13 Aug Family Reunion – What’s that?
August 13, 2014
Family Reunion – What’s that?
My family and I recently attended a family reunion on a small academic campus that hosts students from all over the world. During breakfast we shared a table with several teenage students, and struck up a conversation with three young men.
Finally one of them hesitated before biting into a blueberry muffin, and cautiously asked, “So, why are you here?”
I answered, “We’re here for a family reunion.” Instantly, all three boys looked up and said at the same time, “What’s that?”
A little caught off guard, I stammered, “Well. . . it’s where we get together with our family.” The boys looked at each other and one of them asked, “You’re all the same family?
With my mouth full, I nodded yes. Another repeated, “You’re seriously all the same family? How many of you are there?”
I paused and replied, “I think close to 200 by now.” He dropped his fork, “You’re kidding! Where are you from?” “All over the United States.” “Wow,” another boy said incredulously, “You mean everybody came just for this?”
“Yes,” I replied, “to see our cousins and aunts and uncles that we haven’t seen for a long time. . .” Their heads were cocked, and they had stopped eating. I was losing them. I tried to make it as simple as I could: “We all share the same grandparents.”
Three sets of eyes flew open, “You all have the same grandparents?” “Yes. Well, technically, they’re my grandparents, and my children’s great-grandparents. . . ” Now their eyes were glazed over. I had completely lost them. I don’t think they had ever heard the term “great-grandparent” before.
We asked them about their families. One young man told us he lived with his mother, who sent him to this school because “her financial advisor sold her on this place.” Another was born in China and had moved to California on his own. The third grew up in an inner-city, and was attending the school on a community scholarship. Here were three boys from vastly different backgrounds, yet the concept of an intergenerational family was foreign to all of them. They could not comprehend it!
After a while, our three friends finished their breakfast and said goodbye, but their question has consumed my thoughts ever since.
What is a Family Reunion?
Yes, it is a chance to connect with relatives we haven’t seen in a while. It’s a time for activities, water balloons, and family dances. But a family reunion is so much more. It is where stories of the past bring loved ones alive again. It is where children compare how much they’ve grown, and teenagers see where they got their red hair. It is where babies are passed around and adored. It is where young mothers learn how older cousins survived the baby years, and young fathers see they’re not the only man with a child hanging on their leg. It is where widowed aunts find a quiet corner to share a few burdens and memories. It is where a grandpa smiles through his pain as he contentedly observes the chaos.
A family reunion shapes our sense of identity and belonging, and reminds us we are a part of something much bigger than ourselves. Our extended family shows us where we fit into the world.
As well-known family and relationship experts Richard and Linda Eyre remind us in their new book, The Turning, “Families are what tie us to those who went before and to the rest of humanity. They give us our identity, and it is an identity that we can build on and improve before we pass it on to our own children.”
Family reunions help us build on that family identity, and pass it on to the younger generation, by connecting with extended family and sharing family stories.
Connecting with Extended Family
Family reunions are one way of connecting with our extended family, which may be more important than we realize. Research shows that extended family connections may actually help our children to be happier, smarter, kinder, and more resilient.
A study from Oxford University showed that teenagers whose grandparents were actively involved in their lives were happier. They had fewer emotional and behavior problems, and got along with their peers better. “Close relationships between grandparents and grandchildren buffer the effects of adverse life events,” the researchers said.
From the University of Copenhagen, professor Mads Meier Jæger found that extended family impacted children’s educational attainment. His research discovered that, “In addition to siblings resembling each other, first cousins also resemble each other with regard to how much education they complete.” He also observed that aunts, uncles, and grandparents help children to be more resilient, by compensating for resources that may be lacking in their immediate family.
An important study from the U.S. showed that grandparents have a positive influence on their grandchildren that is distinct from parent-child relationships. When grandparents stayed connected and involved with their grandkids, the children in both single parent and two-parent families “were kinder to others outside their immediate family and friends — and, in some cases, smarter.”
The lead researcher, Dr. Jeremy Yorgason explained, “When [grandparents are] connecting with their grandchildren, they’re teaching them things, they’re helping them in ways that show up even a year later.”
The good news is grandparents can be an important influence in their grandchildren’s lives even if distance separates them. “I don’t think that distance is a huge issue,” Dr. Yorgason offered, “If you live close to your grandparents you are more likely to spend more time with them, but you don’t have to be living nearby to feel emotionally close. A grandparent can live far away but you may feel very connected with them.”
As one grandmother summed up, “It’s so important for us, from one generation to the next, to leave a piece of us. We also can give them someone besides their parents to confide in. We teach them how to find safety with adults [and] we pass on our values.”
Sharing Family Stories
When Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush from Emory University worked with children who were impacted by the national trauma of September 11, they found that “the ones who knew more about their families proved to be more resilient, meaning they could moderate the effects of stress.”
They reported, “The more children knew about their families’ histories, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem, and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.”
Fortunately, our family stories do not have to be perfect or trouble-free to have an impact. Dr. Duke explained, “the most healthful narrative. . . is called the oscillating family narrative: ‘Dear, let me tell you, we’ve had ups and downs in our family. We built a family business. Your grandfather was a pillar of the community. Your mother was on the board of the hospital. But we also had setbacks. You had an uncle who was once arrested. We had a house burn down. Your father lost a job. But no matter what happened, we always stuck together as a family.’ ”
The authors noted that children who have a strong sense of “intergenerational self” have more self-confidence, and concluded with this powerful advice:
“If you want a happier family, create, refine, and retell the story of your family’s best moments and your relations’ ability to bounce back from the difficult ones. That act alone may increase the odds that your family will thrive for many generations to come.”
So if someone asked me again, how would I answer? What is a family reunion to me? It is identity, belonging, security, confidence, and resilience. It is where the past and present meet to ensure that the future is alive and well. It is the big picture of life.
I wish I could meet our three young friends again and share with them what I’ve learned. Even more, I wish I could invite them to join us at our next family reunion–or better yet, begin one of their own.
United Families International, President