Why (And How) You Should Interview Your Parents

You may speak to your parents often, even daily. Most likely you quickly catch up on family news and kiddie milestones, or ask what was that recipe for a roasted chicken, again? And that’s usually the extent of it. But how often have we taken the time to ask our parents the kinds of questions that allow them to reveal a part of themselves that’s not linked to the ins and outs of everyday or in the context of being a parent?

I’ve made a few attempts in the past, such as asking them about decisions they made along the way that I might not have agreed with, or why there’s tension with a certain family member, but they have often fell short or resulted in my parents and I hashing out our differences. And so when I was writing an article about my parents’ experience of letting me leave home at an early age to attend ballet school, I wondered if interviewing them was a good idea—surely I could just fill in the blanks? But I decided to give them a call and the conversation proved to be one of the best things I’ve done when it comes to strengthening our relationship.

LET’S JUST TALK

It’s hard after those formative years to maintain the kind of bond you had with your parents as a kid—or dissipate any tension that built up between you. There’s no set time or space to establish any kind of new relationship following your college years (or earlier in some cases). You’re no longer under the same roof and those conversations don’t happen spontaneously or naturally. You have to make an effort to keep in touch and often making that call (marked dutifully on the calendar) can quickly feel like a chore.

“As a child, it’s expected that the conversation will revolve around you. As a teenager, there is often little you want to hear less than your mom or dad’s opinion. But as an adult, there is so much to be gained from flipping the dynamic and asking your parents to talk to you,” wrote Talk to Me creator Christina Huffington, daughter of HuffPost co-founder, president, and editor-in-chief Arianna Huffington. Many readers of Talk to Me, which launched earlier this year, will gravitate to the conversations featuring well-known individuals: billionaire Richard Branson speaking to his son, Sam, about how he built the Virgin Group while still managing to make family time his number one priority; former First Lady Laura Bush speaking to her daughter, Barbara, about the 9/11 attacks, gender roles, and more. I personally enjoyed the one between founder Ms. Huffington herself speaking to her daughter about the guilt that came with being a working mother.

MORE THAN A MEANS TO AN END

I hadn’t given the idea of interviewing my parents much thought until I needed to get their input for my work. (Kids will be kids, after all, and I’m no different—I’m just “too busy” for a long call.) But it was a means to an end that became much, much more—an almost therapeutic experience. By talking to them in a different context—that of interviewer and subjects—helped me to see things from another perspective, and empathize with them in a way I had never been able to in the past. We shared some laughs, took brief pauses to reminisce, and at one point found ourselves quite emotional over an event that had been hard for us all. “At the time, it was all happening so fast,” my dad said during our discussion. “It’s nice to go back over things now in retrospect and talk it out, maybe put some closure on it.” I hung up the phone feeling I knew my mom and dad a little better than before. I understood the people they were when I was small (and before I was even around), and who they’ve become over the years. I could also see where certain strengths originated and where the roots of some of my beliefs were planted.

Wondering if this was an exercise that more people should attempt, I turned to Tokyo-based journalist Rob Schwartz, whose father is Morrie—of Tuesdays with Morrie fame. The moving bestseller follows Schwartz Sr. in the last months of his life as he answers questions from his former student, Mitch Albom. I asked Rob if he had done anything similar with his dad. “I talked to him quite a bit at the time, but I do wish I had done a formal interview,” he admitted. “If I could go back, I’d want to ask about the biggest watershed moments of his life, and how we can help people be more compassionate and in touch with their humanity.” Having missed the chance to interview his father, Schwartz made certain not to make the same mistake with his mother. “She’s had a fascinating life and [was] on the cutting edge of social movements,” he tells me. His takeaway was similar to mine: interviewing his mother was a great learning experience.

five tips on how to interview your parents:

 

1. Make a Date

I didn’t just launch into my questions during one of our usual phone calls. I booked an appointment with my parents, the same way I would if I were interviewing a stranger. I explained the topic and asked if they’d be willing to share their time and thoughts. A few days later, I rang them up. What became evident almost immediately were the boundaries established by the forum itself.

 

2. Come Prepared

I wouldn’t suggest winging it. When it comes to family, it’s easier to go off on a tangent. Have a list of questions organized, and try to stay on track. If you need some inspiration, there are plenty of websites online that have suggested questions. Family Tree Magazine, for example, offers ideas in their 20 Questions for Interviewing Relatives that will get the juices flowing. I especially like #19: Tell me about some of the places you’ve been the happiest.

 

3. Create a Neutral Space

Having set a time and established boundaries, with both parties prepared to discuss a specific topic, you’ve removed the element of surprise that can sometimes catch people off-guard and cause a reactive response rather than a thoughtful one, especially in families. My mom commented after the interview that she enjoyed sharing her opinion and stories without worrying that she would cause upset. “It was my version of events,” she told me afterward. “We weren’t debating it. You weren’t coming to me upset and looking for answers. In this environment you were there to listen and take notes and I could think clearly and express myself.”

 

4. Know Your Role

As soon as the interview began my parents and I put aside our relationship as mother/father/daughter and stepped into the roles of interviewer and interviewees. There were a couple of times I was tempted to react or respond, dig deeper into a subject that was more personal to me. However, I refrained. That would have changed the dynamic and caused my parents to close off.

 

5. Hit “Record”

When I told one of my sisters I had interviewed my parents, she immediately asked for every detail. Given I had recorded it, I offered to pass it along, if my parents agreed. I’ll keep the recording for later, too. My (almost) three-year-old daughter will eventually hear their voices and learn about her grandparents. With two of my own grandparents having already passed away, I would give anything to listen to a long recording of them talking about their lives and the decisions they made along the way.