Jerry M. Burger, Ph.D.

Jerry M. Burger Ph.D.

Returning Home

You Can Go Home Again, and Maybe You Should

Can You Really Go Home Again?

Posted Mar 01, 2011

In her recent hit recording, "The House that Built Me," country-western performer Miranda Lambert sings, "I know they say you can't go home again; I just had to come back one last time; Ma'am, I know you don't know me from Adam; But these handprints on the front steps are mine."

The song is about a woman visiting a place from childhood, a place she once called home. As the lyrics suggest, returning to see a childhood home is often highly emotional. It also is fairly common. My surveys tell me that roughly one third of all American adults over the age of 30 have made such a trip. These individuals aren't necessarily interested in seeing the people from their past. Rather, they visit the houses, apartments, playgrounds, schools, neighborhoods, parks and other places that once made up the landscape of their childhood.

Over the past few decades, I have interviewed hundreds of people about these trips. Their stories are presented in my recent book, Returning Home: Reconnecting with Our Childhoods (Rowman & Littlefield). Among the unexpected findings to emerge from this work was the depth of emotion many people feel for their childhood home. My research assistants and I soon learned to have a box of tissues handy for the interviews (one in five people cried). Many of the people we interviewed brought photographs of their homes to share with us, much like parents showing off pictures of their children. Some refused the money we promised for their time; they were pleased just to have the opportunity talk about their experience.

Another surprise was the home people selected to visit. Although we develop emotional attachments to places throughout our lifetimes, the vast majority of people who make a trip to see a former home select a place they lived in during their elementary school years (around 5 to 12 years old). This choice makes sense if, as I have argued, we recognize that one's home is a part of personal identity for many people; i.e., an extension of their self. And it is during these early years that children develop a sense of self independent of their families. Homes also are almost always the place where children spend the largest part of their time, as well as the location for many of their most emotional experiences.

Why do people make these trips? Although the reasons are varied, I was able to place most of my interviewees into one of three categories. The most common reason people return to a childhood home is to re-establish a psychological link between the child in the black-and-white photographs and the person they are today. Many of the people in this category talked about their childhoods slipping away from them. Others felt it was simply time to renew memories about who they were and where they had come from. The people we placed in the second category used the visit to help them deal with personal issues they were facing at the time. Some were wrestling with relationship problems, financial setbacks, and even trouble with the law. Others said their visits were motivated by a general need to reflect on where their lives were going and to re-evaluate important decisions. Each of these individuals wanted to return to the place where their values were established and where important life lessons were learned. Or, as Miranda Lambert sings, "I thought if I could touch this place or feel it, this brokenness inside me might start healing." People placed in the third category visited a childhood home to take care of unfinished business. Most of these individuals did not have happy childhoods. Some visited homes where they had been victimized. Others went to cemeteries and gave themselves permission to grieve for parents who had died too young. For most of the people in this category, retrieving and facing unpleasant memories was but one step toward addressing issues they had been carrying around for years.

The vast majority of people we interviewed were glad they had made the trip, and many planned to visit or had already visited again. They talked about getting back in touch with important parts of their pasts, obtaining insights about how and why their lives unfolded the way they did, and gaining a valuable perspective with which to make important life decisions. If nothing else, the visits helped to fill gaps in their childhood memories, and nearly everyone took delight in finding a favorite tree, fishing hole, hiding place or some other physical feature from their childhood still intact. Many of our participants used the trip as a form of self-disclosure. About half the people we interviewed brought someone with them, usually a spouse or children, as a way to share something important about themselves.

Not everyone feels emotionally connected to his or her childhood home. About a third of the adults I surveyed reported no interest in visiting places from their past. But most adults have experienced a desire to see a former home, and millions of Americans have made the trip. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am one of them. If you have been thinking about visiting your childhood home, my advice is to just do it. More specific advice on how you can make the most of your trip can be found at my web site: http://www.returninghomebook.com.