Family holidays are a long standing tradition. We use specific times of the year as an excuse to all gather together. Unfortunately, this extended period of togetherness can mean awkwardness or contention or exhaustion. You might not know what to say when stuck in the family room all alone with her grandpa. Or maybe you sit out of the way trying to not get underfoot and spend the whole weekend thinking her family hates you. Maybe the kids ignore you. Maybe the adults ignore you. Maybe you always say just the wrong thing. This article will help you navigate some of those family hazards in new ways. This year the family holiday can be a time of wonderful memories and deep connection.
Lend a hand
An easy way to make inroads with her family is to start offering to help with things around the house. Pitch in just like you would with your own family. This is an easy icebreaker in a few different ways. First, if you act like you are a part of the family, it’s easy for them to start treating you like part of the family. Second, being helpful with chores like washing the dishes, or raking the leaves, or bringing in firewood gives you a chance to interact indirectly – that is, you can chat while you are working and this less formal “side by side” conversation always seems to flow more easily. Third, everyone appreciates someone who helps out. Her mom is going to notice that you’ve cleared the table after the meal. Her grandpa is going to make note that you put salt on the sidewalk. Her sister might say “You do not need to put those toys away” but she is going to appreciate that you did. These small acts of kindness and helpfulness send the message to her family that you are not some lazy teenage slug who expects others to wait on them all weekend long.
Talk is not cheap, it’s priceless
It can be awkward to when you start spending extended time with her family. There will be inevitable moments of silence where you start racking your brain for what to say, but instead of figuring it out, you decide to whip out your phone and hide behind the screen. First, don’t do that. Leave your phone away most of the time. Like we discussed in Part 1, take a book or magazine for true down time. When I started going to my wife’s family’s house for Thanksgiving, I would sit in the quietest room reading a book and trying not to be noticed. I was scared. I didn’t think they liked me, so I just tried to stay out of the way. Fortunately, my book often became the very conversation starter I lacked. Someone would inevitably wander over and ask “What are you reading?” This opened up a lot of conversations and helped me make some connections with her various family members. After a few visits, I would end up coming home with bags of books they lent me which led to more conversations during the next visit.
Even though you have packed a magazine or book to entertain you during quieter times, you shouldn’t hide behind it because you are scared to make conversation. Just remember that conversation can be easy. People like to talk about themselves, so ask questions. Ask her grandpa about that show he likes to watch. Ask her mom about the photos on the wall. Ask her sister about how the kids are doing in school or your brother-in-law about how his job has been this past year. Ask a question and then listen. Too often people immediately interrupt so they can start talking about themselves. Resist this urge. Instead, ask a follow up question. If her mom has travel photos and has just told you about the one on the wall, ask about her favorite trip ever. Ask if there is anywhere that she is still looking forward to going. Ask what her favorite part of travel is. If her gran is cooking or baking something, go hand out in the kitchen and ask questions. Ask about the recipe. Ask when she learned to cook or bake. Ask if she has a favorite meal or restaurant. The key is to ask questions and let her family do the talking. Take this time to learn more about them. You may be surprised how interesting it can be to learn her family history or why her dad is a fan of basketball but not football or why her sister can’t stand cranberry sauce. These moments of connection are going to stay with you and make you feel good for weeks.
Lastly, remember that a family weekend is supposed to be about quality time. Try to avoid participating in big discussions about divisive topics like politics or religion. If someone does start talking about that, you have a few options. You can always use this as an opportunity to ask more questions and then shut up and let them talk. I think this can be an important way to begin to understand people who have different ideas and beliefs that us. And understanding them, or at least listening to them, can be the beginning of bridging a gap. You can also try and guide the conversation to a more general discussion about the political process or system instead of digging into the specifics of the most recent election. You can ask questions about policy or about an older persons perception of how the past decades have changed our country. I think it is always best to find at least one thing you can agree on or one common element and focus a conversation around that instead of choosing the easier, but often uglier, path of arguing and disagreeing. That path seldom leads to good feelings.
