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.

Isolated Families

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.