At a recent family reunion held on a small academic campus, we shared a breakfast table with three teenage students. During our conversation, one of them asked hesitantly, "So, why are you here?"
"We're here for a family reunion," I answered. Instantly, all three boys asked at the same time, "What's that?"
A little surprised, I stammered, "Well... it's where we get together with our family." Another boy chimed in, "You're all the same family? How many of you are there?" I replied, "About 200." He dropped his fork, "You're kidding! Where are you from?" "All over the United States." "Wow," the third said incredulously, "You mean everybody came just for this?"
"Yes," I continued, "to see our cousins and aunts and uncles that we haven't seen for a while." Their heads were cocked, and they had stopped eating. I was losing them. I explained, "We all share the same grandparents."
Three sets of eyes flew open, "You all have the same grandparents?" "Well, technically, they're my grandparents, and my children's great-grandparents." Now their eyes were glazed over. I had completely lost them.
Here were three boys with vastly different backgrounds, yet the concept of an intergenerational family was foreign to them. They could not comprehend it. Even after they left the table, their question wouldn't leave my mind.
What is a family reunion?
It is a time for fun and photos, but a family reunion is so much more. It is where stories of the past bring loved ones alive again. It is where children compare how much they've grown, and teenagers see where they got their red hair. It is where babies are passed around and adored. It is where young mothers learn how older cousins survived the baby years, and young fathers see they're not the only man with a child hanging on their leg. It is where widowed aunts share cherished memories, and Grandpa smiles through his pain as he contentedly observes the chaos.
A family reunion shapes our sense of identity and belonging, and reminds us we are part of something much bigger than ourselves. Our extended family shows us where we fit into the world. As relationship experts Richard and Linda Eyre explain in their new book, "The Turning," "Families are what tie us to those who went before and to the rest of humanity. They give us our identity, and it is an identity that we can build on and improve before we pass it on to our own children."
Family reunions help us build our identity and pass it on to our children, through connecting with extended family and sharing family stories.
Connecting with extended family
Connecting with extended family may be more important than we realize. Research shows that extended family connections help children to be happier, smarter, kinder and more resilient.
An Oxford study found that teenagers whose grandparents were actively engaged in their lives were happier. They had fewer emotional and behavior problems, and got along with their peers better. "Close relationships between grandparents and grandchildren buffer the effects of adverse life events," the authors concluded.
Sociologist Mads Jæger of the University of Copenhagen, discovered that first cousins resemble each other in how much education they complete. He observed that aunts, uncles and grandparents help children to be more resilient by compensating for resources that are lacking in their immediate family.
An important study from Brigham Young University showed that grandparents have a positive influence on their grandchildren that is distinct from parent-child relationships. Children whose grandparents were involved in their lives "were kinder to others outside their immediate family and friends - and, in some cases, smarter."
Dr. Jeremy Yorgason explained, "When [grandparents are] connecting with their grandchildren, they're teaching them things, they're helping them in ways that show up even a year later."
"It's so important for us, from one generation to the next, to leave a piece of us," one grandmother added. "We also can give them someone besides their parents to confide in. We teach them how to find safety with adults [and] we pass on our values."
Sharing Family Stories
Family reunions are also rich opportunities to share family stories. More than just entertainment, family stories are a powerful lifeline for the younger generation.
Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush from Emory University worked with children who were impacted by the trauma of the September 11 tragedy and noticed, "the ones who knew more about their families proved to be more resilient."
Family stories build a strong sense of "intergenerational self," which increases self-confidence. In fact, "the more children knew about their families' histories, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, [and] the higher their self-esteem."
Fortunately, family stories do not have to be perfect or trouble-free to have an impact. The authors explain that the most healthful stories include the family's ups and downs such as, "We built a family business. But we also had setbacks. We had a house burn down. Your father lost a job. But no matter what happened, we always stuck together as a family."
They conclude with this compelling advice: "If you want a happier family, create, refine and retell the story of your family's best moments and your relations' ability to bounce back from the difficult ones. That act alone may increase the odds that your family will thrive for many generations to come."
So what is a family reunion? It is identity, belonging, security and resilience. It is where the past and present meet to ensure that the future is alive and well. It is the big picture of life.
I wish I could meet our three young friends again and share what I've learned. Even more, I wish I could invite them to join our next family reunion - or better yet, begin one of their own.