3 Things Every Family Needs

Family – at least the construct traditionally defined as two opposite-sex parents and their biological children – was considered the norm (and by extension, the “best” for kids) for most of the last century. But no longer.

The notion of family has moved away from rigid structures and defined roles, morphing and expanding significantly. From step to extended, blended to adoptive, gay to single, multi-cultural to co-parent…what makes a family the best one for children is one in which there is the greatest amount of three vital ingredients: love, safety and acceptance.

And it doesn’t matter which adults that love and acceptance comes from. Of course kids need what “parents” can do and contribute to children, but you don’t need a “mom” and a “dad” to take optimum care of children and give them what they need to become healthy adults.

I’m not saying traditional families aren’t valuable or sound, but its not the only way to parent intentionally or effectively. No matter your current situation, it’s always a plus to invite other people into your family circle – through your community, church, school or other affiliation – who can help you create the type of family you know is best.

I tell my kids all the time – still – that the rest of the world can say all it wants about them, but they can count on the fact that our family will always be the safest place on earth for them.

And just for the record, our family isn’t just the 4 of us.

For starters, it’s me, my 3 young-adult kids, my ex-husband and our two extended families, which include stepsiblings. Add to that my ex’s wife, her parents, my boyfriend and his family, plus a coterie of adult friends and their kids who have been welcomed into our family (and us into theirs) over the years, and you get a sense of just how broad my notion of family has become.

Here are a few real-life examples of how that works:

Because of my ex-husband’s schedule, he was unable to attend our youngest’s recent parents’ weekend at college. So his wife joined me instead and the 3 of us had a great time exploring the campus and town together.

Then there’s our holiday plan. Since there is a finite amount of time all 3 kids can be together over the winter break, we’ve decided all of us, including the kids’ father and his wife – will go on an unbelievable cruise to Antarctica together! 

This one I just love: A couple of years ago, my youngest son Quincy and I were at an event and we were introduced to a gentleman. When he found out my son’s name was Quincy, he said, “How unusual! You’re the second ‘Quincy’ I’ve heard about this week.” It turned out that Quincy had sent his stepmom an email requesting donations to a charitable organization with which he was engaged. She had forwarded it to her father. “Grandpa” not only made a donation himself, but he forwarded the email to his vast list of contacts. The man at the event? He was one of those contacts and he, too, made a donation to Quincy’s cause!

So if you feel constrained by society’s once-meager definition of family – broaden it! For sure, kids need what “moms” and “dads” can do and give to them – but those roles needn’t be defined by gender or biology. So go ahead and welcome in trusted people who will model and bestow the love, safety and acceptance every child needs to become a loving and accepting adult.

There is so much in life we cannot control – but we can control who we let into our children’s lives and our homes. The best part about it is that we each get to choose who’s in our family, making sure our kids get the maximum amount of love, safety and acceptance available.

Now that’s a family I want to be a part of.

 

Thankful for Friendship

Gratitude is a big part of my life and my happiness.  I spend time actively thinking about what I am grateful for and find the practice lifts my mood and enhances my life. Thanksgiving provides an opportunity to write about gratitude; this year I am thankful for friendship.

I have collected friends my entire life.  I met my oldest friend in kindergarten and we have shared a 46-year friendship (and counting). I have an amazing group of friends from middle and high school who know the secrets of adolescent shenanigans; college friends who helped edit papers and now read my blog.  My friend from graduate school who I connected with on day one has remained my friend for 26 years. Friends met through my children; friends made while volunteering in my community; family members who are also friends; colleagues that became friends.

Friends are the family you choose.  And I have chosen well.  My friendships have sustained me through the hardest times in my life and added to my joy in the best times. My friends have stood by me; taken care of me; laughed with me and cried with me. Friends have challenged me to be my best self; helped me see the light at the end of the tunnel; hated my enemies.  My friends have loved my children; supported my ideas; answered my calls.  Friends have given me the benefit of the doubt; forgiven bad behavior; agreed to disagree.  My friends have championed my efforts; celebrated my successes; acknowledged my feelings. Friends have lent an ear, offered a shoulder, and provided a hug. My friends have enriched my life beyond measure.

And…my friends have made me a better mom.  Thank you for loving my children like your own.  Thank you for seeing their strengths and challenges; for celebrating their successes and supporting them when they have struggled.  Thank you for being adults they can count on; thanks for being advisors, mentors and role models.  It takes a village and I am profoundly grateful for mine.

Thank you friends.  Happy Thanksgiving!

Tips For Keeping Grandparenting The Great Gig That It Is!

The official commemoration of Grandparent’s Day is the Sunday after Labor Day, but most grandparents will tell you that every day is grandparent’s day if you’re lucky enough to be one!

I suspect you’ve heard (or said!) some variant of this: “I know I’m biased, but my granddaughter / grandson is one of the smartest / most creative / most coordinated / most [you-name-it!] child I have ever known.” 

It’s a great job if and when you get it – and everyone benefits from intergenerational relationships. Let me enumerate the benefits first…and then I’ll share a few tips for hanging on to this plum assignment!

Values of GrandParenting

The Job Description Can’t Be Beat.

Hands down, the #1 reason grandparenting is so great is that you get all the fun of being a parent without any of the responsibilities! Revel in your special role as cheerleaders, spoilers, supporters and bestowers of unconditional love.

You Get to Share Your History and Passions

Grandchildren, particularly as they grow up, look to grandparents for their perspectives and advice. So share your values, your family history and what life was like for you at their age.

