Gathering a lifetime of memories starts with asking questions

Every person has a story to tell. By asking great questions, you can gain insight into others and yourself.

Two people sitting at a table while talking to each other.
Photo credit to Unsplash.

Collecting individual’s stories is very important to understand our own culture, and the culture of others. Interviewing can be a great way to capture those stories. Below are examples of questions from Michigan State University Extension you can ask to gather information about a person’s life story.  

Each question may not be appropriate for every person. Some questions might be offensive to some people. There are many different families and life experiences; be sensitive to that when you ask the questions. Some people may not know much information about their biological family, or have experienced homelessness, or have had trauma in their life story. Be mindful and empathetic when you ask questions.         


  • Who do you consider your family? Why do you consider those people your family?
  • Where did your family live? How did your family come to live there? 
  • Were there other family members in the area? Who? 
  • Who was the oldest relative you remember as a child? What do you remember about them?
  • What stories have come down to you about your parents? Grandparents? More distant ancestors? 
  • Are there any stories about famous or infamous relatives in your family? 
  • Are there any physical characteristics that run in your family? 
  • Are there any special heirlooms, photos, bibles, or other memorabilia that have been passed down in your family? 
  • What was the full name of your parents? Siblings?
  • Of all the things you learned from your parents, which do you feel was the most valuable? 
  • Have any recipes been passed down to you from family members? 
  • How were holidays (birthdays, Thanksgiving, etc.) celebrated in your family? Did your family have special traditions? 


  • What is your full name? Do you have any stories about that name? Did you have a nickname? Do you have stories about that name? 
  • What do you know about your family surname?
  • Is there a naming tradition in your family, such as always giving the firstborn son the name of his paternal grandfather? 
  • When and where were you born? Do you know any stories about your birth?


  • Describe the kind of places you have called home. How many rooms? Bathrooms? Did it have electricity? Indoor plumbing? Telephones? 
  • Were there any special items from your childhood that you remember? 
  • What is your earliest childhood memory? 
  • Describe the personalities of your family members. 
  • What kind of games did you play growing up? 
  • What was your favorite toy and why? 
  • What was your favorite thing to do for fun (movies, beach, etc.)? 
  • Did you have family chores? What were they? Which was your least favorite? 
  • Did you receive an allowance? How much? Did you save your money or spend it? 
  • What was school like for you as a child? Did you go to public, private or home school? What were your best and worst subjects? Where did you attend grade school? High school? College? 
  • What school activities and sports did you participate in? 
  • Do you remember any fads from your youth? Popular hairstyles? Clothes? 
  • Who were your childhood heroes? 
  • What were your favorite songs and music? Were there songs your family sang? You could search the internet for those songs and play them to see if they bring up other memories.
  • Did you have any pets or livestock? If so, what kind, and what were their names? Do you have any funny, sad or interesting stories involving animals?
  • What was your religion or spiritual practice growing up, if any? Were there any religious or spiritual practices you participated in?
  • Were you ever mentioned in a newspaper?
  • Who were your friends when you were growing up? Do you keep in touch with any of them?
  • What world events had the most impact on you while you were growing up? Did any of them personally affect your family? 
  • Describe a typical family dinner. Did you all eat together as a family? Who did the cooking? What were your favorite foods? 
  • How is the world today different from what it was like when you were a child? 
  • If you could go back in time, and tell yourself something when you were young, what would it be?


  • What was the full name of your partner?
  • When and how did you meet your partner? What did you do on dates? 
  • Where and when did you make a lifelong commitment to your partner? 
  • What memory stands out the most from your wedding day? 
  • How would you describe your partner? What do (did) you admire most about them? 
  • What do you believe is the key to a successful relationship? 
  • How did you find out you were going to be a parent for the first time? 
  • Why did you choose your children's names? 
  • What was your proudest moment as a parent? 
  • What did your family enjoy doing together? 
  • What was your profession and how did you choose it? 
  • If you could have had any other profession, what would it have been? Why wasn't it your first choice? 
  • What accomplishments were you the proudest of? 
  • What is the one thing you most want people to remember about you?


  • What got you interested in this skill?
  • What is different about this skill now, as compared to the past?
  • Do you know anything about the history of this skill?
  • What tools do you use for this skill?  
  • Do you have any stories about how you acquired your tools?
  • How has your technique changed as you mastered this craft?
  • Who were your teachers in this skill? Can you describe what you learned from them? How does their technique differ from yours?

This article was inspired by and adapted from the 4-H Folkpatterns curriculum. This curriculum is available online. You may also be interested in the 4-H Folkpatterns Leaders Guide or the 4-H Foodways: a 4-H Folkpatterns Project.

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