Where Were You When: Tips to Help Kids Interview Family about Historical Events

“We never missed a single speech [of Roosevelt’s]. We knew that he was going to come on and we made sure that we got that information. We didn’t miss any of them, and we were anxiously awaiting what he had to say and I don’t think anyone had any ideas of anything except feeling that it was in good hands.”

These were my grandmother’s words from when I interviewed her about World War II when I was a junior in high school. We had been studying World War II in our U.S. History class, and our assignment was to interview someone who had lived through it, so I chose my grandmother. She was twenty years old and newly married when the War began, and she told me all about life throughout the War on the home front.


An Interview with my Grandmother about World War II

At the time, I had been meeting with my grandmother often to talk about family history, and look through her old photos and the old family Bible, but I had not talked to her specifically about the war. I was fascinated by what she had to say – for instance, her husband at the time was classified 4-F, which meant he was not in the service, for bow-legged vocal chords – a “raspy voice.” She never knew exactly why this disqualified him for service, but they had many friends at the time who were also “4-F couples.” She talked about living with rations, about her husband and mother working for Allison General Motors manufacturing war supplies, and how everyone she knew was dedicated to the war effort. She told me her grandfather, whom she lived with, was a Republican, “but was completely dedicated to President Roosevelt and his procedures.”

 Grandma, Mary Holsclaw Andrews, in the early 1940s 

Grandma, Mary Holsclaw Andrews, in the early 1940s 

When I look back on this interview now, I see how significant it is that I was able to take the time to ask her these questions about this important period in history. My grandmother was a girl during the Great Depression, and thus in our conversations about family history, would tell me about her childhood, which was of course directly affected by the Depression, but until this interview, she had never really mentioned World War II, which was obviously a major part of her life as a young woman.  

It made me think, when we talk to our older family members about family history and their lives, do we bring in the historical events that they lived through? As genealogists, we are often careful to identify the time periods and events that our earlier ancestors lived through, but do we do the same with our living relatives when we interview them?

This is an amazing way for kids to learn about history in general in addition to important family history, and to give an added depth to family history. If you have an older relative who lived through World War II, discuss the war with your children. Study it with them, so they have a basic understanding of world and local events through the war. Share with them what you have heard from your relatives about your family’s experiences through that time. And then if you can, guide them to crafting thoughtful interview questions for your relative, if they are okay with being interviewed of course. It’s always important, in any interview, that children understand that some questions may be too personal for the person to answer. My grandmother for example did stop me at one question and requested that I not ask her about it. I was a little taken aback but I respected her answer. It’s best that kids know going in that this may happen and to be prepared for it.

Tips for kids interviewing relatives about historical events:

-         Familiarize kids with the historical event they’ll be discussing before the interview. Do a little unit study together, or a read a short book or section of a history book about it so kids can ask informed questions and follow-ups.

-         Keep it informal. If everyone is relaxed, it will be more like a conversation and therefore more authentic.

-         Discuss with your child that you will be there and may jump in if appropriate, but it’s just to help the conversation and not to step on any toes.

-          Always ask both the child and your relative if you can record the interview, and let them know why you’d like to – but keep the recording device inconspicuous so as not to intimidate.

-         If possible, include visuals in the interview, such as family photos from the time period. This will keep kids’ focus and help them ask relevant questions.

-         Debrief with your kids after the interview and answer any lingering questions they may have about it.

-         Enjoy your time together!

Interviewing family members about historical events will add an extra layer of understanding to both history and family history for your kids. It can also be a wonderful opportunity for your relative to share with your kids important aspects of their life they’d never been able to share before. Enjoy this time together – you’ll all learn something, and grow closer together in the process.

Are you and your kids interested in learning more about interviewing older family members and also writing about their family history? We have a special workbook to help kids learn to do just that. Subscribe here for the free workbook Writing Family History for Kids: A Workbook & Guide, plus more freebies all about family storytelling.