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10 Questions You Need to Ask an Old Person Who Raised Kids

Photograph by Twenty20

How often do we actively seek out the wisdom of the elderly? How many times do we say to ourselves, “I should ask an old person about this issue. They have decades of experience to share with me”?

For many of us, the answer is “not too often.” But we can do something to change that. In particular, we can—and should—seek out the parenting wisdom of our elderly family and friends.

Some of us are lucky enough to still have our grandmothers around. But if you aren’t, you can borrow a best friend’s grandma. Talk to an elderly neighbor. Call up a great-aunt. Say to them, “I want to ask you what it was like when you were a parent of young kids. I want to hear your stories.”

And you can ask some of the following questions to get the conversation going:

1. What were your labors and births like?

Even as older women’s memories fade, they can often recall their birth experiences with striking clarity. From maternity muumuus to twilight sleep, farmhouse homebirths to breastfeeding-shaming, their stories are sometimes foreign, sometimes familiar and always fascinating.

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2. What was reproductive choice and freedom like when you were of childbearing age?

Times were different for mothers of the mid-20th century. They didn’t have widespread access to birth control. Most didn’t have access to legal and safe abortion. Teen mothers often faced forced adoption. Single mothers were sometimes forced to live in isolated mother-and-baby homes.

Chances are that our grandmothers have stories to tell about these experiences. If not about themselves, then about a sister, a cousin, a friend.

They might wish that they hadn’t with held physical affection from their children.

Without heeding to these sorts of stories, we risk taking for granted how far we’ve come, and how easy it is to slide back to the social stigmas and restricted choices of years past.

3. Tell me what a typical morning was like when you were a parent of young children.

This open-ended request invites a whole world of possible responses. You might learn about how the neighborhood women all convened at your grandmother’s house to drink coffee, or how your grandmother cried every morning when your grandfather was at work. Maybe her story will spiral into an account of African Americans’ Great Migration from the South to urban areas in the North, or of her jarring experience as an immigrant in the United States. Welcome however her story unfolds.

4. If you could change one thing about those years when you were a parent of young children, what would it be?

You might hear something along the lines of, “I wish I would have cherished every moment.” But you might hear some more daring, unexpected responses, too. Maybe you’ll learn about a forgotten career, a long-lost lover or a secret talent. You never know until you ask.

5. What’s one parenting story or experience that you haven’t shared with anyone before?

Sometimes it’s all too easy to get annoyed by older people (or any people) who are eager to share their nuggets of parenting advice. But perhaps what they really want to share is not advice, but stories.

Ask your grandmother (or adopted grandmother) to tell you a story she’s never, or rarely, shared before. You might hear something sad, something funny, something shocking, and you might also hear something a million times better than advice: wisdom.

So if they tell you that daily enemas are the secret to healthy children, simply smile and nod and tuck that “wisdom” away for never.

6. What has been your greatest joy as a mother?

Pay attention to the specificity of her joy. Is it related to her children’s accomplishments? To her own accomplishments? Is it relevant to an experience, an emotion or a particular time in life? Use her response to reflect on your own joys as a parent.

7. What was your greatest regret as a mother?

Every mother, no matter what age, deserves a safe space to express her regrets and other less-than-rosy feelings about motherhood. Be that safe space for this person.

8. If you could relive one stage of your children’s lives, just for one day, what would it be? Why?

Let this part of the conversation give you a reminder to pause for at least a couple moments (though certainly not every moment) every day and reflect on how beautiful and fleeting each stage of childhood—and motherhood—is.

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9. Have any of your views about parenting changed over the years? If so, how have they changed?

They might wish that they hadn’t withheld physical affection from their children (as per the parenting advice of the early-to-mid 20th century), or they might have become more open-minded about marriage and sexuality.

But they might still hold on to some of their outdated parenting ideas, too.

So if they tell you that daily enemas are the secret to healthy children, simply smile and nod and tuck that “wisdom” away for never.

10. What things are today’s parents 'getting right?'

Try ending the conversation with this question. You’ve given this elderly person the gift of time and listening. They might be able to give you the gift of confidence.

And any mother, no matter how old we are or how grown our children are, can use that.

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