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Family, Family, Where Art Thou?

Kids just want to spend time with Mom and Dad. That's the word from a recent poll on the subject, this one by The Associated Press and MTV.

And that's just what this last week before school has been about for us. We bustled everyone into the car for a 13-hour trip to see family in Maine and another even longer drive back, with some well-timed stops along the way to see the grandparents.

The drives were tiring, but well worth it when one of the boys said his favorite thing was spending time with Auntie and Uncle. It makes me long for the good old days that I've heard about in family stories, where all the family lived in one community. Alas, that's not the world many of our families live in today.

Today, family spreads across the country and across the world. We try to explain who the cousins are, who the aunts and uncles who live far away are. New babies arrive via e-mail and we show the pictures and tell the names. A big family event gets us together for a few days every couple of years, but it's just not the same as the stories. Dad heading over to his aunt's after school for lemon bars. Cousins forming their own stamp-selling company.

How do you instill a sense of family in your kids when your loved ones are spread far apart? Or do you live near enough your relatives that everyone knows everyone else?

By Stacey Garfinkle |  August 24, 2007; 11:00 AM ET  | Category:  Elementary Schoolers , Teens , Tweens
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Posted by: anonthistime | August 24, 2007 11:56 AM | Report abuse

My family & in-laws are scattered over 3 time zones - none with us in the DC area anymore. Digital photography has made it much easier to update the family on our son, although it still relies on us having the time to upload the photos to the web and we still haven't figured out how to post videos yet. The option of having prints sent directly to family members, though pricey, is great! More technologically proficient friends of ours with family in CA use web-cams. My SIL from Singapore uses Skype to talk to her family.

One baby shower gift we got for our son is a "Who Loves Baby" book with slots to put family photos in. At 14 mos he is still fascinated with it. Before he will see a relative he hasn't seen in a while, we print a digital photo to show him so he doesn't get stranger anxiety when meeting the relative in person.

Posted by: Erichan | August 24, 2007 12:14 PM | Report abuse

Fun topic!

Growing up, my mom's side of the family got together each summer for a full week. All of us cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents crammed into a three-floor condominium in Sun Valley, Idaho (a ski resort, generally - but we were always there in the summer!). We went swimming twice a day, took walks, fished, played cards, watched movies, and even got trapped on the non-working ski lifts several years in a row (you'd think we would have learned the first time it happened...).

One week each year produced enough memories, and enough closeness, that we cousins still email, talk, visit, and laugh together very often.

Posted by: nicole | August 24, 2007 12:45 PM | Report abuse

It seems to me that the extended family as a stable social unit has come close to disappearing in some parts of American culture. In my family, our close friends have become my son's aunts and uncles. It's a big and scary social experiment, I think not just for us but for much of our society, to see if these bonds will prove enduring and give us the sense of comfort and intergenerational connection that we used to get from our extended families.

Posted by: Rob | August 24, 2007 1:24 PM | Report abuse

I'm actually dealing with this issue today.

I have invited my sister-in-law and her family to come to our new house tomorrow. They live about 1.5-2 hr away and we haven't been able to meet up for birthdays or holidays since Christmas. She's had a busy summer with a lot of trips visiting her husbands friends who all just turned 40 so we planned this about two months ago. My children are 1 and 4 so we don't have a lot of extracurricular activities but her kids, 10, 6, and 4, do and my nephew may have a soccer practice tomorrow which may interfere with our plans. (He's missed practices because of trips and weather issues.) This isn't the first time we have had difficulty getting together so I feel confident saying that my sister-in-law does not put a high priority on extended family time. (This isn't to say she doesn't want to have this time at all.) It seems that often we don't make plans for a year because of the kids activities and it makes me sad because they live the closest to us and we see them the least (I also understand that they have other commitments, we do too). Even when we do get together it is only for a few hours.

I grew up in a large, close knit extended family, we saw most of them (usually at my grandmother's house) on a monthly basis, and I want that experience for my kids. It is difficult because of the distances, but my sister, who lives 6 hrs away (as do our parents), sees us 4-5 times a year. Either they travel here and we go there and spend whole days together. Her daughter and mine are good friends who talk about each other often when they are apart. (Our parents see us even more often but their time is more flexible.) My extended family (aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents) still make a big deal about getting together for weddings, anniversaries and such about once a year. My sister-in-law has said she wants this for her family too but hasn't done much to further the cause and I am always the one asking to make plans. I am not angry that we don't spend time with her family but I do regret that our kids won't be closer and I do feel like they are missing out because, in my experience, friends can come and go but family is forever.

Posted by: lizhd | August 24, 2007 1:58 PM | Report abuse

We're in the SF bay area. Grandparents on DH's side are deceased, and on my side they're 120 miles east near Yosemite. DH has one sister in the finger lakes area of NY. I have a brother in GA, one sister in ID, and one sister in a small town about 170 miles north of us.

The grandparents kind of "cut off" our kids about two years ago, so there's very limited contact there. Our boys talk on the phone semi-regularly with favorite aunts (SIL and CA S) and cousins. DH and I do the same for our nieces and nephews.

Whenever anyone out of state is traveling back to CA, all the family still in the state will gather at Grandpa and Grandma's house for a mini family reunion.

My generation reconnected most of the cousins in January at Great Grandmother's (my mother's mother) 100th birthday in TX. It's been fun finding out who's where now, and meeting the next generations. Yes, some of my cousins are grandparents.

I agree with Rob. Local friends are substitute aunts and uncles, and we have several friends' children who have that relationship with DH and me. I think it's okay because my siblings and I were moved around a lot, and our parents' friends had the same roles in our lives.

