Understanding Family Structures and Dynamics
The Extended Family
In days past, extended families played a big part in helping new parents. Grandparents were often present to help with the new baby. Extended-family members often lived under one roof or just down the road; children saw their relatives often enough to know who was who. Today, this is frequently not the case. Modern extended families can be quite different from extended families of years past.
The New Extended Family
While it's true that today's extended family is often spread out across the country, and children may be walking -- or even driving -- before they meet some of the extended family members, most families still have some extended family nearby. Geographical isolation is far more common among upper-middle- class families, who move for occupational opportunity, than it is among middle- and lower-class families, who tend to move to cities where they already have relatives.
But even when extended family members are relatively close by, there is no escaping the fact that families do live more privately than they once did. In some cases, extended families still give each other day-to-day assistance with shopping, child care, and household tasks. More often, though, each branch of the family retains its basic independence.
What does all this mean for kids? Essentially, with fewer significant adults in their lives, children become more emotionally dependent on their parents. Don't expect your child to consider a seldom-seen relative important. Unless you find a way to open up your family's network, your children will probably be isolated from the extended family.
Some families hold regular family get-togethers or large family reunions to reestablish a more integrated sense of family. Of course, holidays and the children's birthdays provide opportunities for any family members who live close by to get together. You can help your toddler begin to understand the idea of extended family by creating a special "My Family" photo album with pictures and names. When he is a little older, you can begin to illustrate the nature of the relationships with a family tree.
Other families experiment with alternate ways to open up the family. For instance, some form babysitting, food, and other kinds of cooperatives. This simply means several couples pool specific resources. This lessens the burden of couples having to do everything solo.
A family cluster is a way to create a surrogate extended family. Several families meet regularly and become emotionally close. They share values, attitudes, and tasks. Often, family clusters share possessions, such as vacation homes and cars. For children, this provides an enlarged number of significant adults and playmates.
One area where grandparents can be an enormous help is watching younger children while the parents are at work. For a complete discussion of working parents, turn to the next section.
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