SummaryUnited extended families with grandparents, uncles, aunts, nieces, nephews, and cousins are spirited clans that bring a fullness of joy into the world.
The art of living well not only depends on the virtues of motherhood and fatherhood and the parents’ commitment to the total well being of children in mind, body, and soul but also on the presence of the extended family.
In older cultures and earlier times, the notion of “the nuclear family” was a foreign idea: newlyweds worked and lived near their relatives.
While it is not always economically possible for new families to live near extended families because a livelihood demands moving to places where jobs exist, the nuclear family model often isolates families and deprives children of the riches and variety of interaction that a robust family social life offers.
Somehow yearly family reunions on holidays do not offer the same lively fun or fullness of joy that regular, constant exchange between extended family members provides.
Teaching Us to Fly
While family life naturally overcomes isolation and loneliness, family life in combination with nearness to extended family provides more opportunities for friendships, hospitality, conversation, practical advice, and acts of kindness and charity.
Older generations have a perfect opportunity to pass on the benefit of their learning and life experience as “old birds teach young birds how to fly.”
Younger women benefit from the homemaking and childrearing knowledge of older mothers. Younger men learn how to garden, build, repair, and manage money from their wiser elders.
With cousins in addition to brothers and sisters, children have more friends, playmates, games, and sports to enjoy.
The extended family is not merely a relic of the past or a quaint, outdated custom but an attractive ideal that deserves serious consideration wherever possible.
Not every breadwinner of course can choose the location of work, but many can realize this goal if they give it a sense of priority and realize its many advantages for both old and young alike.
“It is not good for the man to be alone,” as the words in Genesis recall. It is not good for men or women to be alone, and thus God instituted marriage. However, it is not good for either the newly married or the grandparents to be alone or for children not to know, enjoy, and befriend their cousins.
Man, created in God’s Trinitarian image of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—a paradigm of a society or family—is not designed for solitude or seclusion.
Yet many in modern life—not merely the widowed or elderly in old-age homes or hospitals—suffer some sense of deprivation from the absence of a more vibrant, abundant family social life that orients them to think of others, to invite others, to enjoy others, to visit, to organize social events, or to be available at a time of special need like a birth or death in the family.
In other words, in making career choices that appear promising in terms of salary, standard of living, outstanding schools, attractive settings, or desirable weather, proximity to extended family also deserves great consideration.
No one of course can have or enjoy everything, but prudence always distinguishes between first things and second things.
This omission of the value of extended family in career choices often results in parents seeing married children, grandparents seeing grandchildren, and older brothers and sisters seeing each other all too infrequently to maintain the bonds of affection and unity that enrich human relationships.
The nature of love thrives on the mutual giving and receiving, loving and being loved, that defines the goodness of the family. Extended families provide more opportunities and occasions to give and receive mutual enjoyment and mutual helpfulness to a degree that deepens the meaning of love of neighbor.
Colorful and Eccentric
Of course, families and extended families are not without misunderstandings, oversights, arguments, or clashes in political ideas, economic matters, moral views, or opposing temperaments. As G.K. Chesterton observes, “the family is not always congenial.”
But he quickly adds, “Of course the family is a good institution because it is uncongenial. It is wholesome because it has so many divergencies and varieties.”
In other words, the extended family is a school of human nature that teaches not only kindness and charity but also patience, forbearance, forgiveness, and courtesy—the virtues essential for harmony and amiability among all members.
The variety of interests and gifts inherent in an extended family expands the heart and enlarges a person’s appreciation for the many forms of goodness that touch a person’s life—a taste of God’s plenty.
In Chesterton’s word, “Our uncle is a surprise. Our aunt is, in the beautiful common expression, a bolt from the blue.” What is life without the colorfulness and eccentricities of delightful extended family members?
On special occasions like weddings, graduations, anniversaries, and holidays the extended family fills the event with an overflowing mirth that rejoices everyone’s heart.
The Brown family in Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s School Days captures this special spirit and abundant life of the clan:
“They can’t be happy unless they are always meeting one another. Never were such people for family gatherings. . . . Till you’ve been among them some time and understand them, you can’t think but they are quarreling. Not a bit of it: they love and respect each other ten times the more after a good set family arguing bout, and go back . . . more than ever convinced that the Browns are the height of company.”
The Most Beautiful Things in the World
The conclusion to Alcott’s Little Women also presents the blessings of the extended family at its best.
Celebrating Mrs. March’s sixtieth birthday at the time of the New England apple harvest, all the married daughters with their spouses and grandchildren have gathered to enjoy the annual holiday and to pay tribute to the matriarch of the family.
On this occasion everyone sees the happiness of young and old alike:
“Everyone was there; everybody laughed and sang, climbed up and tumbled down; everybody declared that there never had been such a perfect day or such a jolly set to enjoy it.”
The cup overflows and inspires Jo to reflect, “I do think that families are the most beautiful things in all the world!” Mrs. March, beholding not only the harvest of the apples but also the fruitfulness of love in the joy of her married daughters and grandchildren, senses that she is glimpsing a hint of heaven and says with a full and grateful heart, “Oh, my girls, however long you may live, I never can wish you a greater happiness than this.”
This happiness is not the happiness of the nuclear family but the fullness of joy that spirited clans like the Browns and loyal, united extended families like the Marches bring into the world.