30 Questions Everyone Should Ask Their Grandparents
You'd be surprised at how rich your grandparents' lives have been, and how much they have to teach you. Ask them these questions now or regret it later on, if you miss the opportunity.
How do you make your famous family recipe?
Your grandfather’s chili may have routinely made your Sundays special when you were little, but do you know what seasonings gave it that distinctive flair? “Have your grandparents document traditional family recipes, whether written or orally, so there is always a way to remember them and pass them down for generations,” says Julie Gurner, Ph.D., a doctor of clinical psychology, who lost a grandparent a few years ago.
“My Italian grandmother was known for her dishes that she just seemed to know by heart but were not written down, ” Gurner shares. “One Christmas, I asked her to write down her recipes, and it was one of the best things I have ever done. She finally had to measure out all of those ‘pinches’ of ingredients, and I now have a way of replicating my grandmother’s wonderful cooking that brings back memories of family dinners at her home,” she explains. Get started with these 20 recipes like grandma used to make.
What was your childhood like?
Maybe they really did walk to school one mile in the snow or struggled with spelling, just like you. Asking your grandparents about their day-to-day life as children will help you understand them better and teach you about the era they grew up in. “These conversations will help you learn more about your grandparents and their background, but even more so, will give you a chance to really connect with them before they are gone,” adds Heidi McBain, MA, LMFT, LPC, RPT, author of Life Transitions: Personal Stories of Hope Through Life’s Most Difficult Challenges and Changes.
What is your medical and genetic history?
Everyone’s family tree holds a few genetic surprises. “Ask your grandparents what health conditions seemed to crop up often in the family,” suggests Eileen Roth, an organizational expert of Jewish and European descent. Finding out about her family’s geographic origins helped her determine the types of genetic tests she should take, to safeguard her health and the health of her descendants. Filling out the details of your family’s medical history can help you be aware of what specific conditions you and your own children should be on the lookout for. Find out the 12 things your mother’s health says about you.
How did you meet the love of your life?
Maybe they had an ill-fated love affair, Titanic-style, or maybe they married their one true love and started your wonderful family as a result. “Ask your grandparent how they met their spouse. They probably did some very interesting things together, plus, the whole courting process was so different, back in the day,” says Cheryl Smith, owner of Consider It Done Transition Services. “I spend a lot of time with elders as they sort through their years of belongings and am blessed to hear a lot of stories. I often find that families don’t know these stories, and they are so poignant to listen to,” she adds. You would be a fool not to follow these 28 marriages tips from grandmas.
How have you served your country?
Whether they were personally in the armed forces or waited at home for their loved one to return, these stories are bound to be moving and emotional. They may also help release your elder from painful baggage they have not yet had the chance to work through. “Find out if they served, where they served, what it was like, and how was it when they came home,” Smith suggests. “I had a gentleman dying of lung cancer from mixing Agent Orange in Vietnam share his story with me. When he and I, along with his wife, were reminiscing over some of his belongings, she mentioned she had never heard those stories before. It is very touching to have these moments with family,” Smith adds.
Do you have any unrealized dreams?
Some grandmas came of age at a time when women didn’t pursue careers in certain fields like finance or technology. Some grandpas had to surrender their dream of seeing the world, so they could take care of their new, burgeoning family. What would your grandparent have done, if life had been different? “My grandmother lived until she was 99. I asked her everything, including what gave her confidence,” says aging advocate, Lia Jill Levitt, the author of Ain’t She Sweet: a Coming of (Old Age) Story. “I found my grandmother always wanted to ride in a limo, but financial constraints made this impossible. I spent months saving up to surprise her with a limo on her 95th birthday, and the joy it brought her was immeasurable. I believe we should ask the elderly not only what their advice is, but what their observations are on life, love, and learning,” she adds.
What did you do when you were a teen?
What did they wear on first dates and where did they go? What music did they love best, and what kind of dances did they do? “Ask your grandparents what life was like when they were 18 years old. How much did everything cost? What was the fun thing to do at that age? What did people eat?” suggests Danielle Radin, a journalist, and digital memorialist, who turns social media accounts into online memorials at her company, Kind Years. Getting your grandparent to talk about their teen years is bound to bring up lots of fun memories, along with some bittersweet ones, too.
What do you see as your legacy?
