Why Extended Family is so Important to Childhood Development

Family Tree ConceptModern families have enormous time constraints. Nearly every family member has an unimaginable array of obligations – work, school, organizations, friends outside the family, and so on. And while this high level of activity can produce young adults who are well- connected and understand the making and keeping of appointments and time schedules, there is also something valuable that has been lost: Extended family.

When we look back in social history, we see families who are more connected to each other than to the outside world. Cousins knew each other well. Kids knew and felt comfortable talking to their grandparents. These family relationships translated into social, well-adjusted adults. Today, the normal family dynamic has become the non-normative family, with divorced parents and matriculation all over the country. Our society favors the individual over the family, with children often growing up and placing their parents or grandparents in an assisted living facilities, knowing their basic needs are taken care of by someone else. But what about their emotional needs? What needs to change in order for our children to recognize the needs of the extended family?

As a society, we are more connected and yet also less connected than ever before. Think about the way we typically interact with others today: One simple look on Facebook and we can see what our Facebook network of Friends did today, what they had for dinner, and where they visited…but we barely even interact with these people. Not closely. We don’t engage in deep one-on-one conversations over Facebook. It is similar to being a Jack-of-All- Trades, Master-of-None; we know little bits about a lot of people at the expense of really knowing a few. This problem also concerns the lack of connection to the extended family.

If the connection to your extended family sounds like an issue you are struggling with in your own life and you want to expose your children to more of your extended family, continue reading for some insights into how to foster that relationship within your own family.

Benefits of visiting grandparents often

There are many benefits to fostering a relationship between children and their grandchildren. When kids are not exposed to their grandparents and do not feel comfortable chatting with them, a valuable teacher is omitted from their life. We all learn from our mistakes, and grandparents have been around long enough to make most of them. This makes them a phenomenal source for learning, “What not to do!”

If kids are fortunate enough to have healthy, living grandparents, trying to visit them as often as possible should be a priority. Try to make visiting a grandparent a normal, scheduled event—even if they live in an assisted living facility or if they live far away.

To facilitate connecting with grandparents in nursing homes, many facilities have lunch rooms or public areas where residents can meet with family. While this might impose some constraints (it will be a fairly public venue), it does offer a chance for children and grandchildren to gather with their elders without the difficulty of transporting them. For family members with medical constraints, this can be important. Bringing a picnic lunch or a pile or board games can offer a shared experience to bond with relatives who are surely overjoyed for the company.

For more mobile family members, restaurants, community rooms, public library meeting rooms, and public parks can make great places for families to gather. These venues also work well for large family reunions, which for some families can be a necessity as the extended relatives can add up into the hundreds. No matter the difficulty, however, the connections made during these meetings are priceless.

For grandparents who live too far away to visit in person, Skype or FaceTime offers a simple way to connect. Try having a tea party over Skype, where the child and the grandparents both share a cup of tea and a cookie, or a coloring session via FaceTime. Thanks to technology, bonding over an activity together in this way can help children bond with their grandparents even if they live out of town.

Some families are also fortunate enough to have supportive, healthy, and active grandparents living close by. To build upon these close relationships, you can plan time for the children to visit their grandparent’s house or for them to come to yours. In this personal setting, families can enjoy a host of activities including sharing a meal, a game night, or even a grandparent babysitting night where the parents can enjoy a night out!

Grandparents have so much to teach. According to a survey conducted by the American Grandparents Association, 72% of grandparents “think being a grandparent is the single most important and satisfying thing in their life.” You aren’t burdening them. You are enriching them—and they are enriching you.

Benefits of a relationship with aunts, uncles, and cousins

Beyond grandparents, many families have other extended members that they probably don’t see as much as they could. With multiple generations on Facebook now, it is easier than ever to “keep up” with family via social networking, but again, we are more connected and less connected than ever. Facebook profiles and posts will never replace actual visits.

