Editor's note: This article was originally published on Power of Moms. It has been modified and republished here with permission.
My parents are very deliberate parents. They choose to have nine children and worked hard to raise us to be best friends. And now we live all over the country but crave each others' company and really want our children to know and love each other. So yearly family reunions are a high priority for all of us.
When we were young, we got together for several days each summer with my cousins and aunts and uncles at my parents' little 2-room cabin near a lake. Everyone brought tents and trailers and we had a great time playing in the water, catching lizards, and putting on talent shows. Then as my siblings and cousins started getting married and our numbers swelled, we started gathering with just my siblings and our spouses and children at a larger cabin my parents built by the lake. We gradually evolved from my parents taking the lead with planning the activities and agenda for the reunion, to each sibling and their spouse taking a turn doing the planning.
Whether you've got a small family or a large family, whether you gather for a few hours or several days, whether you've got a good-sized budget or a tiny one, here are three keys we came up with for creating a successful family reunion:
1. Clear responsibilities and expectations
It's really important to spread out responsibilities and make sure responsibilities are clearly defined so no one feels too put-upon and the important things get done. Here's what works for us:
One couple is in charge of the overall reunion each year. They make food assignments, put together a schedule, and assign others to conduct the specific activities that will go on during the reunion. To keep things simple, we just go in order of age when it comes to which family is in charge of the reunion each year (but of course, families can trade years if need be).
Each family is assigned a meal or two to plan and prepare. Many families opt to make the same meal every year and everyone looks forward to that family's specialty. Others like to try something new every year. Some like to do something more gourmet while others like to keep it simple. Whoever's around pitches in to help the family in charge with the chopping and prepping involved in their meal and great chats naturally happen during meal prep. Everyone's in charge of their own breakfasts since everyone likes to get up at different times. Then we do lunch and dinner together.
Every family handles expenses for reunions differently based on their financial situation and overall giving philosophies. My parents help with travel expenses for those who live far away from our reunion location. When it comes to food, my parents pay for all the food that can be bought at Costco for the 4 days of the actual reunion and we each pay for the food we need for our meals that can't be purchased at Costco. My parents provide the location (our family cabin they've had for 30+ years) and the cabin's upkeep is paid for by renters who enjoy the cabin during the parts of the summer when no family is using it.
The grandkids are assigned to groups based on their ages for activities and for clean-up duties. After each meal, one group does dishes, one sweeps, one clears and wipes countertops and tables while assigned adults supervise as needed. There's also a list of extra jobs that the grandkid groups can do to earn stars (clean a bathroom, vacuum a room, put away all the beach toys, etc.). At the end of the reunion, the group with the most stars gets a special prize (a special outing on the boat, a chance to have a sleep-over on the deck, that sort of thing).
2. Good balance between structured and unstructured activities
When we started having formal reunions, my dad planned a whole lot of discussions of interesting and important topics with some waterskiing and playing in the water in between meetings. But as the babies came along the logistics of formal discussions just weren't feasible and as we grew up and in-laws came along, everyone brought fun, new ideas to the table. We've found that 2 to 3 games/activities/meetings a day (about an hour each) works quite well. Daytime activities and games involve the kids and then by 9, all kids need to be in bed and we have time for adult discussions and fun games.
While some group activities come and go based on the year and who's in charge of the reunion, these simple, inexpensive and fun activities have become time-honored favorites:
Bonfire and Reunion Playlist
The first night of the reunion, we have a bonfire on the beach. We make s'mores and sometimes we go around the circle and quickly share our favorite moment from the past year or something like that. At the bonfire, the "Reunion Playlist" is always unveiled.
Before the reunion, each person (adults and kids alike) submit their favorite song from the past year to the reunion leaders (or their designated music chairs) who make a playlist (we get everything from country music to techno to classical to folk - great to learn to appreciate things outside the music we might usually listen to). At the bonfire, we play each song and everyone guesses whose song it is. If there's a particular reason why they chose that song, they can share that. Then, throughout the reunion, it's great to have the playlist going, everyone playing and dancing and cooking to everyone's favorite songs. Then after the reunion throughout the year, the reunion playlist is something fun to listen to in the car or around the house, reminding us of all the people we love. We're all really into music so this tradition really works for us.
We've done this for two years now and I think it's a keeper. The couple in charge gets some really weird foods (all fully safe to eat) and all the grandkids who who want to participate have things like seaweed, canned squid, lemons, canned jumbo mushrooms, sardines, etc., placed in front of them. If they eat the food in front of them in 2 minutes or less, they get to go on to the next round. Kids get little prizes for making it through each round and the kid who eats the item in question the fastest in the last round is the winner of a grand prize of a $15 Amazon gift certificate or something like that. Sure, some kids get a little sad when they can't quite eat the item in question and get "out," but they quickly join in the watching and cheering and it all works out great.
Every year we have a talent show. Everyone's welcome to put their name or their group's name on the sign-up sheet but no one has to participate. Numbers have to be 2 minutes or less and no one can participate in more than two numbers (got to keep the length of the show under control). We get everything from lip synchs to piano solos to back flips to funny skits to playing a video they've created. It's a great chance for cousins to work together on something and a fun way to showcase talents and interests.
Quite a few family members have participated in Ragnar-style relay races in the past few years so our reunion organizers created our own family relay race. They put us on 6 or 7-person teams that had a "real" runner or two on each plus quite a few non-runners and little kids. We "raced" for 12 miles and everyone on the team ran the distance that worked for them while the rest of their team trailed along in their team car. And once everyone on the team had the chance to run, we started over, letting each team member run again. Some people ran a few miles. Some people ran about 100 yards. And everyone cheered each other on whole-heartedly with our reunion music blaring. It was so much fun!
As we prepare food or sit on the beach with little kids playing in the sand at our feet, we talk. We make a point of getting a little one-on-one time with most everyone at some point during the reunion and enjoy learning about the things each other is worried about, excited about, working on, etc.
Hopefully the ideas here offer some food for thought as you think about the family you're working to create right now and what that family might look like down the road a ways.