Making Time for Extended Family (10 Things I’m Glad we did for our Kids, Part VIII)

My kids always loved big family gatherings.  All the cousins ran around in a screaming pack, several generations of adults conversed happily past normal bedtime, and food was on low tables for unsupervised grazing.

My kids seemed to experience a wild joy at these holiday and birthday get-togethers. I recall, for example, a time in a restaurant with my in-laws when our normally well behaved kids started running, squealing, around the table.  They had the exuberance and oblivion of puppies.scan0021

For years, my sister and I couldn’t get our kids separated to go home without two or three of them dissolving into fits of tears and having to be carried. We would try to say goodbye to one another over the racket, squinting through the flailing arms of our heartbroken toddlers. They didn’t see why we couldn’t all live together. (Maybe we should!)

I think that being with extended family is when many of our kids feel happiest, safest and most loved. Even in conflicted families, bonds are ancient and powerful, and being together shuts out the other stresses of life for a while.

Not that it’s always easy to get together. My husband’s family is six hours away in Chicago, and even with my family here in Cincinnati it’s a logistic miracle when we get everyone together. Nevertheless, it’s always worth the effort.scan0020

When our kids were little, it took heroic efforts to get them to Chicago. We could cram three kids, three car seats, strollers, portable cribs, suitcases, diapers and baby food, into our van and head north several times a year, alternating families for Christmas and Thanksgiving. So every second Christmas, the load was doubled with huge opaque bags of stockings and gifts that Santa wanted them to open in Chicago on Christmas morning. Watching the joy of reunion between our kids and their grandparents, aunties, uncles and cousins, was more than enough payoff for all the work of getting there.

I feared that our children would have less desire to get together as they got older, but now that they’re young adults, they seem to enjoy the sense of belonging more than ever. I’m surprised at how rarely they have ever missed a gathering. Short of being overseas or unable to get off work, they have made it a priority.img_20160408_190559646

I’m aware that many people have family so far away they can’t get together as often as they would like. Many more have families they just don’t enjoy being with. Some families are so toxic that the most responsible thing people can do is keep their kids away. I think in these cases, it’s well worth the effort to cultivate an ‘alternative’ family, a group of people you devote yourself to over time, who are close enough and available enough to spend holidays with.

I’ve noticed that at the best of these gatherings, there is not a lot of talk about how anyone is performing at work or at school. It’s a blessed break to be with a group of people who accept you because of who you are, and don’t measure you for your achievements. That, ideally, is the greatest gift of extended family –  it’s the crowd that loves us no matter what.

We Scheduled Listening (10 Things I’m Glad we did for our Kids, Part VII)

I’ve had some fabulous experiences of the power of listening and being listened to. They convinced me to make it a priority to listen well to my kids:

  • There was this class at church, “Listening for Heaven’s Sake,” where we worked in groups of four to practice new skills. ie. Person 1 shares something personal with Person 2, Person 2 listens and summarizes what she heard, including any feelings she picked up. 3 and 4 then give feedback to 2. Then everyone switches. I’ve never had a more effective learning experience, or realized how much I needed to improve at listening.
  • I was hired to teach, “Magic Circle,” a program where young kids go around a circle, taking turns saying something in response to a prompt, such as, “A time I felt happy.” Only the kid holding the stuffed animal gets to speak. After everyone has had a turn, they go around again, and each kid says something they heard another kid say. It was so powerful for the children to experience being heard that I started using a similar approach with older groups.  One teenage guy, super attractive and popular, told me that our weekly check-in was the only time all week when he felt that someone really listened to him.
  • I got a Masters’ in Counseling from the University of Cincinnati, and the program had an excellent emphasis on empathy, warmth and respect. We practiced listening, and making only,  empathetic responses for twenty minutes at a time. It’s amazing how deep people will go when you only listen and reflect back what you’re hearing.

After all that, I’ve had no excuse as a mom not to listen well to my kids. But even after those great experiences, I find that two things can get in the way:

  1. Being too busy: You’re not going to listen well when you are task driven. And kids, especially teenagers, don’t spill their guts on your schedule. It’s on theirs, when they’re sensing a good connection. So I make sure to sit down with them at dinner most nights, ask a few questions, and mostly listen. Even if they’re eating at different times, I try for a few minutes a day with each one, when they have put down their devices and taken a break from homework. If they seem troubled and don’t talk about it, I’ll try again later when they’re alone, ask for five minutes and say something like, “Tell me about your life.” If they still don’t have much to say, I try not to push. They’ll come  when they’re ready, but we have to keep giving them windows.
  2. Giving too much advice: Nothing kills disclosure faster than unwanted advice. So, for example, if a kid admits they have fallen behind in their school work, it’s hard not to say, “Have you asked for help/communicated with your teacher/ stopped watching four episodes of ‘The Flash’ in a row?” When I bite my tongue though, and listen, then say something like, “Sounds like you’re feeling trapped under the load,” then I usually end up hearing them come up with their own plan for how they’ll climb out. Of course, younger kids will need more direction, but they still need to be listened to first.

It is so painful when communication between parents and kids breaks down. It’s not always the parents’ fault. Sometimes kids are hiding something, or pulling away in clumsy reaches toward maturity. But there is an incredibly strong bond between parents and kids; that’s how God made us. So careful, patient listening is going to lead to a good connection in most situations. Eventually!