Ask your grandparent what they see as their greatest contributions, both professionally and personally. This is their opportunity to brag about what they accomplished and how it made them feel to achieve that success. “Ask your grandparents what they would like to be remembered for. Their answer may surprise you,” adds Radin. These are the 12 questions you’ll want to ask your own parents before it’s too late.
How did you celebrate the holidays?
“Capturing time-honored traditions is also what keeps you connected as a family—the result is sure to be magical,” says Joy Loverde, author of Who Will Take Care of Me When I’m Old? Loverde suggests asking your grandparent about the holidays they celebrated as children. Where did they go? Did they belong to a house of worship? Did they dress up? What did they love and remember best about these special celebrations, at various points in their lives?
How has the world changed?
Your grandparents have had a front row seat to world events for half a century or more. It’s a given that the world has changed during their lifetime, but what changes have felt the most significant to them? “I tell my students to ask their grandparents many things, including the ways in which they see the world as better and worse than it was when they were growing up,” says Jamie McNally, an adjunct professor of psychology and sociology, who has taught courses on adulthood and aging. “I also tell them to ask about the major historical, and cultural events they remember in their lifetime, and how they were shaped by them. It’s important to remember that, in our daily interactions, we do not tend to go very deep into meaningful conversations; rather, those deeper conversations need to be very intentional. That is where thoughtful questions can play a pivotal role,” she adds.
What has defined you?
Defining moments are those which fundamentally change us. Professor McNally suggests having grandparents pinpoint the three to five of the most defining moments of their lives. These may run the gamut from personal memories to earth-shattering events. Some people may talk about the feelings that overcame them when they held their baby for the first time or recall where they were when they learned President John F. Kennedy was shot. This insight into your grandparent’s psyche may help you to understand them better and make clearer the choices they made.
What were your happiest moments?
Sometimes the things which bring us joy are the little things; other times, it’s the big things. Either way, you might be surprised at their answer. Roselyn G. Smith, Ph.D. suggests you use this as an opportunity to let your grandparent know how happy they have made you over the years, as well. “It is very important to communicate the love and appreciation you have for all that your grandparents have meant to you while you still can,” she adds. This is why grandparents day was never meant to be a commercial holiday.
What was my mom or dad like when they were young?
Your grandparent can be an amazing source of insight into your parent. “It can be helpful to ask your grandparent about your parent’s challenges and ways of coping, particularly if you have unresolved issues with them,” says Smith. “Often, the way parents react and interact with their children is coming from deeply embedded, unconscious ‘programming,’ based on difficult experiences they faced as children. Learning about these challenges can help facilitate empathy, compassion, and understanding,” she adds.
Why do you love me?
According to Psychology Today, grandparental love differs from parental love in many pivotal ways, including that their role is often to sit back and enjoy, rather than labor for, their grandkids. “Grandparents typically see the very best in their grandchildren, their strengths and potential, and nurture them from unconditional pools of love and adoration,” says Smith. Give your grandparent the opportunity to tell you what you have meant to them and why they love you so much. It’s bound to put a big smile on both your faces.
What traditions do you most want our family to continue?
These may include religious observations, screen-free time at the dinner table, or weekend get-togethers with extended family members. Whatever traditions your elder holds most dear, take them to heart. Traditions are often a source of great resilience and powerful joy and are able to create long-lasting benefits. Here are 10 royal family holiday traditions you might want to steal for yourself.
What has your work life been like?
Ask your grandparents about the jobs they held, including their very first one. Who were their colleagues? What were their challenges? Did they ever face any prejudice or sexism? What funny anecdotes might they share about their bosses? Did they feel that their work was meaningful? This is also a good time to find out about the talents they brought to their jobs. Were they good listeners, creative thinkers, or committed worker bees, grateful to be able to support their family?
Tell me about your parents, grandparents, and siblings?
This can give you huge insight into your family’s lineage, as well as providing your grandparent with an opportunity to remember the people they loved, long ago. Make sure to ask for colorful details. Maybe your great-great aunt was famous for her bathtub gin or your great-grandfather was known for his quirky bowtie collection.
What countries do our people come from?
Even if you think you know everything about your family’s journey to America and the town they settled in, you may be surprised. Ask your grandparent about the countries and local areas that factor into your family tree and what life was like there. Why did your ancestors leave? Was it due to political unrest or famine or were they taken against their will? If your grandparent was born elsewhere, ask them what they remember about their hometown or country of origin and what it means to them today. Would they visit, or move back there, if they could? If so, why? If not, why not? Find out how to say “grandparent” in different languages.
