Resurrecting the Role of the Extended Family

(More on Education after Easter)

Downtown Bend, Oregon

Downtown Bend, Oregon

The epiphany came to me one day, while I was chatting with a woman by the beautiful Deschutes River in downtown Bend, Oregon.   Her two boys were grown and she lived nearby within a block of both sons. She remarked on the joy she found in her grandchildren as well as the immense fulfillment she gained in remaining actively involved with their families. I, on the other hand, had naively assumed that our three kids would likely move away someday leaving Glen and I to live out retirement apart from them.  Wasn’t that the common American way?
New thoughts flickered within me that day igniting into a hopeful dream, one that I now see as the path God had designed for our family, and He orchestrated this “chat” down by the river to bring me into the loop!  Could we – would we- remain close knit and possibly even live near all of our kids when they married and had their own families?  The prevailing culture promoted the idea that healthy families keep a “safe” distance from each other in adult life, that an “empty nest” was something to look forward to.  Yet, I was well aware that other cultures held to an entirely different idea of family – a wider concept that included grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins – one that assumed ongoing closeness and interdependence.
I started to pray differently. Our kids did move out of Oregon and we found ourselves separated by distance from them for a season. But by God’s grace, and a few crazy circumstances, we ALL became Oregonian transplants living in Austin, Texas- in very close proximity to each other. And many common threads now knit us together on a daily basis.  Our family is the “village” in which the cousins are raised and trained. We value time together and enjoy each other.  Our kids are best of friends and accountability partners and they definitely keep “Oma and Opa” ( German names for grandma and pa) accountable as well. How great is that!
Perhaps you come from a close knit family and plan for it to continue with your children.  Or perhaps you come from a family marked by splintered and broken relationships, and you long for- yet don’t know how to seek after- lasting family closeness. Regardless of how your life has played out thus far, boldly seek after the desires God has placed in your heart.  Be intentional and PRAY!  I started to actually believe and act as if this dream could happen after “the divinely appointed chat”. And our family is a living testimony of how God answers prayers and how quickly life can change!
Ten years ago in Oregon, Glen was mentoring – and watching – Peter, a passionate and impetuous student/athlete who had fallen in love with our youngest daughter, Alisa. Today Glen and Peter serve together as teaching elders in our church here in Texas.  Stunning! Ten years ago, Troy was an independent college student in Spokane, Washington who rarely called or came home.  Today, I am blessed to work side by side with Troy and his wife Stevi at Veritas Academy. Astonishing! Ten years ago, Cam and Erin, newly married and struggling, put what little they had in storage and headed off to Costa Rica –to give themselves time to think and seek direction for their lives. Today, they are just about to complete the construction of their beautiful home, a stone’s throw away from our back patio. Amazing!
The home we had envisioned for ourselves at this age – a cozy “villa” with a back yard garden oasis and a sporty car in the garage – is instead a getaway for grandchildren complete with a sand box, a trampoline, a large field for ball games, a wooded hillside for building forts, and a broken down barn to create scary stories about.  Dr. Seuss and Nursery Rhymes fill our bookshelves.  Our coffee table stores toys. Rather than a sports car, our garage houses a green monster traction jeep made for 3 to 6 year olds!  Far from the quiet (and likely boring) lifestyle I envisioned as empty nesters, our “nest” is instead bustling with activity and vitality. We are living life and loving it as an interdependent extended family unit!
As I watch my adult kids supporting and enjoying each other and raising their children in a growing “village of cousins”, I think alot about what factors matter in determining whether families stay close.  Our adult kids and their spouses are super close now but what formed this special bond that has continued into their adult lives?  Thy certainly sparred as kids and even into their teen years and beyond!
The four cousins with one more arriving in September!

The four cousins with one more arriving in September!

First,  parents need to early on set spoken and unspoken expectations that place family relationships at a higher priority than other relationships.  In addition, a culture needs to be created within the family that values the unit, and not merely the individual. Educating and raising our children cannot merely be about developing their unique potential or about meeting their unique needs. While children are individuals with needs that are addressed separately and distinctly, they are also members of a family. Being independent and focusing on “me first” is ingrained in our culture and it takes intentional effort to consider the needs and values of the family as a whole.  If a close knit family is an ideal you aspire after, family values need to be kept in mind in the decisions you make. This is decidedly important in educational decisions, because education takes up a significant portion of your kid’s waking hours and plays a key role in shaping values and determining lifestyles.
In addition, families need to foster lifestyles that allow for time together – time to play and relax together, time to pray and worship together, time to work and problem solve together, time to regularly eat meals and chat together, and time to learn together.
The family today is under enormous pressure. Societal changes, along with humanistic teachings and values, have undermined the God-ordained structure and well-being of the family. The crumbling of the nuclear family has impacted the extended family as well with its many relational roots and ties. Without the loving support systems of grandparents and other relatives within the family, children lose their connection to historical roots and to the life stories that can profoundly influence their spiritual direction.
This family connectedness is something worth striving after. Not only does it create a broader, loving support structure for every member of the nuclear family, it also maintains a vital role for grandparents, who in their stage of life may need this kind of activity to create purpose and meaning within their  “empty nests” .
(Hats off to families who kids move away to be missionaries as is the case with my brother and sister in law.  I know that families can remain close while separated by distance yet I am immensely grateful that I get to experience both kinds of closeness.)