Beating the Disconnect

Ways to keep family relationships alive.

When Helen Gould first rolled over, Her parent’s Michael and Adonica Gould were proud, and her grandfather Richard Wyatt was there to cheer her on. And like most doting grandparents, he’s also there to experience the latest accomplishments of her older sibling, Ann, age 4 1/2, and Thomas, age 3. The only difference? Richard Wyatt and his grandchildren live 850 miles apart. But thanks to the wonders of modern technology they have an active, daily exchange.

The Goulds and Adonica’s father have taken the plunge into technology. “Grandpa Rich” is actively involved in his grandchildren’s lives as they voice-chat for hours at a time putting puzzles together, telling stories, singing songs or just visiting. On special occasions, they even video/voice chat, so he can see things “live,” such as when baby Helen first rolled over.

“Nothing creates more excitement in our house than saying Grandpa Rich is ‘on,’” says Adonica.

Michael acknowledges that when he and his wife relocated their family to Ft. Collins, Colorado a couple of years ago, it was “a blow” to the grandparents. Having moved outside the realm of weekend car travel to Adonica’s family in west central Illinois and Michael’s parents in West Des Moines, Iowa, they soon explored options other than seeing them in person.

The Goulds are part of a contingency who are determined to not let careers, logistics and all the trappings of modern life interfere with their relationships with their family.

According to a survey conducted by Harris Interactive, 90 percent of Americans agree that spending time with extended family is important, but 75 percent admit that staying in touch with family members can be difficult these days. They cite a variety of factors, from work or schedule conflicts to the high expense of traveling to lack of a host for the family gathering. Still, four in five respondents indicate a desire to attend family gathering more often.

An Attitude Difference

Since the September 11 attacks, many people in America have vowed to shift their priorities and put family first. Will these convictions last? According to Dr. William Doherty, a professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota and author of Putting Family First, only time will tell.

“Immediately after September 11, we heard a lot of people say that they were going to make family the first priority in their life,” says Dr. Doherty. “It’s too soon, now, to tell if that sentiment will have a long-term effect on our attitudes toward family. One thing is for sure, there are families out there who have been doing it successfully all along. Those people have committed themselves to making family their number one priority. And that is not easy to do today.”

While juggling family relationships among the chaos of dual-career households, social obligations, kids’ active schedules and daunting geographic divides, many people just find it less stressful to let extended family relationships fall by the wayside.

“In today’s world, we see a closeness among just the nuclear family— parents and kids in the same household. Staying in touch with extended family— aunts, uncles, even grandparents— require effort and a lot of planning,” emphasizes Dr. Doherty. “Many people just don’t consider family relationships when they start scheduling their lives. So, even if they want the relationships, they get squeezed out because of all the other commitments they make for work, kids, and social and volunteer activities.”

A contributing factor to why some people are better at staying in touch than others appears to be upbringing and family traditions. Those of us who spent our childhood attending family functions and communicating with relatives often extend that attitude into adulthood.

Young adults seem to be the most likely stray from family relationships. According to the survey, people without children are more likely to minimize the importance of family relationships and attending family gatherings.

Erin Mabe of Charlotte, North Carolina, is an exception. She and her husband Rick, who have been married three years, regularly make trips to her family in Virginia, and his in Tennessee and other parts of North Carolina. They also communicate weekly via cell phone and e-mail. And, Erin still follows a tradition started as a child by traveling to Ohio for her Dad’s family reunions.

“We definitely see our family as important,” states Erin, who is one of five children and dotes on her eight nieces and nephews. “Married without kids means we go where the action is.”

Tried and True Ideas for Connecting

Families who have managed to keep the connection alive have many tactics. Over 90 percent of us still rely on the traditional methods of letters or phone calls to promote contact. The second most popular method was relating stories of family life. Internet for exchanging photos or e-mail got the nod from just a little over half of Americans (61 percent).

  • Care packages, photographs and more. Exchanging items such as photographs, postcards, videos and care packages is an important way to keeping contact when you can’t be face to face. David and Judy Johnson have participated in fun communications within their families, including the “family” letter and the send-along gag gift. The family letter requires each recipient to add a new section before sending it on to another family member. The send-along gag gift works roughly the same way, except family members unexpectedly receive a tacky or wacky gift item, which must be sent on to another unsuspecting member of the family. Take lots of photos when your family is together and place them throughout your home. Not only will this help your kids recognize their family members when you actually are together, but the photos could inspire some great storytelling sessions.
  • Take a vacation together. There is no substitute for actually spending time together, and the extended family vacation is becoming more commonplace. Be sure to choose a location that can cater to all age groups in your family party. Also keep the agenda simple. After all, you want to spend time together, not just rush around from one tourist side to another. If you aren’t interested in group travel, just use some vacation time traveling to your family.
  • Keep Your Faith. Families that actively practice a faith tend to remain closer to extended family. One of the most obvious reasons is because religious events such as baptisms, first communions and bar mitzvahs create more opportunities for gathering.
  • Plan a family reunion. Dr. Doherty suggests that, amid such busy lifestyles, predictable rituals can help family reconnect. Set traditional dates for family gathering so people know year after year that the ‘Smith Family Reunion’ is always the third weekend in July. They will be more likely to put it on their calendars. If you’ve never had a family reunion, start one. You may be surprised to find out how supportive people can be. Most families just need someone willing to be the leader.
  • Use technology. The computer can be a great resource in not only sending e-mail, but also chatting and sharing photos or videos. Even cell phones have been beneficial with their money-saving calling plans.
  • Use kids’ activities. Children’s activities can also be a great opportunity for family bonding. For instance, if grandparents come to a child’s ballgame, make it a tradition to go out for pizza together afterwards. The Johnsons invited several generations, including Judy’s great uncle and parents, to visit for the children’s school play.
  • Establish rituals. Rituals can be yearly, monthly, weekly or even daily. Rituals are particularly comforting for children, but they can also benefit busy adults who need the predictability of knowing that every Sunday after Thanksgiving is the annual family turkey dinner.

People who cultivate extended family relationships are often more successful in their personal lives. Whether during times of great stress, such as tragedy, death or divorce, or during joyous events, such a weddings, births and graduations, being a part of a large group of people to count on for support and caring can make a huge impact on one’s life.