Figuring out family

Melody emailed these poignant questions:

Is there anything in print that gives SOME guidelines for proper family reunion etiquette with regard to who can attend a family reunion and who cannot? In this day and age, how does one deal with “significant others?” There are folks living together without being married. Some folks want in-laws who are not blood to attend. We understand that step-kids and adopted kids are included that’s not the problem.

Exactly what is the purpose of a FAMILY reunion? The kids just don’t understand what a family reunion is about. They think it’s for entertainment: golfing, horseshoes, pool tournaments, children’s games, with groups off doing their own thing all over the place. By the time everyone leaves, we don’t know much more about each other than when we arrived!

I am asking because our family doesn’t seem to know these things – especially those in their 30s. They have varying ideas about what is acceptable and what is not. The older and middle generations maintain Christian values, while the younger generation appear not to be so principled.

What is traditional reunion etiquette regarding my questions? Is there an established resource to which we can refer?


“Who is family?” is one of the most important questions family reunions must answer. Ironically, the real answer is that there are no real answers. Every family is different. There are many, many ways to answer your questions.

There is no one guideline unless a family chooses to set rules to exclude rather than include members. We are at a time in history when family is where you find it or where it finds you. It can be everyone descended from one ancestor or everyone who knows and cares about a descendant. It can be a group of siblings (which could be the current generation or earlier) and all their descendants. Renowned family therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer, who lost her entire family in the Holocaust, talks about her family that was made up of friends until she married and began to establish a new family. Children of divorce, for example, are still cousins, nieces/nephews and grandchildren of both families. Some families stay close to ex-in-laws_some even like their ex’s family better than their own blood relatives! Some families include persons too distant to really have a fix on the relationship, or even have so much fun at reunions that they want to include friends.

One of my cardinal rules about family is that you exclude no one who is related. Some families have relatives who are not favorites, not good role models or tend to embarrass others. Let those people make their own decisions about attending; they will likely not come anyway, or perhaps they’ve changed. As a young person I adored an uncle, a bon vivant who embarrassed his own generation. While they did not welcome him, I loved to see him.

Most families “deal with” how they relate to one another from the nuclear to the extended family. If the nuclear family accepts significant others or people living together without benefit of marriage, why shouldn’t the extended family accept it? On the other hand, if some members are offended, a very specific decision may have to be made to exclude. But don’t expect the relative in that relationship to be eager to join the reunion. My personal preference is to be as all-inclusive as you possibly can for several reasons. The principals will be happier and the family may well be enriched by these new members.

As for the activities “golfing, horseshoes, pool tournaments, children’s games, with groups off doing their own thing…” you might give your members a bit of slack. These are precisely the activities that draw younger members. If young people come to your reunion which other organizers would give heaven and earth to even have happen and have a good time, consider yourself a success. They’ll come back if they have a good time and that means your reunion is a success, too. EW