How to build lasting bonds between your child and her relatives -- whether they live a few minutes or hundreds of miles away.

By Susan Brody
October 05, 2005

Bonding with Relatives

For the first three years of her life, an ocean separated Greta Skagerlind from her extended family. Greta lived with her parents in Sydney, Australia; her maternal relatives lived in the United States, her paternal relatives in England.

Greta's mom and dad worked diligently to keep her connected with her relatives. But it wasn't until Greta was 3 and the family moved to South Orange, New Jersey -- minutes away from an aunt, an uncle, and two cousins -- that her bond with the extended family fully blossomed. "I think the combination of the move and her age made her more aware of family relationships and how we all fit together," says Kathryn Huang, Greta's mom.

That's not surprising, says Judith Myers-Walls, Ph.D., a professor of child development and family studies at Purdue University, in West Lafayette, Indiana. "When a child is 2, 'Grandma' is a name and not a concept. Starting at 3, children can put names with ideas, such as 'Grandma is Mommy's mommy.'"

Strong relationships with extended-family members give preschoolers a sense of connectedness and a greater understanding of their roots. Forging these bonds can be especially exciting for 3- and 4-year-olds. "This is a time when children really begin to recognize the importance of others in their lives," says Jacqueline Kirby, Ph.D., an assistant professor of human development and family science at Ohio State University, in Columbus.

Here are some ideas that can help your preschooler feel close to her relatives -- not just around the holidays but all year long.

5 Steps to Building Bonds

  1. Create TraditionsTrimming the tree, going out for pancakes every Sunday morning, playing Twister after each Thanksgiving feast -- these are the events children tend to remember when they get older. Now that they live in the same town, Greta and her cousins have dinner together every Friday night. "By Monday, Greta is talking about the upcoming dinner," says her mom.If visits with relatives are infrequent, it's especially important to establish a special ritual that will stick in your child's mind. This may mean that your 4-year-old starts a tradition of baking holiday cookies with a visiting aunt or making potato pancakes with an uncle. When my son, Henry, was 3, his grandfather invited him to help pick carrots in the garden. The next summer, they did the same thing, this time at Henry's insistence. A family tradition was born.
  2. Stay in TouchMany preschoolers can't seem to remember what they did in school today, let alone who Uncle Bob is, especially if they haven't seen or heard from him since last December. At this age, memories need constant reinforcement. If your 4-year-old hasn't seen or spoken to someone in a year, that's a quarter of his life! According to Dr. Myers-Walls, most preschoolers can't hold on to a memory by thinking about it; they need to touch it, hear it, or see it. However, they don't need a relative standing in front of them to put a name and a face together. There are myriad ways to stay in touch: The telephone is great, but greeting cards, letters, e-mails, and video- or audiotapes can also be mailed, modemed, or faxed to relatives anywhere in the world.As much of the contact as possible should come directly from your child rather than be filtered through you. Preschoolers, for example, love to work with their hands because their dexterity is improving. They are also developing vivid imaginations. They can make artwork for relatives or sing special songs that can be captured on videotape.Communication, of course, must flow both ways, and relatives should be encouraged to send audiotapes with photos or video greetings. The holidays are an especially good time to explain family traditions. "Children this age love to hear tales about when they were little and when you were little," Dr. Kirby says. "They especially love to hear silly stories." Regular contact is the key on both sides, because this helps the child mature in relatives' eyes. "Children can be insulted if you don't keep up with their development," Dr. Myers-Walls says. Staying in close touch ensures that Aunt Mary doesn't come bearing Teletubbies if your daughter has already moved on to Barbie.
  3. Encourage Some One-on-OneThe best way for a 3- or 4-year-old to forge ties with a relative is to spend time together. When family members are in each other's physical presence, the connection is much stronger because they are responding to immediate needs. Make sure your child and his relative have something fun to do when they get together.
  4. Exchange GiftsThough you may bemoan the idea of your preschooler's raking in even more presents at holiday or birthday time, Dr. Myers-Walls says gift giving is a good way to foster family closeness. "Seeing the circle of family gift giving can help kids mentally lay out the family tree," she says. Preschoolers should give gifts -- preferably handmade.
  5. Chart Family RootsIt's up to you to help your child figure out who's who in his family tree. One way of doing this is by compiling your family history. It can be as basic as a photo album of up-to-date pictures of your child's aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins or as elaborate as a scrapbook containing brief biographies, favorite recipes, maps that show where ancestors came from, and photos of relatives at various stages of their lives.Get your preschooler involved in creating this scrapbook by having her ask relatives to send pictures or memorabilia along with an explanation of their significance. Then you and your child can put the pieces into a special collection together.

Copyright © 2004. Reprinted with permission from the December 2000 issue of Parents magazine.

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