Drew, my brother-in-law, understands my son Liam in a way that I cannot. I first realized this about three years ago when Liam was 7. We were sitting at the kitchen table at my sister’s house, and Liam came in seething about his older brother scoring eight goals to his one in the backyard soccer game. I was about to send Liam away from the table until he calmed down, but Drew stepped in. He started a conversation about how when he was younger, it seemed to him that his big brother was better at everything—faster, stronger, smarter.
For ten minutes they talked about how hard it was sometimes to be a little brother, Liam’s eyes never leaving his uncle’s face. When they were done, Liam was himself again and ran out to play with his brother. Had I handled the situation, I would have focused on the problem—was the game fair or not? Drew saw beyond the immediate issue and realized that in the ongoing score Liam was keeping in his mind, he was never a winner.
Over the holidays most families will spend at least some time with their extended families. While some of us have an aunt or uncle who can understand us in a way that others cannot, difficult family relationships are just as common.
For many people relationships with extended family members can be the most challenging part of living the gospel command to love our neighbor. Baggage from childhood or past hurts from in-laws can make extended family gatherings emotionally charged events. Yet when Jesus instructed his followers to love one another, he took into account difficult relationships, too. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you…. If you love those who love you, what credit can you expect?” (Luke 6: 27, 33).
Most of us don’t have real enemies or even people who truly hate us. Instead we have broken relationships—the one-upping cousin, the mother-in-law who finds fault with everything, the uncle who never stops talking. In learning to love in the midst of even these difficult relationships we begin to discover what it means to be Christ-like.
Three reasons to look for the best in your extended family this holiday season:
Your attitude can set the tone. For most families, ongoing squabbles tend to be about power and control. One family member’s choice to move beyond this habit toward a vantage point of appreciation can change the entire dynamic of a family. The Catechism of the Catholic Church points out the special gratitude we owe to those who gave us the gift of faith, which usually includes our extended family.
Kids need more than just Mom and Dad. Much as we’d like to believe we can be all things to our children, we are limited. Children are more secure and confident when they grow up within a circle of adults they know and can trust. A 2002 study by the AARP showed that between 60 and 80 percent of grandparents spoke with their grandchildren about important topics such as values, spirituality, and school. The same study showed that about a third of grandparents believed their grandchild would come to them if she needed to talk about alcohol or drugs. Helping children foster relationships with extended family members when they’re young weaves a safety net for them as they grow.
Oh, that’s how to be a sister. Children currently in a tumultuous relationship with a sibling or parent need to see what a healthy relationship looks like. Watching his father have an affable conversation with his grandfather will plant a seed in a young boy’s mind that this is what he needs to grow into with his own father. Children in families where the adults bicker as much as the children are at risk for thinking that conflict is the norm.
—by Annemarie Scobey from the pages of At Home with Our Faith, Claretian Publications’ print newsletter for parents on nurturing spirituality in the home. Winner of the 2010 and 2011 General Excellence award from the Catholic Press Association. Here’s a sample issue.
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