The bonding that takes place at a family reunion is incomparable.
My own cousins and I can go years without seeing one another. Yet when we get together, we laugh and cut up like no time has passed at all. And it's all because of family reunions.
I remember playing tag and searching for bugs in my great-grandmother’s yard when we were kids. We just did kid stuff, unsupervised, with whichever cousins were around. Meanwhile, the adults caught up with each other inside, leaving us completely on our own. Now that we’re all adults, our kids are doing the same at family gatherings.
When parents let their guard down, so do kids.
I don’t see my kids doing this with their friends in other scenarios. They seem to always want an activity to do together or some sort of structure. But recently at two different family gatherings, I saw my kids bonding with their extended family members of similar ages, engaging in free play without adult interference. They were getting along with kids they might not otherwise befriend, experiencing unparalleled independence and growth.
Despite being blood related, my kids and their cousins are not all being raised the same. Some are living in small towns, some in the city, some with parents living together, and some divorced. Our parenting styles are different, and naturally our kids are all different. Even within my own immediate family, my four children are vastly different.
When we gather with my extended family, I am amazed by how well my children get along with their extended family members. The crucial life skill of being able to independently navigate getting along with someone who is not entirely like them will serve my kids for years to come. I love that family reunions give kids a safe space to practice these skills and more.
What do you do when you're in an uncomfortable situation? You figure it out!
Learning how to handle different personality types and forge new connections can be a daunting task—especially for a child. Kids might go to summer camp and have to make an entirely new group of friends each summer. Kids have to do something similar at family reunions. Even if they get bored, they figure it out.
When kids are in a new situation or unfamiliar place, they have to figure out how to do this work—independent from the adults in their lives. This step toward independence is so important. They are making new friends on their own, which can create lasting memories and lifelong bonds.
Like summer camp, kids at a family reunion get a bit more space from their parents, who (myself included) tend to be a little more relaxed when their kids are around family. Those that wouldn’t necessarily let their kids roam around outside unattended are suddenly a bit more trusting because their children are with a group of kids that happens to be related.
The built-in trust kids have with their cousins extends to parents as well. From my own experience, I can say that I am less concerned with what my kids are actually doing when they're playing with their cousins than I normally would be. This is partly because I am just happy they get along so well. My excitement over the connections they are making with their family members outweighs my concerns about potential dangers.
It's a good thing when kids try things that make them uncomfortable.
Recently during a reunion, my inexperienced 7-year-old learned to climb a tree. And my 13-year-old roamed around the neighborhood with the other teenagers.
I might have questioned them doing this on their own in the past, but seeing them engage with their cousins in this way sparked joy for me. They lowered their inhibitions, and so did I. What I saw was wonderful. I could tell that my kids felt proud of being responsible and trusted to do these things. It was a confidence booster for them and a parenting win for me. We may not have otherwise experienced this if we were in a different environment.
Picture your child at recess on the first day of kindergarten: They don’t know anyone, their teacher is having a much-needed rest while the kids run amok, and they are expected to find a way to entertain themselves outside for half an hour. Naturally, they will be inclined to interact with other children during this time. And guess what? They figure out how.
Nobody explains to a kindergartener how to socialize or play at recess, but simple trial and error on the school playground will light the way. As the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on School Health notes, “Recess promotes social and emotional learning and development for children by offering them a time to engage in peer interactions in which they practice and role-play essential social skills.”
If adults were to facilitate these interactions, these same essential skills may not be learned like they are when they are experienced independently. We all know this, and I certainly saw it during the family reunion.
Family reunions can actually teach life lessons.
Just like on the first day of school, the kids at family reunions figure out how to communicate without the adults interfering. Even more than simply getting along, though, they seem emboldened to try new things and take more risks. I know my youngest wouldn't have climbed that tall tree on his own, but his cousins encouraged him. This built-in trust allowed both of my kids to connect with other kids on a different level than they do with kids they might meet at school or a park.
When we get together with family we haven’t seen in a while or a group of friends that we enjoy being around, we’re more likely to engage face to face and not be stuck on our phones the entire time. The kids see this interaction. Rather than sitting around listening to adults talk, they go outside or go play with one another. Often, this experience isn't mimicked in other scenarios on a regular basis.
My hope is that the independence my kids experience and the bonds they form during family reunions stick with them for years to come. I hope the lessons they learn while playing freely will serve them well as they grow. And as parents, let's remember this for ourselves as well. There's no reason we can't encourage this same behavior around the neighborhood and in public places with other kids and adults. Yes, family reunions truly seem to have a magical power, so let's keep that magic going.