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Love Connections

My desk is covered with family photos, among them a shot of my eldest son, Sam, then 2, standing up in his little red wagon to plant a big one right on my sister's puckered mouth. There's one of my husband's aunt holding my laughing youngest son, Joe, at 6 months, on the front porch of his grandparents' house; and another of my mom nuzzling noses on the swing with my middle child, Henry, who looks just like her.

These pictures represent a fraction of our relatives, none of whom live in our town. Sometimes I gripe about all the packing and driving  -- or cleaning and cooking  -- involved in having a far-flung family, but then we get there, or the guests get here, and I can feel my grinchy old heart growing three sizes again. I watch all the cousins playing and note how much my husband, Haywood, and I enjoy our parents and siblings. I see how proud and happy the grandparents are to have our little ones clambering into their laps, holding Green Eggs and Ham in absolute trust that PaPa and Grandmommy will read to them.

It's at these moments that I truly realize the payoffs of staying connected to your extended family are huge  -- especially for your kids:

They have more people to love them. Last summer, in anticipation of a long-planned family reunion, my 2-year-old nephew, Will, said: "I'll see Granddaddy and Wibby, and Aunt Margaret and Uncle Woody, and Aunt Lori and Uncle Michael, and Sam and Henry and Joe and Max. They all love me there."

Close families also give kids a more secure base from which to explore the world. Especially these days, "children with strong ties to extended family can feel safer because they know there are people besides their parents who'll take care of them," says Leah Klungness, Ph.D., a psychologist in Locust Valley, New York.

They pick up family values. The messages older kids are exposed to from movies and TV, and that younger children may get when visiting other kids' houses, can be confusing if they conflict with your own expectations. Linda of Newton, Iowa, is thrilled whenever her five children spend time with their nearby aunts and uncles, who "reinforce our beliefs, and we think it's wonderful for our kids to hear a consistent message from other adults whom they respect."

They develop tolerance. Just because people are born into the same family, on the other hand, doesn't mean they necessarily have a lot in common  -- which for kids can be a good thing. Inevitably there are family members who buck family trends or have different attitudes and preferences. And by seeing such differences accommodated in families, kids can become more accepting of diversity.

They learn diplomacy. You and your brother-in-law may be political polar opposites, but you're still going to be sitting at the same picnic table on Memorial Day. You've either got to hold your tongue or find a way to discuss things civilly because your kids will be watching how you negotiate the family whitewater  -- and, in the process, learning a lot about the complexities of human relationships.

They find like minds. Among their kin, kids may discover a person who shares an interest in something you, despite being their parent, couldn't care less about. My mother never once considered becoming a teacher  -- "Are you kidding? After watching my mother grade papers night after night?"  -- so when I taught my first class, I had some long talks with my grandmother about what her teaching days were like, as well as the pleasure of watching kids learn.

Garth of Richmond, California, has been delighted to see a similar kind of bond develop between his mother, who lives 200 miles away, and his 10-year-old daughter, Georgia. They both love crafts, and last summer they planned to get together and have a show to sell their clay sculptures, mosaics, and hand-painted flowerpots. They made $800 at the sale, "but the real benefit to Georgia," Garth says, "was spending quality time with a loving adult who is able to both share her interests and take them seriously."

They learn to help out. After your kids see you taking days off from work to give your sister a hand with her new baby, or sitting with your mom in the hospital during their granddad's surgery, they may be more likely to offer to help Aunt Mary find her reading glasses or entertain a fussy little cousin so his parents can finish eating their dinner. "It's the beginning of being able to take a worldview, and an opportunity to feel part of something important and lasting," says Klungness.

They figure out that parents are human too. It's fun to hear Gran tell about the time Dad's science-project tadpoles turned into toads overnight and escaped all over the house, or listen to Aunt Sally describe how mad Mom got when Uncle John dyed her Barbie's hair green. By spending time with relatives, kids get the chance to think of the grown-ups in their lives as having once been kids themselves who went through the same kinds of trials and tribulations they're dealing with now. It's also the primary way children learn about the family traditions that provide a sense of security. And they create a link to the past that gives kids a sense of their own place on a long family timeline and in an ordered world.

Margaret Renkl, a contributing editor, lives in Tennessee.

Going The Distance

It's not always easy to get kids together with their kin, but even if there's an entire continent between you and the rest of the family, there are plenty of simple ways to make sure everyone stays connected:

Become a historian. Tell lots of stories about your childhood that feature your parents and siblings. Make a point of saying, "When I was a little girl, your grandma made me this very kind of birthday cake every year." And don't just reminisce about the past. A quick comment like "It's so warm outside today, I'll bet your cousins are down at the creek right this very minute" or "I wonder if the mother robin in Aunt Katherine's backyard came back this year?" will keep your children aware of extended family.

A side benefit of such talk: It'll help your kids feel less shy when they're actually with their relatives.

Encourage give-and-take. Kids love to get mail, so urge far-off relations to send postcards, letters, and small treats. Then help the young recipient keep up the correspondence: For instance, have your child dictate a letter that ends, "Please write back!" or asks a question like "What color are the leaves at your house?"

Relatives also love to look out for inexpensive items kids like to collect  -- rocks, stamps, baseball cards, colored buttons, state quarters  -- but they need your help in keeping track of current interests. I once remarked to my mother that my 2-year-old was going through a box of Band-Aids a week (often for imaginary wounds). Three days later, an envelope arrived for him full of the Scooby-Doo version I wasn't willing to buy because they were so much more expensive than the plain ones.

Go high-tech. Thanks to e-mail, scanners, and digital cameras, it takes only a little effort to send instant-photo updates to the clan. Five minutes after we get back from Sam's baseball game, his cousins get an e-mailed peek at his first pitch  -- plus a shot of Joe throwing a fit because I won't take him to the concession stand to buy a Ring Pop. The best part: It's reciprocal. As I was writing this paragraph, an e-mail came in with a picture of my niece Katherine wearing a crown as queen of her Spanish class this quarter.

Christine and Gary, parents of three in Morrison, Colorado, go our family one better: Between them they have eight siblings, all with families of their own. After a large get-together, they post their digital photos on a photo-finishing website like Ofoto or Shutterfly, which allows customers to set up an archive of pictures and send e-mail alerts to people who might want to see them. Relatives who don't have a high-quality printer can order prints from the website for less than the cost of traditional reprints and postage.

And don't limit your visual correspondence to photographs: When Henry brings home an especially wonderful piece of artwork from kindergarten, I can scan it and send it straight off to his grandparents, who always call to tell him how beautiful they think it is.

Read, write, and review together. Set up a family book or video club, in which all the close-in-age cousins read the same selection or watch the same movie each month, then call one another afterward to talk about it. Or start a progressive story: Have your child write (or dictate) the "Once upon a time" beginning and then illustrate it. Send the emerging masterpiece off to a grandparent or cousin and have her do the next installment, then pass it to another family member and so on.

You may not wind up with a best-seller, but you'll certainly create something much more important: proof, in loving words and crayoned pictures, of the essential connection between your kids and their kin that will last for many years to come.

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