Give your children the gift of relatives

I want the parents of Vashon to give their children a gift. A gift that is priceless, doesn’t cost a thing and one that will last a lifetime. I want Vashon parents to give their children the gift of extended family. I want your children to know their aunts and uncles, grandparents, cousins and as many other family members as possible.

Without a doubt, children that know, spend time with and learn to appreciate their extended families have a chance to be healthier and happier. Extended family can help children believe in themselves, give them a greater sense of community, provide a sense of security and an understanding of a truly positive relationship.

Extended family will love your children without judgment, yet be ready to judge misguided behavior in such a way that they know they are being loved in the process. Children who gain an appreciation for those of all ages are richer. There is much to learn from elder relatives and from the experiences of those who share your lineage.

If you are estranged from your family, I encourage you to reconnect and take steps to repair your relationships.

If you are far removed from your family by geography, find ways to connect using the many methods available to us today. E-mail, text, Skype, call and even write your extended family, introduce them to your children and let your children know who these people are and why they are important. And when possible, arrange for an in-person visit. Keep your extended family informed about the growth and accomplishments of your children. Let them praise your children and spoil them with adoration.

Some of you may be saying, “I don’t have any family,” or, “Our relationship is irreversibly estranged.”

You can, as many have, create a surrogate extended family. I’m not suggesting that you indiscriminately find someone walking down the street and ask him to pretend to be your child’s uncle. I know there are risks.

What I am suggesting is that you look to the relationships you have with other adults and their children and redefine them. Establish active and frequent lines of communication with your surrogate extended family. Put in place traditions that can be counted on and let your surrogate extended family become your family.

We do all we can these days to give our children opportunities to learn: ballet lessons, soccer games, piano practice and martial arts classes. But watch the magic as your child learns how to play the guitar from his grandfather, to work on a car from her uncle, to bake cookies from Grandma or to dance from that slightly wild aunt. Strong relationships will evolve; they make spirits strong and give us resilience and resolve.

I’m not saying there is anything wrong with a strong single or double parent home. Quite the contrary, that’s where it all starts. The value of the extended family will be directly affected by the value you as a parent put on it. A child needs to see you set the example. When your child sees you lovingly interact with your mother, you can bet she’ll be more likely to treat you the same way.

This will take work and perseverance. There will sometimes be strife, but even that can teach a good lesson. You get angry or upset with your sister, but you resolve it and move on. Your child sees love and connection win out over bitterness and hate.

I’m not so naive as to believe you can suddenly take your 17-year-old son to his great-aunt Mary’s to see her tea cup collection. For the best results, it’s a lifelong process. Start early on. If you haven’t been doing so, then you’ve missed an opportunity, but you haven’t missed the chance to get the ball rolling. It’s never too late to bring something positive to a child’s life.

What’s my basis? What does the research say? Well, I looked at a few studies. None were as straightforward as I am being, but they all support my premise. I also asked some of the counseling staff here at Vashon Youth & Family Services, and all agreed that extended family adds value to a child’s life. But mostly I’m convinced after watching thousands of families over the course of the last 35 years that I’ve worked in social services that kids with a strong extended family connection have been given a gift.

So send an e-mail, pick up the phone or rap on a door and say, “Mom, Dad, Jimmie and I want to visit this afternoon.”

And over time, watch the magic happen.

— Ken Maaz is the executive

director of Vashon Youth

& Family Services.

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