The kids are alright
If there are kids in her family, take time to play with them. You may feel self conscious at first. You may feel dumb clowning around with a 3 year old while a room full of adults watches you. Ignore the awkwardness. There is little that is more rewarding than finding a way to make a baby coo at you or inventing a game that will have a roomful of kids laughing and shouting. Make up games or play classics like hide and seek. If the kids are daredevils, get them to form a line and toss them on the couch after dangling them by their feet. Take Twister and be the game caller. Kids are easy. Just get down on the floor and play. Be silly. Let loose. Lose yourself in the moment.
A picture is worth . . .
Take pictures. This may be your secret to success. I know it sounds silly, but people love pictures. And despite our Instagram/Facebook culture, few people take quality pictures, especially candids, during family time. Again, you may think I’m crazy, but take a real camera. There’s something about taking “real” pictures with a camera that changes everything. For a few years, I had my camera practically attached to me during our trips to visit her family. If the kids were playing, I was taking pictures. If the kids were getting into mischief, I was documenting it. After a very short time, everyone started ignoring me and my camera, and that’s when I started to get some incredible photos. I would take pictures of family members chatting quietly in a corner, or kids climbing sleepily into carseats after a long day. I’d follow the sneaky niece and capture her climbing onto the sideboard. I’d get a photo of the dog staring quietly off across the yard. I’d slip into the kitchen and catch a mom or older sister silently cleaning up or making cocoa. I’d sneak a shot of the youngest cousins conspiring in the corner or the oldest nephew snagging a cookie when no one was looking. Finding a way to get these everyday photos kept me entertained. But what I always get asked about, every single time we visit now, is the family photo. This started as an “all-the-siblings-and-their-kids” photo several years ago. Now there are several variations of the picture – sometimes Gran and Pa are there, sometimes it’s just the kids. But I’ve noticed something about those silly simple photos. Almost every family has a printed version somewhere in their house. It might be an 8×10 on the wall or a 4×6 on the bookshelf. But they all seem to have one of them.
That brings us to the most important part. You have to share the photos. I am not on Facebook, so for me this usually means editing them at home and then putting them all in a Google Photos Album with sharing so her family can download them. Then simply send a simple email saying you had a great time and here are some pictures. But don’t stop there. Grandparents may be online, but they will still love to get a note with several printed pictures. They love to keep those prints by their chair and show them to every single person who comes through the door. My favorite project though is to create a photobook on an online service like Snapfish and then send a copy of it to each family (brother, sister, mom, grandparents). This lets you send “prints” but in book form. It’s easy for them to store, easy for them to take with them to church to show around, easy for them to keep all in one place. The wife and I have done this several times and it is always an all around hit. Bonus that we get a copy too.
One of the stealthiest kindnesses you can show to your girl and her family is to find ways to give time time alone with her. Her visit is probably a huge highlight of the season for them and nothing is more precious than for them to have one on one time with them. You can quietly invent a thousand ways to carve out these pockets of quality time for them. I often take advantage of a quieter moment to excuse myself to the guest room in order to call my own family. I will also run out to the grocery store for something or will cook breakfast by myself or will take extra time after my shower to read quietly in our room. Sometimes I will find ways to entertain the kids so she can hang out with her sister, or I’ll go pick up subs for lunch. This always dovetails well with pitching in: let her hang out with her family while you shovel the sidewalk or rake some leaves. Let her know you are going to head to bed a little early so she will have extra time to talk. Go take a nap and let her take that time to connect. These quiet moments where she can just be with her family are the moments she is going to be talking about on your trip home.
In all of the madness that is a family holiday, make sure you make time to connect with your girl. Take a ten minute walk after breakfast. Go grab a cup of coffee. Take time to catch up in the moments you are alone like when you are driving to someone’s house or when you are getting ready for bed. Even a few minutes of quality time can help her feel grounded and connected.
Family holidays are a notorious time of stress, awkwardness and frustration. But the whole point of gathering together is to enjoy one another, to relate and to connect. Use this holiday season to make an extra effort to reach out to her family. Make good conversations. Play like a 7 year old. Take a thousand pictures. Make quality time a priority. Get pictures of everyone together if you can. Learn about her family. Be silly and serious and genuine and helpful. Make family time a time of fun and joy and love and sharing. Make it a trip full of memories you can all treasure.