Last month was Family History Month. As we move into November and December, many of us are likely to get together with family, both old and young. In today’s busy families, the holidays may be the only time generations get to spend time together. This can be a cause for joy and angst. Just because people are family doesn’t mean they have an easy time relating to each other. Like most potentially awkward situations, some advance planning can make things easier and perhaps even enjoyable.
Though I have long had an interest in my own family history, like many others, I regret waiting so long to ask questions. So long, in fact, that those with the answers are now gone. With a little encouragement, your teens may be able to ferret out stories that might otherwise go unheard. (Maybe even some that are new to you.) Many older people love telling stories of their youth, and though they may not admit it, teens get a kick out of hearing tales of their parents’ and grandparents’ escapades when they were teens.
Many grandparents and older aunts and uncles think that they will bore kids with their stories, that these stories would hold no interest to a generation seemingly permanently attached to their technology devices. This is often far from the truth. Though they may condescendingly refer to playthings such as roller skates, hula hoops and Silly Putty as “quaint,” they will likely be fascinated to hear about how kids spent their free time “back in the old days.” Teens are also interested in hearing about relationships and stories of their own parents, told through someone else’s eyes. Though you can try to start a discussion, if the teens are doing the asking, you may hear some half-hearted resistance, but your family members are more likely to open up.
Start planting the idea now. Maybe tell a few tales of your own to spark your kids’ interest, then hint that Grandma will remember better. Suggest they come up with a few questions to ask, maybe hint that Grandma might be a little shy. Prompting stories with questions such as “How did you and Grandpa meet?” is usually the most effective route. (Be prepared for Grandpa to tell her she got it all wrong, though.) These questions can easily lead to more questions about other family members.
Since these conversations are likely taking place over a holiday meal, it would be natural for the discussion to include food. Do you traditionally serve certain foods? Do you know why? Which foods on the table are part of a family tradition? Is anything prepared from a family recipe? Our family has a few funny stories revolving around food, both because the dishes are loved and despised. (Really, why were certain things on the menu each year if no one liked them?)
Pulling out old family albums is another way to get the memories flowing. Casually leaving out an album or displaying some photos prominently in frames can trigger a conversation. It is fun to look through old photos, especially when you realize that your son looks just like Uncle Bob at the same age or your daughter is the spitting image of her great great grandmother. When the tales some out, you may learn that they had personality traits in common as well.
Some topics can be eye opening to teens used to modern conveniences. This sort of conversation can start when someone mentions home movies. Depending on the generation, this can be anything from movie reels to VHS tapes to DVDs. (Bonus points if someone can pull out the movie reels and projector and show life in the mid-1900s.) The conversation can easily move on to everyday appliances and how much (and how many times) they have evolved in the past 70 or so years.
Conversations like these can make for a fun and sometimes lively visit. These multigenerational exchanges are good for your kids; after all, it is nice to know where “your people” come from and how you fit in. But they are also great for the older generation, who may be feeling obsolete. Telling stories has been a way through time to connect generations. And family stories tend to create more questions, so you may find the conversation goes on to late in the night, or even the wee hours of the morning. Even if it does, there are certain to be more stories to share the next time you get together.