The Importance of Extended Family Relationships to Children
by Dr. Dale V. Atkins, October 2009
Extended familial relationships can play significant roles in children's lives. Whether you are a grandparent, aunt, uncle, cousin, or godparent, you can fill a valuable role. As an active listener and storyteller, you can expose children to the family history, legacy, and experiences they would not have with their parents.
Each individual offers a fresh and different perspective. Extended family members contribute their unique views on life which reflects their values. Children get the benefit of learning about their family from other points of view. They also can appreciate different personalities and lifestyles in what will hopefully be a loving environment. These extended family members offer separate and valued relationships that provide a window to another generation, time, and way of looking at the world.
If you are a grandparent, uncle, aunt or cousin, you must remember that you are not the child's parent. Parents and extended family members need to have reasonable expectations regarding roles, responsibilities, and decision making. With young children, there is often an expectation that other family members can and will perform childcare responsibilities that may or may not be appropriate or possible. Sometimes, because of their own needs, parents do not realize or appreciate how physically and emotionally tiring it can be to care for young children, especially when those giving the care are older people (even if those older people are in great shape and seem younger than their years). Consider what is feasible and clarify with all family members what will or will not work so that you can avoid misunderstandings and resentments.
Extended family members need to be there in a positive, supportive way for children and one way to do that is to avoid talking badly about the children's parents (especially when there is a divorce.) Family members must be respectful and stay out of parenting issues. If you are not the primary parent and you see something that you feel needs to come to the attention of the parents, raise it uncritically and compassionately. Leave the children out of it.
Look for ways to form strong bonds with children by doing things together, even if you are miles away. Be in touch regularly and be aware of what is going on in their lives. Share what you are doing and how you spend your days. Find out what the child's interests, hobbies, favorite activities are learn about them.
Respect the privacy of the family and understand that you will be more valued when you are someone the children want to be with. Be loving, fun, flexible, interesting, accepting, uncritical and filled with joy. The children will find you irresistible.
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