your favorite places to hang out? Did you live in a dorm, in your own apartment…or at home? How did college life or studies change you?
- Military. Did you serve? Did you enlist or were you drafted? What was your experience? How did your service change you? What lessons did you learn? Are you still friends with anyone with whom you served?
- Career. What jobs did you have before you settled on your life’s work? What did you do for a living the longest? Did you train in college/trade school, apprentice on the job, or both? What drew you to that kind of work? What was your favorite part of your job? What lessons has your work life taught you? Did you have a mentor who helped you, especially when you were starting out? Did you ever mentor someone?
- Accomplishments. What are you proudest of? What was your greatest accomplishment? Why was it special?
- Joys and sorrows. What has been the happiest moment in your life? The saddest?
- “Do-overs.” Do you have any regrets or things you wish you had handled differently?
People make an enormous difference in our lives. Your loved ones influenced you – that’s why you’re talking to them now. But who was important in their lives, and why?
- Parents. What were they like when you were growing up? What was the best birthday present you ever received from them? What did you learn from them?
- Grandparents. Did you know them well? What were they like when you were growing up? Do you have a favorite memory of the time you spent with them? What did you learn from them?
- Sisters and/or brothers. Were you close to them growing up? How has your relationship with them changed?
- Best friend(s). Who were they? Where’d you meet? What made you such good friends? What is your favorite memory of him/her? What was the nicest thing one of your friends ever did for you?
- First boyfriend/girlfriend. Where did you meet him/her? What was your favorite thing about that person?
- Husband/wife. How did you meet him/her? When did you know he/she was “the one”? Tell me about the proposal. What’s your favorite memory from your wedding day? What advice for a happy marriage would you share with young couples in our family?
- Kids. When did you learn that you were going to be a parent? Can you describe the moment you saw your child for the first time? How has being a parent changed you? What have you learned from your children? What advice would you share with expectant parents in our family?
- Major influence. Who was the most important or influential person in your life? Can you tell me about him or her? What did you learn from him or her?
Things happen. When they do, they have an impact on us. Remembering life’s events – big and small – can stir memories and emotions.
- Historical events. Which one do you think defined your generation? Why? Tell me what happened. How did it affect your life, family and hometown? Looking back, how do you feel about the event now?
- Personal events. Which one had the most impact on you? Why? What happened? How did it change your life, family and hometown? Looking back, how do you feel about the event now?
- Religious/spiritual traditions. Did any influence your life growing up? After you were grown? Are there prayers, scripture passages or other religious texts that are important to you?
- Fame & Recognition. Ever win a contest? Get your name in the paper. Receive a major award? What did that mean to you? Did you ever meet anyone famous? What happened?
- Travel. Where’s the farthest you’ve ever traveled? What were the circumstances? Who were you with? What happened on the trip?
- Adventure. What was the most adventurous thing you’ve ever done? Describe what it was like. Were you frightened? How did you feel afterward?
Use physical objects to stir memories, get your loved one smiling and talking. Finding out why an item is important to them can make it significantly more important to you, as well.
- Photos. Describe when this was taken. What was happening? Where was it taken? Who’s in the photo? How did you feel that day? What is your favorite photo ever taken of you?
- Mementos. What is the history of this item as you know it? Why is it special to you?
- Collections. How and when did you start collecting these items? What was the first item in your collection? Your most recent acquisition? Which one is most special to you?
Did your loved one ever play sports? A musical instrument? Belong to a club or fraternal organization? Cook (for fun – not just to eat)? Build things? Volunteer? Invent? Ask what they did. When they started. And let them talk!
- Sports. Did you play team or solo sports (tennis, golf, etc.)? How did you start? How good did you get? Still have your equipment or uniform?
- Hobbies, exercise, etc. What other things did you like to do? Play cards? Build models? Kayak? Walking tours? How did you get into these activities? Did you make any special friends who had the same hobby?
- Clubs, organizations, community service. Were you a “joiner”? A “do-er”? How did you get involved? What did you like best about these groups?
- “AHA!” (SPECIAL MOMENTS & QUIET TRUTHS.)
Ask what lessons they’ve learned in life – and what they’d like to pass along to you and future generations.
- Family traditions. Which ones do you hope your children and grandchildren will carry on?
- Important lessons. What are the most important things you’ve learned in life?
- Words of wisdom. Do you have any to pass on to me? To other people who matter to you?
- Spiritual experiences. What kind have you had, if any? Did they change you? You attitudes or opinions? Your view of life? Did they give you insights that you can share?
- How you want to be remembered. What aspects of your life do you want people to remember most? What words do you hope will be used to describe you and your life?