Though family gatherings are often fraught, they’re key opportunities to reconnect, touch base with our roots, heal old wounds, and catch up with the family gossip!
New babies, new partners, and major life changes are often unveiled or revealed at holiday tables — not always by intent, but in the strange ways families have (coded and explicit) of passing along information to one another and from generation to generation.
But now, in our COVID-mindful culture, travel is curtailed. Hugging is hazardous to our health. Pods are replacing those big, boisterous, shoulder-to-shoulder tables we dread and relish. So how now will the work of families evolve? How can we sustain the values, relationships, silly quirks, and serious traditions that define one family from another? How do you transmit family culture at social distance? And how do we bring newcomers — partners, new children, new identities — into the fold? How do we manage the messiness of change? The holidays offer unique potential for embracing newcomers — those who are fresh to the family — and those who, if not quite so new, are not yet feeling the love. They may not feel as cozy as sitting around a fire — or that familiar table; but in the context of social distancing, they can tide us over till that big celebration when — inoculated and free to hug — we gather as family units again.
1. Unboxing. Unboxing emerged in 2006 (it was a phone, “unboxed” on a YouTube video). The habit spread to toys and food and entered the popular culture as a “thing” by 2014 when unboxing became a recognized form of advertising. While it always seemed a strange pastime to me, co-opting the technique to celebrate passages in the family can be more exciting than a mere email or even a Zoom conversation. Unbox news of a new baby, an engagement, a new identity (as a person in gender transition or recognizing sexual identity), or children accompanying a new marriage with a fun, celebratory — and respectful — series of totems taken out of a box.
Soften the digital experience with an analog box — a real thing the newcomer can hold in their hands. Include a small sign, a piece of jewelry, a token passed from one generation to another, a hat or sweatshirt with the family name, anything that says, “Welcome. We’re glad you’re part of our family.”
Let this unboxing unfold over a Zoom session that allows family members to interact as you might if you were sitting in living room chairs.
2. Design the process. Absorbing change is a process, not an event. Whether you use a note, a phone call, or the unboxing suggested above, introducing a newcomer is just the beginning. Helping newcomers become insiders takes time — and intention. And putting them through steps (see the estate attorney, have dinner, meet family members) is not the same as designing a process that results in a true — and mutual — embrace.
Buddy systems, regular meetings (monthly? quarterly?), meetings with key members of the family network — not just family members but trusted advisors, close family friends, and experts who constitute “insider knowledge” — are all part of a process. It’s also about winning the heart and mind of the newcomer as they bring your family into their world.
But if your son surprises you with a partner he eloped with or your daughter announces via Instagram that she’s embracing her identity as a lesbian — BEFORE you have a chance to absorb the news, it may seem harder to design a process — the die is cast, right?
Well, no. No one wants to go through a trial by fire; most of us are happy to find a path to inclusion. If I know there are key family members who would like to meet me, a photo album that can illuminate family history, a mission statement developed and shared by the family I’m entering, and policies you all take seriously, I have a much better chance of building meaningful relationships than if I walk blindly into a new club with members who are withholding the rules.
Governance is about decision-making and leadership in the family. And making onboarding an initial aspect of the governance process is a means of giving newcomers voice, a way to let them know how they can be part of family deliberations and decision-making.
Designing the process to include onboarding is an aspect of governance that often gets overlooked. And while newcomers may not “fall in line” with the governing rules of family life — the way things have always been — they at least have a starting place for building relationships and negotiating the expectations of the family.
3. Give (and get) information. When newcomers don’t know what they don’t know, they can’t be expected to get everything right. And if they haven’t sorted out what to share with the family system they’re entering, you’ll have questions too. What would you like newcomers to know? Don’t send a box of manuals, but share something welcoming that lets them know you’re giving them a window on the family’s culture of transparency. Are you harboring unspoken expectations? Secrets you hold fast? It’s easy for newcomers to stumble if they don’t know what constitutes family taboos and what is fair game for discussion. One family I work with has an “Awkward Questions” committee, a forum for getting questions asked and answered in an anonymous forum that allows a Q&A without putting either newcomers or family members at risk of embarrassment.
4. Welcome differences. We’re all eating change for breakfast. Coping with life in a pandemic, coming to a new awareness of social justice issues, enduring an especially heated political season, and coping with the impact of climate change (fire in the west, hurricanes in the South and Gulf Coast). Many of us feel we’re enduring all the change we can handle. So being asked to embrace a new family member whose beliefs, religion, habits, race, traditions, knowledge base, or even food preferences (vegan? non-gluten?) are different may be one change too many. And yet, the research is clear: Families who embrace diversity (just as companies who embrace differences) tend to be more successful, resilient, and adaptable than those who subtly (sometimes not so subtly) keep newcomers “new.”
Fear, distrust, and beliefs about the power of “blood” over the loyalty of a new member are all elements that aim to maintain status quo, to keep things the way we know them.
But newcomers can be like gold. Just as families go to great lengths to nurture and grow financial capital assets, those families who recognize and nurture their social and intellectual assets know that a new family member may have much to offer. And while it may not be readily apparent in those first few meetings, over time families can uncover knowledge, talent, fresh skills, and new perspectives that keep families vibrant.
5. Keep it going. Families can set the tone for years or even generations by the way they handle newcomers. Suspicion and distrust can be communicated in a nano-second. And while no one can be expected to embrace a newcomer without qualms, curiosity, and caution, remember becoming an insider can take years in some families. The use of holidays for onboarding events sets a tone of celebration, joy, and beginnings. But creating a process that continues, month after month, year after year is a more reliable way to keep a family member in the fold. Too many divorces have been sown in the first few months of a new marriage when the family culture — however unwittingly — works against the new couple. Too many family members leave the circle and move as far away as possible when they feel that their differences are not respected or embraced. Keeping family strong is serious work. But the payoff — is immense.
It has been a strange year. I wish it were over. I live in California part of the year, and the threat of fire and the reality of climate change sits in my consciousness — and daily life — like an unwelcome dinner guest. Taking care to stay socially distanced from those I care about (and those who insist on crowding too close) is an act of constant vigilance. Working with colleagues who I can’t be in the same room with is often frustrating. So when I’m asked to do “one more thing,” no matter how trivial (send that Zoom link again, mail a package to my brother, write another letter for a political candidate), I sometimes snap. I’m not proud of it — but I’m human. We all do our best to be welcoming, generous, compassionate — and some days we fall short.
These strategies may require more energy than some family members feel they have the heart for — especially now. But they are each investments in relationships that make families stronger.
They are each harbingers of hope, a signal that, however trying this year is, we believe that better days are ahead.
More to come,
Joline Godfrey is a Senior Vice President and Managing Director of Family Learning & Programming of Hawthorn, PNC Family Wealth®. She is part of the Hawthorn Institute for Family Success℠, which is dedicated to preparing families for their wealth. In this capacity, Joline develops and delivers a series of products and services for nurturing financially mindful children and thriving families.