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Family Reunions: A Time to Connect

For more than two million years, family and community were the same: our extended family was our community. Now, our extended family is often widely scattered, and our community is composed mostly of strangers. We may be fortunate to turn some of those strangers into friends, but most of the members of our community are not even known to us by name. This situation, coupled with our penchant for frequent moves to new communities of strangers, has led to a pervasive sense of loneliness and isolation in our society.

For these reasons, our relatives - even those we might not have chosen as friends - have a special meaning to us. With a friend, or even a partner, there is always the possibility of ending the relationship. With family, that avenue is rarely taken. Even if we have few social ties with a relative, we cannot change the fact of our relatedness. Because relatives share a history and hold a permanent connection to us, we tend to try a little harder to maintain a good relationship. This requirement of extra effort is good for us; it helps us to work toward achieving a loving bond. It also reminds us of the importance of unconditional love - love that is expected to be permanent and sets no requirements.

During the vacation season, extended families often gather together. A family reunion can, at least for a short time, re-establish the kind of shared communication, activities and special caring enjoyed for generations in small, natural societies. Be alert to the needs of mothers, especially new mothers. Mothers were never meant to have sole care of children. As every parent feels overburdened at times, watch for opportunities to help. Do not wait to be asked! Offer to carry the baby, tell the toddler a story, or play a game with an older child. You can benefit too: babies and children can be delightful companions if treated with gentleness and respect.

Vacations allow time to rediscover the natural world around us; in our rushed lives, the wonders of nature are often passed by unnoticed. If your outdoor adventures have lately consisted of rushed five-yard dashes between car and building, take some time to explore. Children have a special relationship with nature; they can be our guide to help regain an appreciation of the world of plants and animals, stones and stars. Once, during a vacation trip, a quiet walk with my son led to the world premiere (front row seats, no charge) of an extraordinary spider web in progress. This spectacular display of natural architecture remains my most vivid memory of that trip.

There is much to be learned when family members of different generations share activities, and a family reunion provides an important opportunity for children to spend time with those who are younger or older. However, while organized activities can provide such interaction, competitive games can bring about feelings of inadequacy, frustration and resentment, tempt children to cheat, and teach children that winning is more important than the feelings of others. There are many cooperative games on the market that provide enjoyment without conflict. FamilyPastimes offers an excellent selection of cooperative board games for all ages.

A reunion can also provide an opportunity to spend time with elderly relatives and to record their stories and their hard-won knowledge of life. Bring a notebook, family tree chart, camera, tape recorder or camcorder. Suggest that older family members bring photographs, journals, letters or diaries. Memories for My Grandchild by Annie Decker gives grandparents a place to record their memories and dreams.

Another good resource is Touching Tomorrow by Mary LoVerde, which offers suggestions on how to create an oral or video history of your family. A Family Affair by Sandra Clunies offers a comprehensive resource for planning family reunions.

If you have been burdened with feelings of resentment from a relative's past actions, it may help to consider that everyone acts in accordance with their own experiences of life, particularly those of early infancy and childhood. We cannot change a relative's past or present behavior, but we can learn to express our own feelings in ways that improve communication without contributing to the conflict. There are many excellent books on learning to deal with difficult interpersonal relationships and their past hurts. Nonviolent Communication by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg is especially insightful and helpful.

Above all, take the opportunity to spend unrushed time with a child. Go for a walk or sit on the grass and share your thoughts and dreams. And don't put this off. The single most common regret by the elderly - especially elderly men - is that they didn't share enough quiet time with their children and grandchildren when they had the opportunity. Remember the Chinese proverb: "The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time is today."

Jan Hunt, M.Sc., offers counseling worldwide, with a focus on parenting and unschooling. She is the Director of The Natural Child Project and author of The Natural Child: Parenting from the Heart and A Gift for Baby.