Building Important Bonds with Your Extended Family
- Rob Parsons Author, "The Sixty Minute Family"
- 2011 30 Mar
My sisters, Val and Joan, never forget my birthday, nor do they forget Dianne’s or my children’s birthdays. I wish I could tell you that I never forget theirs – and I might be tempted to if I didn’t think they’d get hold of a copy of this book. Fortunately for me they still look on me as their kid brother and therefore afford me latitude I don’t deserve. But they are right not to forget – the extended family is important.
For many people of my generation, we didn’t have to try too hard to remember our extended family when we were young – for the very good reason that we saw them most days. Uncles and aunties might live in the same street as us, grandparents just around the corner, and grown-up siblings in the same house. In those days, a young mum didn’t have to buy a book on parenting to discover whether it was unusual for her first baby to cry most of the night. She had at least six parenting experts who lived within a half-mile of her – and she was related to all of them.
Today families can easily be spread across the country and even the world. But even if we have to work hard to overcome the geographical barriers, we should at least try to stay in touch. A recent survey found that 53 percent of people said they don’t see their family enough (11). The truth is that isolation is not good for us. The lack of people with whom to share problems and experiences can leave families without the day-to-day support they need and result in loneliness and frustration. One mum wrote, “I always wish I had my family here and failing that, real friends I can count on. It’s a real struggle for me each day to be on top of the issues I face daily as a wife, mother, and employee.”
And in addition to the physical isolation that often affects modern families, it could that our family has a history of hurts and offences. This is not unusual. One man put it like this: “I know that blood is thicker than water. The only problem is, when it comes to my family, most of it is on the carpet.”
We may have brothers and sisters we haven’t spoken to for years – perhaps after that silly row at the wedding or funeral – but more likely we will have extended family from whom we’ve just drifted apart. If possible, we should try to mend those fences – swallow a little pride and make that phone call.
The extended family is important for our children. It’s good for them to have an understanding of not just the “roots” of our family but the “branches”, and the wider family can also give them a strong sense of belonging and therefore security. And for a child it makes a huge difference to know there are people outside the immediate family who really care about you.
The Generation Game
Perhaps a good place to start is with a child’s grandparents. Now, this would surely be easier if all grandparents fitted the storybook image. It wouldn’t be hard to visit the hold lady with round, silver-framed spectacles who bakes her own bread and wipes her hands on her apron while telling the kids stories. But in the modern world, Gran might be quite different. She may be a successful career woman just reaching the top of her game, or busy going out each day loving her new-found freedom from responsibility for children. And Granddad may have decided that the pipe and slippers image doesn’t suit him and has taken up karate instead.
But if it’s true that life in modern families can sometimes be more complicated than in previous generations, it’s also true that most grandparents desperately want to be involved in their grandchildren’s lives. And in a world where so many people – especially young people – feel insecure and somewhat disconnected, children need their grandparents.
There’s a line in an African song: “When an old person dies, it’s as if a library burns down.” Your children’s grandparents often hold keys to that library – the knowledge of your family’s history. Perhaps that’s why in societies in which family life is strong, the elderly are listened to; they’re allowed to tell the stories of their life to the young, and they are honoured. That doesn’t mean they are always pleasant – the kind of folk you can’t wait to go on holiday with. But it does mean there’s a recognition that they play an important part in the task of helping children take their place in society.
The fact is that the values we pass on to our children are not only taught – but caught. The scary thing is not that our children aren’t listening to us – but that they are. And watching. It follows then that the attitudes our children have towards their grandparents (and rather, more frighteningly, the attitudes they may have towards us when we’re older) will be moulded to some extent by the attitudes we model. If we’re too busy to write to, visit – even telephone – our parents, then why should a teenager take the time to go to see Gran? But if we “honour” our older family members – speak well of them in front of our children, listen to their stories of younger days, and let the kids overhear us asking them for advice – we’ll sow seeds in our children’s lives that help them connect to their grandparents.
I can imagine what some of you are saying: “That’s all very well, but you don’t know how difficult my mother, and particularly my husband’s father, is.” Perhaps not. But I do think it’s worth trying hard in this area. It’s not at all impossible for your child to have a good relationship with their grandmother, even though you can’t get on with her as a mother-in-law.
As much as possible, try to give your parents quality time with their grandchildren. Not all grandparents come out of the same mould; some take to this new role easily, but with others we may need a little more patience. Some grandparents will love being asked to babysit, while others will be more reticent. If your need for a babysitter and your parents’ need to see the kids meet, that’s perfect – but don’t take it for granted. Talk about expectations with your parents and find a level of contact that works for everyone. Of course, relationships with one set of grandparents may become much harder after a marriage breakdown, but despite the difficulties, it’s worth trying hard to keep that connection.
Bill Cosby said, “Grandchildren are God’s reward for not killing your kids.” I’m pretty sure that’s not true, but I do know that the role of grandparent is a vitally important one in the life of a child. And I urge you to help build as strong a relationship as possible between your children and their grandparents.
Of course, sometimes children are separated by long distances from their grandparents, so here are a few ideas to help build a good relationship across the miles:
1. Ask your parents to record stories for your kids that you can play to them. It could be an event from their life or a story from one of your child’s favourite books.
2. Put pictures of their grandparents around – on a low shelf for younger children – so they can get used to how they look. It’ll make it easier for them when they visit.
3. Ask the grandparents to make a photo album that includes pictures of their surroundings – home, work, hobbies, pets. It will help your child feel they “know” them.
4. With younger children, send their artwork to your parents and ask them to send back a photograph of it on display in their home.
5. Ask your parents to send notes and postcards to your children now and again.
One of my favourite poems was written by a nine-year-old girl. She manages to capture the previous gift that many grandparents are able to give their grandchildren. Here’s a short extract:
Grandmothers don’t talk baby talk to us like
Because they know it’s hard for us
to understand it,
When they read to us, they don’t skip ages,
or mind if it’s the same story over and over
Everybody should try to have one,
especially if you don’t have television,
…because grandmas are the only
grown-ups who have got time.
*Taken from The Sixty Minute Family: An Hour to Transform Your Relationships--For Ever © 2010 by Rob Parsons. Published by Lion Books, Oxford, UK. Distributed by Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, MI. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.
Rob Parsons is the Founder of Care for the Family and the author of The Sixty Minute Father and The Heart of Success. Over half a million people have attended his live seminars.