Share your passions, too. My parents are great art lovers and collectors, and they’ve shared this with my kids both in terms of cultural outings and gifts of art. Of course my kids appreciate the inherent value of the works, but they truly treasure being a part of their grandparents’ legacy.

Even so, it’s not the “stuff” grandparents give; it’s the connection. My mom always sent my kids little things to let them know she was thinking of them. Pinecones she collected on a walk…a random purchase on the street…a funny postcard. My kids loved receiving it all.

The Gifts (of Health) Keep On Giving

Being a grandparent can help older adults stay active, which often translates to better health. There are mental health benefits as well.

One study demonstrates that women who spent one day a week caring for young grandchildren may have a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s and other cognitive disorders. Another studied examined the link between quality grand-parenting relationships and depression and found that if the relationship is a high-quality one and support is mutual, both grandparents and grandchildren experience reduced incidence of depression.

You Can Help Out When / If You Want

Many grandparents have the economic freedom to defray education or medical costs for their grandchildren. If you have the means and want to help, it’s a great feeling. And typically there aren’t any negative tax consequences.  My children and I are grateful for the college tuition assistance and also recognize my Dad’s commitment to their education.

When it comes to your time, it’s up to you to set limits based on your energy and availability.

How to Keep the Gig!

Let Parents Rule.

Parents have a major role to play in the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren in that they set the rules and determine the consequences for the moral and ethical education of their kids.

One grandmother I know has the right approach. She says she always lets her daughter and son-in-law make the parenting rules – and she never shares her opinion on anything except to admire it. “I might not always agree with them, but my opinions are not on the table. The kids are their responsibilities to raise and our responsibility to love.”

Adopt the Right Tone.

Don’t be judgmental. Your grandkids will experiment with tons of things that may be foreign to you. Unless your grandkids are into something dangerous, keep your opinions to yourself. Respect and honor their choices about food, hairstyles, clothing, etc. Unsolicited advice or commentary is often heard as criticism and may be alienating.

p.s. Don’t be hurt by the occasional sassy comment. Kids can be insensitive, but it’s often age-appropriate and not intended to be rude or disrespectful.

Learn to Use Technology.

If grandparents want to have full access to their grandkids, they have to get proficient with the technology their grandchildren are using. My kids never listen to voicemails, so my Mom knows that if she wants to get in touch, she needs to text them. And while Facebook may be the preferred social media for baby boomers, their teen and tween grandkids are much more apt to use Instagram or Snapchat.

Stay Involved.

Don’t always wait for an invite. Offer to help by taking the kids out for an afternoon if you’re local or for a visit if you’re long-distance. Other ways to stay involved is to gift parents with a cleaning service or a spa afternoon. Remember how overwhelming it was for you as new parents and do something you might have appreciated.

But don’t keep score on who is contacting whom. If you want to stay engaged with your grandchildren, reach out to them.

Make Your Home Welcoming

A kid-friendly home makes visiting much less stressful for everyone. Make a quick sweep around the house to remove breakables and irreplaceables. If possible, borrow, rent or buy things like strollers, pack-n-plays, high chairs and even bikes so your kids don’t have to schlep them. And stock some fun toys and children’s books.

What if there aren’t any grandparents in the picture, either by death or lack of interest?   

Building a tribe is always the best solution – even when grandparents are in the picture. One friend of mine, who regularly volunteered at a senior center, unofficially 'adopted' grandparents for her kids.

If you’re the type that would like a more detailed primer on how to be the perfect grandmother or grandfather, check out the American Grandparents Association for resources, tips and other perks.

Either way, enjoy the best job in the world!

 

 

Two Traits Broaden Meaning of 'Family'

Since Thanksgiving Day I’ve been pleasantly surprised to hear from a number of folks whose holiday table was characterized by an untraditional array this year.

I’m not speaking of food…but rather, of the people who shared in the feast. Along with family there were close friends, longtime neighbors, even a chummy coworker. Clearly, friendsgiving is a “thing.” And I’m a fan.

Billed as a celebratory dinner with friends that occurs either before or after the traditional food fest with family, I advocate that “friendsgiving” become the new model for comemmorating all of life’s festivities. A new model for living, even.

This is not an anti-family rant – not by a long shot. Family is hugely important to me. It always has been. Family is my anchor; a place of safety and acceptance in a not-always-kind world. That’s why I prioritized that my kids would have a strong sense of both their nuclear and extended families.

But here’s the difference. My notion of family goes broader and reaches deeper, deliberating drawing into my orbit those who, were I able to choose, would also have been blood sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles, elders and sages.

Given how different families look today than even a generation ago, expanding one’s notion of family isn’t that large a stretch. What I’m advocating is making it intentional. Actively choose to create a large circle around the table. Parents and children alike are navigating an evermore complicated and challenging world. It makes little sense to build walls. In fact, it’s this broader sense of family, of community, that is precisely how families will thrive.

So, what are the traits…the touchstones…by which I measure who becomes family? The list is short but powerful:

1.    Shared core values. These are the values I, as a parent, continually model for my children. Values like compassion, big-heartedness, gratitude, fairness, respect.

2.    Deep capacity for love. These people have the capacity to see beyond themselves and feel others’ joy and pain. People who love my children (almost) as much as I do.

When these are the touchstones for this new notion of family, everyone benefits. Kids have even more adults they can go to with problems and concerns. Adults get an unparalleled network of supportive, loving people who can share burdens and celebrate success. And we all get a safe place to take risks, try new ideas, and explore and experiment before broaching conversations in the wider world.

In short, it’s a recipe for a full, rich, expansive life. And who wouldn’t want that around their table?