She always has a twinkle in her eye and a smile on her face. Many are the times you’ve found yourself wondering, “What was my grandma like when she was young?” But try as you might, it’s hard to get your grandma to sit down with you to share her memories.
Although it’s important to collect dates and records about your ancestors, stories are really what bring your family tree to life. That’s why we’ve built in the ability to upload photos and memories right as you make a family tree in FamilySearch.
As you make your own family tree, you’ll find one of the first challenges is to get your relatives to open up. Luckily this is just a temporary reluctance. Once they see how excited you are to learn more about their life, the memories will pour out.
To help you and your relatives start the discussion about meaningful family stories, we’ve asked five leading family history experts how they evoke stories of the past. Follow the five steps below to learn how to spark family history conversations with your loved ones.
Five steps to inspire your relatives to share their family stories:
1. Begin with Baby Steps:
“Non-genealogists will balk if you tell them it’s a GENEALOGY PROJECT,” warns genealogy instructor Dear Myrtle. She recommends collecting family stories in a less stressful way by saying, “Grandma, can we look at that old photo album together again? I’d just love to get one or two of your quick stories recorded.”
To make recording family stories a non-stressful activity for older relatives, imply a time limit by saying “just one or two quick stories?” You can also use the record button on a smartphone to preserve your relative’s voice, which you can later transcribe or upload directly to FamilySearch.Myrtle notes that after doing this once or twice, “Grandma will realize you are making it easy for her to tell the ancestors’ stories. With a couple of fun voice recordings under her belt, she just may be amenable to the video option on your tablet or smartphone.”
2. Create a Starting Point:
Relatives often hesitate to share stories about their lives because they don’t know where to begin. Should they start with the most significant events, or go in chronological order?
To help your relative start sharing memories with you, Gill Blanchard, author of Writing your Family History, advises starting by writing down facts that you already know about their life. That way you can begin a family history conversation by asking about specific events such as births, marriages, deaths, house moves, or job changes. In addition, focusing on a significant event lets you ask your relative what happened before and after that event.
To create a timeline as a starting point, use the Search function in FamilySearch to look up events from a relative’s life. Census records, for example, can shed light on an older relative’s family, education level, and where they lived, as well as details about past occupations. By spending 10 minutes looking for records in your FamilySearch account, you can find several life events to ask about in your conversation.
3. Sharpen Your Focus:
“Most people don’t see their past as anything special or interesting,” notes Amy Johnson Crow, creator of the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks Challenge. “A question like ‘Tell me about your childhood’ will often be answered with ‘There isn’t much to tell’ or ‘You don’t want to hear about that.’”
To help your relatives find interesting stories to share from their past, Amy recommends asking about specific events or activities. Use questions such as:
- “What was your favorite (or least favorite) chore when you were a child?”
- “Who was your favorite teacher?”
- “Did you ever have a sleep-over at a friend’s house?”
Small stories about daily life give insight into a relative’s personality, and help you feel more connected. By asking focused questions about minor events, you will make it easy for relatives to begin reminiscing. Once the story starts flowing, just ask follow-up questions to learn more.
4. Seek Different Perspectives:
As you collect family stories, try to learn about the memories of all the people who were involved. “Shared experiences bind a family together, notes the Ancestry Insider. “ Siblings love to reminisce about awfully fun or absurdly awful times.”
Next time you’re at a family event, Ancestry Insider suggests slipping family history questions into the normal conversation. Whenever there’s a lull, start off a story with “Remember when…” and keep talking until someone chimes in. Make sure you take notes or record the stories.
In particular, sibling rivalries can produce interesting, divergent points of view. One person might say, “Remember when Kristi jumped off the roof...” Another will jump in, “No, that was me!” This tactic also works across generations if the relative is older and doesn’t have any siblings present. Reminiscing about when you and your siblings secretly raced boxes down the stairs can inspire an older relative to reveal their own youthful shenanigans.
5. Recruit a Family History Team
As you start collecting stories, build a family history team by sharing stories and photos with relatives. Not only does this bring your family closer together, it also inspires others to contribute. Randy Seaver of Genea-Musings has had great success with this tactic. Every Wednesday, he publishes old family photos on his blog and asks his relatives to comment with their own memories.
Randy also attaches selected photographs and family stories to the FamilySearch profiles of his parents and grandparents so that they’re saved right in his family tree. This is one of the easiest ways you can share family stories and encourage others to contribute!
To invite relatives to expand on the stories you’ve already collected, or to add new stories of their own:
- Sign up for a free Family Tree account at FamilySearch
- Click on the Memories tab in your FamilySearch family tree maker account
- Upload photos and stories
- Share on social networks or use the email link to invite relatives to contribute
- Smile because your stories, comments, and photos are saved directly in your family tree
If you’re just beginning to make your own family tree, one of the most important things you can do is ask relatives about their youth and family members who have passed away. By gathering those stories and uploading them into your FamilySearch account, you can save the story of your family for the generations to come.