Plan real time with aunts, uncles, and cousins. As a family, plan a vacation, go to an amusement park, plan to share a meal, or send the kids on a visit for a week with their cousins. The opportunities to stay connected to our extended family members are there. Only our habits and self-imposed barriers prevent it.

Helping children foster bond with other adults is also important. Dr. Susan Bartell, a nationally recognized child and parenting psychologist, acknowledges the benefits of a closer relationship with extended family members: “Aunts and uncles are important, because they offer kids the chance to have a close relationship with an adult who doesn’t have the same set of expectations as Mom and Dad.” Aunts and uncles may become a go-to person for kids to confide in if they don’t feel comfortable talking to their parents. Ideally, we want our kids to know they can tell us anything, but that doesn’t always happen. Involving extended family in a child’s life allows them to have another outlet.

When we expose our kids to other perspectives, we help them become their own person. There is only so much a parent can teach. A parent might be the most important person in a young child’s life, yet without extended family, a significant component in your child’s development is lost. Aunts and uncles may become a go-to person for kids to confide in if they don’t feel comfortable talking to their parents. Ideally, we want our kids to know they can tell us anything, but that doesn’t always happen. Involving extended family in a child’s life allows them to have another outlet.

A simple story about a family gathering

Family gatherings are a time for sharing memories that span generational cultures. Envision this story about a multi-generational family sharing time together over a meal at a local restaurant, exemplifying how important it is to connect the younger generation with their extended family members.

During a recent family gathering at a restaurant, the smartphones came out up and down the long table where four generations were represented. However, these devices were not separating them; rather, they were bringing them together. Pictures were taken and funny events were shared live, rather than on Facebook. It was just an informal get-together, where the four-year-old traveled from lap to lap, being exposed to one new face after another, and everyone at the table shared impromptu stories.

During the dinner, two of the middle-aged sisters tried to resurrect the sibling rivalry which had once existed between them. “He’s LOOKING at me, Mom,” the daughter joked when her brother wouldn’t stop staring. Responding to the quip, the great-grandmother in the party smiled and said, “Do I need to get out the duct tape and make a line between your seats?” Everyone laughed at the inside joke.

Further down the table, the grandfather reminded a newly-adult son to take off his hat inside. The great-grandmother passed a napkin to the daughter (who is also now a grandmother) to wipe the four-year-old’s face, then turned to look at a Facebook post on her twelve-year-old granddaughter’s phone. The visiting daughter-in-law was snapping pictures on her smartphone.

The point: A lot was going on. It was a friendly, relaxed event where sharing and caring for each other were the examples being set. A sense of passing from one stage of growth to another were
 clearly seen among the generations. And the whole event was spawned because one family decided to travel into town from out-of-state and decided it was worthwhile to visit.

Then, it became a memory.

Families offering a connection to history

Another great way to interact and connect with extended family members, particularly those in older generations, is to gather together and share or record memories. These conversations are priceless, as the memories and wisdom carried by older family members will one day be gone.

For example, consider memories of the infamous terrorist attack on 9/11. For Americans present on September 11th, 2001, the shock and disbelief of that moment will brand that morning in our minds forever. However, one day soon, many Americans will not have vivid memories of the day. Once, a teacher who had gotten into the habit of asking her college classes, “Where were you on the morning of September 11th, 2001?” realized she was going to have to take that question out of her curriculum plans when one young lady raised her hand and said, “I think I was in Kindergarten. And they sent us all home for the day.”

Soon, it will be our responsibility to share the memories of these historical events with our children and grandchildren, who are growing up in a world that is undoubtedly changed by these events. In a similar way, we need to record the memories of our grandparents and other older relatives to hear their experiences with and perspective on events like Pearl Harbor, the Vietnam War, former Presidential elections…the list goes on. Personal stories and family memories are also important to hear and record, as their memories of family life are invaluable. Talk to these elders and hear what they have to say. Their responses could influence the history—and the future–of your family.

