Extended Families Teach Children Life Lessons
Aunt Betty died. I know you do not know my Aunt Betty, but I am confident that each of you had (or have) an Aunt Betty in your life. In her later years, our visits consisted of my sitting at her feet and sharing stories. In earlier years I was her audience and she wove the tales of what was happening to each member of the family. She was the thread that made miles melt away and held cousins close to one another.
During our most recent visits, I would be the storyteller and entertain her with the trials and tribulations of having two young daughters. She would listen and with a smile, she would reassure me that I was doing a fine job as a mother. My youngest daughter loved to play a scavenger hunt at Aunt Betty’s trying to name every relative in a picture and then asking each time who was still alive.
For each visit I would make sure the girls presented themselves well – hair brushed and out of their eyes, hands washed and clothes that were a step above play clothes. I knew Aunt Betty would swell with pride no matter what we looked like, but there was an element of respect that I needed the girls to have in her home, so putting our best foot forward was part of that.
I feel like an end of an era has come with her passing, but I am grateful that we always took advantage of the time we had with her. Little League, play dates, sunny weather could have easily diverted us from our course. Family is not always convenient, yet I would again travel the miles, miss other opportunities and sit on the floor to instill in my daughters the importance of family in our lives.
For some, it includes weekly family dinners that provide a touchstone of tradition. For us, it was less frequent – only an annual trek to Maryland, but it was still an important yardstick in the girls’ lives – how much they grew and changed each year, but how much the unconditional love of family stayed the same.
Children benefit from the positive role models and relationships in their families. Having that sense that your extended family casts a wide net of unconditional support offers children a sense of confidence and reassurance that is unmatched. Of course, they may balk about missing time with friends or wanting to do some other activity, but spending time with family provides that sense of who we are and where we came from.
I had a professor who suggested the greatest gift we could give our children or ask from our parents was the story of who we are. He suggested we give a gift of a blank journal, so those stories are never lost – not necessarily the big ones, but more importantly, the smallest of moments, like the fact that Uncle Dave always left a lit cigar on the bumper of a car when he and Aunt Betty went out to eat.
I wish we had spent many more hours sitting on the living room floor on North Division Street, but we did not. I wish the girls had known her better, known Aunt Betty like I did, so she could be a positive role model in their lives as she was in mine. I called her last week and thanked her for loving me unconditionally. As I hung up, I knew I had said good bye for the last time, but she will live on in the stories I tell my daughters. I’ll have to start writing some of them down.
– Elizabeth Hofreuter-Landini is head of school at Wheeling Country Day. She is a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard University Graduate School of Education.