What are your real names?
If your grandparents (or great-grandparents) emigrated to the United States, there’s a chance their names got changed along the way. Andrew Selepak, Ph.D., professor in the department of telecommunication at the University of Florida, shares that his ancestors left oppression and poverty behind in Eastern Europe for America. Partly because they didn’t speak English, they were given new last names, like so many others when they arrived at Ellis Island. Don’t forget to ask about first names, too, as these may also have been changed, whether your grandparent was an immigrant or not. If their parents (your great-grandparents) are the ones who emigrated, ask if they know what their real last names were. If you need an excuse to get your children to see your parents more often, here’s a good one: Grandparents who babysit live longer, according to science.
What do you want your great- and great-great-grandchildren to know about you?
Ask your grandparent what they wish to be remembered for within the family. This is their opportunity to share the things about their lives that they hope will be remembered for long after they’ve gone. For some grandparents, it may be as simple as their amazing fried chicken or the songs they sang around the piano. Others may hope to be remembered as the family’s peacemaker or as its grand dame.
What role has money played in your life?
According to the American Psychological Association, financial habits are passed down from one generation to the next. Ask your grandparent about the impact money had on their life, and what lessons they’ve learned about finance, that they hope you will learn, too. You can also ask them what it was like growing up poor or rich, if that applies.
Do you remember your first kiss?
Some grandparents will tell you to mind your own business, but others will love sharing this story with you. In some instances, you may be able to use this as an opening to ask your grandparent what they think of current sexual practices in contrast to those of their era or the role that romance has played in their lives. These hilarious first kiss stories will make you so glad you’re not a teenager.
Are you the keeper of our family’s secrets?
Some confidences may be better off buried, but others might benefit from the colloquial charm that time brings. Maybe your great uncle was a gambler who won so much at poker he financed your dad’s music lessons. Or perhaps your grandmother would be grateful for the opportunity to unburden herself about an adoption which has been kept a secret to this day. Speaking of, these are the secrets to happy families.
Have you experienced hardship?
No one is spared from hard times. Ask your grandparent what challenges they faced, how they were affected by them, and how they overcame them. This is a great opportunity for you to listen to your grandparent’s stories and to provide them with the type of love and understanding they have always given to you.
Did you ever have a pet?
Ask your grandparent about their first pet and their favorite pet and how and why they got the animal. Find out if animals played a role in their lives. Maybe they used to love horseback riding and can share their stories of the saddle with you. Maybe they spent their summers on a farm and would enjoy talking about gathering eggs from the henhouse or milking cows.
What was your favorite vacation?
Whether it was to a nearby town or a country halfway around the world, where have they gone, and why was that place special? Ask your grandparent to share their memories of their favorite trips, including their honeymoon and family vacations with your parent and when they were a child. Maybe there’s a trip on their bucket list that the two of you can plan to take together. Need inspiration? Try one of these 11 affordable bucket list trips.
How has your neighborhood changed?
If your grandparent has lived in one place for a long time ask them to reminisce about the way it used to be. Is it better now, or worse? What neighborhood institutions have disappeared over time? What stores do they wish were still nearby? What about the neighbors they used to enjoy talking to? Find out the role your grandparent played in the neighborhood they call home.
What’s the one thing you would do differently?
Hindsight is 20-20, even for those who wear spectacles. Did your grandparent make a decision they wish they could get a cosmic do-over on? Since that’s not possible, ask them if anything good came out of the decision they wish they could change, and also, how their life would be different, had they taken another path.
Who are/were your best friends?
From childhood on, your grandparent may have had people in their lives they could always count on, outside of the family. Who have your grandparent’s best friends been over the years, and what made, or makes, that friendship so special? Find out the 14 secrets to making life-long friends.
What are your goals for the future?
What does your elder visualize as their next step? No matter what their age, encourage them to look forward to fun or meaningful events in their future. It could be as simple as spending an afternoon with you or dancing at your upcoming wedding. Their goals for their future will help to reveal the many facets of their personality and dreams and remind them that they still hold a vital and important place in this world. Encourage your grandparent to follow these 18 simple rules, and they could live to be 100—and beyond.