I don't think it's possible to have too many loving adults in a child's life. Generations of kids have found 'extended family' with teachers, scouting-type-organization leaders, ministers and other religious community members, and so on.

Posted by: Sue | August 24, 2007 2:09 PM | Report abuse

My husband and I both come from big families with lots of siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins. We live in DC, my family live in Philly and NY and most of his family live in Boston.

We just make it a priority to see everyone as much as we can. We take a trip to Philly every other month and we try to get up to Boston at least once a year (most times twice a year). We celebrate birthdays, holidays and other special occasions whenever we can.

I think for that reason, we'd never move any further away from the NE than where we are now. It's relatively easy to travel to Philly and Boston. Our son knows his family and the relationship is reinforced through pictures and the phone. Making our family a priority and getting together often is really important to us.

In the meantime, we have lots of surrogate aunts, uncles, and cousins here in the DC area. :-)

Posted by: bindc | August 24, 2007 2:34 PM | Report abuse

Our family is definitely far flung and I miss them. My sister, bro SIL and I live in four different states with my parents & in-laws in a fifth. We use video calls online for the family that have high speed internet. Sadly, my parents don't as they live in a very rural area. We all meet up in the state where my parents and in-laws live about 3-4 times a year. Growing up my cousins lived all over and we met about twice a year, including an intense week in July. I do still feel very close to them and as the 14 of us migrate we often end up in the same cities which as been fun. I hope my kids are as close to their future cousins as I am to mine (and was somehow able to achieve that living far from most of them). I think as more of the next generation is born (my son is the first) it may get more complicated. We are strongly considering moving back to be nearer family even though it will be a career hit as family is our priority. As for friends as surrogate aunts and uncles we are already seeing that and it is kind of neat as it lets you be part of a family even when yours isn't nearby.

Posted by: alexandriamom | August 24, 2007 3:26 PM | Report abuse

I live in So. Cal close to both my parents and in-laws, also one brother and his family. My kids are very fortunate to to see everyone weekly. One Sib has moved to NY and one to Hawaii. For the past few years the Hawaiian cousins have been coming to SoCal for a month and we've been taking a road trips up north to visit cousins and friends for at least a week during their stay. The six kids (ages 7-15) now have pleanty of stories about family (good/bad/embarassing)and have formed very close bonds just as my siblings and I did with our cousins who all lived in town when we were younger.
I can't overstate the value of these trips for both the parents and the kids. Of course we all love going to visit and having mini-reunions in Hawaii.

Posted by: CAMom | August 24, 2007 3:34 PM | Report abuse

I think you are doing what should be done- making specific plans and trips for family stuff. I know things can get hectic, but if you really make it a priority to plan and then make the journey, it's definitely worth it.

I certainly plan on convincing my sister to let me keep the boys for a week or more during the summer when they are older.

Posted by: Liz D | August 24, 2007 4:10 PM | Report abuse

You might start by not being an "Angry Mom" (see the last post). One key to being a good relative (and good parent) is to remember that people are more important than dietary plans, and love and tolerance are more important than perfection.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 24, 2007 4:29 PM | Report abuse

My family is scattered, but each year we have a 4 day family reunion on a mountaintop in Alabama. It used to be a time that all the distant cousins got caught up becasue immediate families were close together, but in recent years, it is first cousins catching up as well as distant relatives. My children love seeing everyone and hearing about where they all live. They are also at teh ageas where they can travel to visit realtives themselves (10,8 and 6). This year, they spent a week in Texas with grandma, a week in new orleans with a Great Aunt and a week in Raleigh with another great Aunt. They had a ball and are writing letters and cathing up over email. Great opportunity to learn to travel, be a guest and learn more about their heritage.

Posted by: Former NoVa Mom | August 24, 2007 5:06 PM | Report abuse

Posted by: kim | August 25, 2007 5:18 PM | Report abuse

Posted by: kim | August 25, 2007 5:18 PM | Report abuse

This isn't a new thing for everyone - military families have lots of experience dealing with far-flung families who can't just drop by to babysit at the last minute. I was a military brat; when I was little we saw members of the extended family only for very special occasions. (When both of my younger sibs were born, we flew back to the US for a few days to visit the grandparents and great-grandparents and show off the new baby; when we lived back in the States we would occasionally drive up to see my Gram or aunts & uncles at Christmastime.)

What do you do? Well, just the commonsense stuff. We sent presents, notes and cards back and forth at birthdays and holidays; my parents called their folks every now and then to talk. My mother emails with her aunt, and one of my uncles on my dad's side set up email accounts for myself & my sibs when we were teenagers and we emailed occasionally with him. Gram got school photos of us, and we always had photos of cousins around.

Of course it isn't the same as having an extended family close by, but it's all in what you're used to. I love my gram and I get along with my aunts, uncles & cousins, but I think I'd go nuts if they lived nearby. I live a good 2+ hours from my parents, and to me that's still pretty close. When I was a kid, though, my parents always formed a close social circle at the chapel wherever we were stationed, and they helped us make friends at school. My parents got to know the neighborhood teenagers so they could usually find someone to babysit on a Friday night if they needed to, and between my parents' friends and my friends' parents there were always adults around who I knew I could talk to if I had questions I just couldn't ask my Mom.

As an adult, that's still pretty much how I operate - friends form a build-your-own kit for extended family. I have a far-flung household with its fair share of weirdos, geniuses, dramatic personalities and mostly just normal folks. We care about each other, irritate each other, watch each others' kids and call to check in if we haven't heard anything in awhile. We give each other unsolicited advice and roll our eyes at each other's quirks. We aren't related, but the net result is about the same. I don't think it's having extended family nearby that's so vital; it's having a support network, whether or not you share DNA.

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