Family connections improve parental support in times of crisis

Families who have relationships with extended family members also thrive in times crisis because of their familial connections, a fact that undoubtedly contributes to their children’s development and emotional well-being. According to a 2011 study conducted by Cangrands, a national kinship support network for extended family caring for children in Canada, family relationships are integral to supporting parents in times of personal, familial, or economic crisis. Grandparents often become a family’s first source of support during an emergency, offering financial support, care giving, or even advice With many parents reporting that they regularly turn to their mother or mother-in-law for advice or information about child development and parenting, having a strong connection to extended family is essential (Cangrands, 2011).

Establishing social bonds with extended family members not only allows parents and children to develop close connections to these family members, but it also provides a close source of support in times of crisis. Children will naturally benefit from this reliance on family members when their family is in need of assistance.

Tips for staying in touch with extended family
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Ideally, try to visit frequently. If family-members happen to live nearby, make it a priority to see them. Make it a habit and an expectation to visit for monthly dinners or other outings so that kids know seeing their family members is a priority. Figure out a way to make it fun for everyone. Try a new restaurant together, or go explore a park. Make family time enjoyable so the experiences are positive for everyone.

Vacation together. Vacationing together as an extended family is easier than ever. AirBNB, VRBO, and other websites allow users to rent rooms or even entire houses for vacations and have opened up a world of vacationing that wasn’t available before. We can plan memorable vacations with extended family and even split the cost of doing so. For everyone involved, the vacation will surely be an unforgettable experience. When you really think about childhood memories, you likely are able to recall several that involve places you vacationed. Doing this with extended family is a fantastic way to connect!

Use technology to stay connected. When face-to-face gatherings are not possible, email, social media, and VOIP–in various flavors–provide opportunities to share joys, triumphs, disappointments, sorrows, and even plain, ordinary day-to-day living. With modern technology, communication with family members is easily accessible. No more waiting for weeks for a letter to make its way across the Atlantic or over land from one coast to the other. In this hyper-connected age, children have a hard time imagining what it would be like to be limited to a phone that is attached to a wall, let alone one that can be listened in on by every aunt and cousin and neighbor on the local party line. Taking advantage of technology can strengthen the connection and bond between extended family members. Even with obstacles or disadvantages to using technology, it is important to make being connected to our extended family a priority, and technology is a great tool to utilize.

Take lots of photos. Pictures get processed by our brains about 1000 times faster than text. Photos evoke emotions, inspiring thoughts and memories about the event captured. Beyond sharing photos with extended family members, a thoughtful way to stay connected would be to create an online photo page that everyone can access and share their photos. This can be a fantastic way to stay connected and share memories with each other.

Perhaps in today’s society, we are so inundated with our own lives to realize how disconnected we have become from our extended family members. In spite of the difficulties, we should strive to stay connected with our extended family and make their relationships more of a priority. Only good things can come of it!

Sources:

Anderson, Jeff. “10 Reasons Grandparents Matter More than Ever.” 10 Reasons Grandparents Matter More than Ever. A Place For Mom: Connecting Families to Senior Care, 23 Oct. 2013. Web. 16 May 2016. <http://www.aplaceformom.com/blog/10-22-13-reasons-grandparents-matter-more-than-ever/>.

Durham Health Connection. “Parents & Family: Extended Family.” Introduction to the Roles of Extended Family (n.d.): n. pag.Parenting and Child Development. Region of Durham. Web. 19 May 2016. <https://www.durham.ca/departments/health/family_health/parenting/positiveDiscipline/toolkit/extendedFamily.pdfhttps://www.durham.ca/departments/health/family_health/parenting/positiveDiscipline/toolkit/extendedFamily.pdf>.

Koutsky, Judy. “11 Parents Reveal Why Their Kids Can’t Do Without Aunts & Uncles.” P&G Everyday. Proctor & Gamble, n.d. Web. 19 May 2016. <https://www.pgeveryday.com/family-life/parenting/article/11-parents-reveal-why-their-kids-cant-do-without-aunts-and-uncles>.

83 thoughts on “Why Extended Family is so Important to Childhood Development

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