Parenting Solutions: Growing Closer as a Family…Even if You've Drifted Apart

It is possible to remain connected in spite of today’s mobility and busy schedules.

Shortly after the birth of a baby boy, the parents quickly made calls to various family members sharing their news. The following day, this letter was written by the grandfather to the proud parents:

“Last night’s phone call brought us true happiness. Nothing else matters. The birth of J. B. Jr. put everything that is important into perspective. The birth of our boy, family, love…Hug the little guy and tell him that even though he is a tiny little fella, he has already enriched our lives.”

Those lines from a letter were written by George Bush, then vice president of the United States, to his son Jeb and daughter-in-law Columba. It was one of many such letters he wrote during a busy and demanding career as diplomat, ambassador to the United Nations, director of the CIA, vice president, and president. He forged strong and close ties with his family through the letters, and many are published in his book All the Best, George Bush: My Life in Letters and Other Writings (Scribner, 1999).

With today’s mobility and busy schedules, families can easily grow distant and detached. However, it is possible for families to remain close amid life’s various changes and challenges. Here are some ways for families to pull together rather than drift apart.

MAKE HOLIDAYS A POSITIVE EXPERIENCE

Thanksgiving and the year-end holidays may be the one time of year when many families come together. Ironically, an increasing number of people say they are becoming disenchanted about the holidays due to the stress they create and the materialism that has come to dominate December.

Try reminding yourself that December is an ideal time for family to reconnect and unify. This is what one family chose to do. “We decided as a family to make the holidays a time of family warmth, closeness, and spirituality, rather than allow them to be dominated by stores that never close, lists that never get completed, and tasks that never get done,” explained the father. “While all children received ample gifts, we did keep the expenses and numbers of gifts down, placing the focus on the reason for the season, as well as [making it] an opportunity to celebrate our growing, diverse, and talented family. The holidays would be a time when we were to enjoy each other, become reacquainted, and appreciate one another anew.”

USE THE INTERNET

Initially, some social scientists worried that the Internet would promote social isolationism. However, a recent study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project reveals that the Internet is effective in enhancing communications among families and friends. Some 72 percent of 3,533 adults surveyed said they had used the Internet to “visit” a relative or friend one day earlier. More than half said e-mail has improved family communications. Among women, 60 percent reported better contact with family.

Especially benefiting from the Internet are those frequent communicators who, not too long ago, regularly kept up with family and friends through dashed-off notes; sometimes tedious letter-writing campaigns; rushed telephone conversations; or numerous, lengthy phone calls that could produce monthly bills in the hundreds of dollars.

PLAN A FAMILY REUNION

As families grow and members move, it can become difficult if not impossible to communicate regularly with them. For that reason, many larger, extended families plan a yearly reunion when everyone can be in the same place at the same time. It’s not unusual for a family reunion to number from 50 to 350 people, all of whom gather to reconnect, share a common heritage, exchange warm memories, have a good time, and enjoy food.

Some suggestions for creating a successful family reunion include

  • forming a planning committee;
  • creating a theme for the reunion;
  • selecting an accessible location;
  • planning activities for adults as well as for children;
  • using the Internet to keep everyone informed of dates and details;
  • giving the family component of the reunion special attention. (An example would be recognizing and honoring the eldest member.)

PICK UP THE PHONE

Thanks to competition among telephone companies, the cost of a long-distance call is no longer as prohibitive as it once was. So, the next time you think of a family member in another city, state, or country, pick up the phone and connect.

Every month a man, who lives in the United States, telephones his five older brothers who reside in a family home in Ireland. For a half hour, they bring each other up to date, share memories, and relive boyhood days. (The “baby brother” who makes those monthly calls is in his 80′s.)

WRITE A HEARTFELT LETTER

In his book Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff…and It’s All Small Stuff (Hyperion, 1997), author Richard Carlson, Ph.D., recommends writing a heartfelt letter once a week.

“This is an exercise that has helped to change many lives, assisting people in becoming more peaceful and loving,” he says. “The purpose of the letter is very simple: to express love and gratitude. Don’t worry if you’re awkward at writing letters. This isn’t a contest from the head but a gift from the heart.”

If you don’t know how to begin, Dr. Carlson suggests writing short notes like this: “Dear Jasmine, I woke up this morning thinking of how lucky I am to have people like you in my life. Thank you so much for being my friend. I am truly blessed, and I wish for you all the happiness and joy that life can bring. Love, Richard.”

PUBLISH A FAMILY NEWSLETTER

This is an excellent way to remain in touch with far-flung relatives. It can be as simple as a one-page bulletin of family news sent off every few months or a more elaborate newsletter utilizing computer graphics and scanned pictures, shared with the larger, extended family.

Lisa Suarez Johnson is the editor of “It’s All Relative,” her family’s newsletter. “When it’s deadline time, my mailbox is filled. Before the newsletter, I wouldn’t have thought to visit a distant cousin in New York. Now, I feel like I know her and would love to drop by,” she says. Whether your newsletter is big or small, these tips can help you avoid making it boring:

  • Keep health news brief, omitting unpleasant details.
  • Ask for contributing reporters who can mail or e-mail stories about family.
  • Refrain from excessive bragging about your children. Simply put, this is usually of interest only to you. Instead, invite children to write their own stories.
  • Make introductions. Everyone may not know all family members. Introduce and explain a little about any person appearing for the first time.
  • Edit down. Shorter is better. If you have trouble condensing material, ask a friend to look it over, highlighting what is most interesting. Discard the rest.

BE PRESENT AT FAMILY EVENTS

As much as possible, do not allow scheduling or geography to keep you from attending important family events. Make the road trip when a cousin graduates from college. Do your best to be present at weddings, adding your blessings for the bride and groom.

PRACTICE THE FOUR A’S

Develop and ensure family closeness with these actions:

  • Acceptance. Remember each family member is a unique individual. Don’t try to mold anyone into your image. Accept and praise everyone for his or her uniqueness.
  • Attention. Make each family member feel he or she is special to you in some way. Respond to family members’ successes with praise and their failures with understanding and guidance.
  • Appreciation. Write a note of thanks for a kindness observed or one that was extended to you.
  • Affection. Demonstrate outward affection with a simple gesture such as a gentle pat on the arm or shoulder, an embrace, a hug. If you’re comfortable, verbalize your affection with the phrase “I love you.”

Finally, view your family through rose-colored glasses. See the best, believe the best, hope for the best, and work for the best. Be guided by this wisdom from Sir Walter Scott: “Have a deaf ear for unkind remarks about others and a blind eye to trivial faults.”

Victor M. Parachin, an ordained minister and former newspaper reporter, is the author of nine books, most recently, Healing Grief (Chalice Press, 2001).

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