Reunions: The Next Generation

by Edith Wagner

Think about the importance of kids at reunions. Kids are your future and the future of your reunions. Making sure your next generation enjoys reunions now, that they see value in regularly meeting with family and always have a joyful time, will ensure your reunion's continuation in perpetuity.

Planning is Key

If the kids are not having a good time, they can spoil it for everyone. Planning games, activities and entertainment for kids is essential so they don't whine that they're bored and ask "when can we go home?". We are a naturally child-focused society and yet some reunions actually get under way without any thought of how the kids will be entertained. A pool at the hotel? An hour or two; tops. Playing with cousins takes a while to warm up, if they rarely see one another.

There is no place on earth where you cannot find many things that will enchant kids. It may sometimes take some looking, asking kids what they want, and coming up with a balance that will work for the ages and interests of you kids.

Family History for Kids: Trees, Stories, and More

I've just spent a good part of the summer involved in a media tour to talk about reunion activities, particularly for getting kids involved in their reunions through family history. Everyone at a reunion, after all, has family history in common.

Genealogy has become a subject of interest to all ages; for adults as a hobby and often for children as projects in school. Family trees made from research accumulated on and assembled using Family Tree Maker can fascinate kids of all ages. Family trees are the graphic representation of how everyone at the reunion is related. When you demonstrate family tree details for the youngest family members it helps make sense of this large crowd of people they find themselves in. Better yet are trees made with pictures of relatives and ancestors to put real personality into the branches and leaves. Not only do kids (and others) confirm what they already know about their relatives, but many people learn things that surprise and amaze them, such as who is and is not related and how.

There are many other genealogy related and history activities that can be incorporated for kids throughout your reunion. Storytelling, for example, can serve to encourage passage of family oral history. Stories can range from a grand sweep of family history and legend to telling tales about individual lives. Stories that will most intrigue children are the ones they can relate to. For example, parents and grandparents telling about their childhood at the same age as the children they're telling the stories to. Games they played; the first day of school; family reunions; how they celebrated Christmas, birthdays and presents they got; how they got in trouble and were punished; how grandparents or parents met their mates. Find out what kids are thinking about and tell them about how it was 30 or 50 or 70 years ago.

The stories don't have to come directly from family members: the 250 descendants of George Washington's right-hand man, General "Mad Anthony Wayne," sought the help of historians for their Iddings Family Reunion in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, the heart of the family home that dates back nearly 300 years. A tour included visits to Iddings family homes and Wayne's birthplace. The focus was to engage the children with Wayne's colorful history. They were fascinated. They saw one of Wayne's graves at Old St. David's Church cemetery. According to historical records, Wayne's bones are buried in the family plot at St. David's; his flesh was buried in Erie, Pennsylvania, in 1796. The kids thought details of Wayne's interment were definitely "cool."

When possible, use the occasion of storytelling to record or videotape the "performance." These tapes can be the foundation for a family archival collection. And, taping and recording can be assigned to kids who are responsible enough to stick with the task. At the same time, other kids can take pictures to accompany archived audio tapes. Video tapes can also become part of the next reunion's program for the fun and laughter but also for a demonstration of how little ones are growing and others are changing.

Photos and albums shed much light on family history and also are enticing to kids. Ask everyone to submit pictures from significant events and celebrations to be included in books that become a visual family history. Make a game of looking for resemblances , such as the same cleft in the chin or dimple in a right cheek.

A Flair for the Dramatic

How about encouraging a flair for the dramatic? Using stories from your own family history, help kids develop skits or plays that will retell the tales at the reunion. For the Walker Family Reunion, organizer Alexandra Walker Clark and her children wrote a skit depicting her great grandfather's 1872 arrival by covered wagon at the old farm, near Chattanooga, Tennessee. Her son, Liam, starred as his great-great-grandfather; daughters Sarah and Amanda dressed in calico and effectively portrayed the covered wagon with two hula hoops draped with a bedsheet. The kids became hooked on family history.

Kids can also create dramas about life abroad before emigration, special triumphs and milestones of ancestors or events that involved family members. If your kids have the talent, tell them the stories, then have them develop their own skits. They can stage reenactments at places that are of importance to your family such as homes, schools, churches, parks where ancestors played, places where they worked. Be prepared to explain to them the significance of each place; who lived, worked or worshipped there and stories about their lives. Charming anecdotes and tales portrayed by the kids can engage everyone at the reunion.

Generations Learning and Working Together

Some families organize workshops at reunions where they might discuss genealogy, financial planning or medical history. Computer workshops can turn the tables. Kids are fearless and know infinitely more about computers than most adults. Kids and grandkids can be teachers. Adults and grandparents are appreciative students. Let the kids shine. Ask them to demonstrate reunion-related applications — word processing (for correspondence, writing family history and stories), accounts (reunion ledgers), graphics (newsletters, flyers, invitations), e-mail (swift, easy, stampless, phoneless family communication) and, of course, surfing the Internet to research family history and learn lots more about reunions. Or how about a dance after one of the family dinners? Kids can teach adults the latest dance steps, while adults can reciprocate by teaching many "classic" dances; disco, charleston, waltz, and fox trot.

Cemeteries are places where proximity to history and ancestors is compelling. Family groups often use the reunion weekend to clean and plant gravesites and cemetery plots or to dedicate markers and monuments. They engage in projects that range from restoration and repair to family research, recording data and mapping. Kids love to do tombstone rubbings they can take to school for show and tell. Family members should be encouraged to share tales about the people buried in the cemetery. Most families include memorial services in their programs which are particularly poignant at the cemetery.

Get Kids Involved in the Planning

Kids can participate in any aspect reunion planning and organization starting with early tasks such as stuffing envelopes or entering computer data. They have access to the Internet and skills that will help elders achieve their goals. Evaluate how each young family member can contribute time and talent, then ask. More and more families are also involving kids in planning their own program. What will make most of them happy? What can they do to get everyone involved? What activities are particularly interesting to them? Kids will come up with ideas that many adults would not even fathom. They may wish to go to the mall or roller skating or to a ball game. Maybe they want to visit the zoo, the beach, a children's museum or amusement park. While some of these may not interest adults, if it can be arranged, kids should be allowed to do the things that particularly interest them.

A cardinal rule of reunions is to plan something for everyone. Older family members enjoy sitting, reminiscing and talking about old times, but kids get bored and restless. Make plans that take all ages into consideration. Everyone recognizes that if kids are happy, everyone else at the reunion will be too.

About the Author
Edith Wagner is the editor of Reunions magazine, author of Reunions Workbook and Catalog and The Family Reunion Sourcebook (Lowell House, Los Angeles) in bookstores now. She collects material for this column and Reunions magazine from family reunions and invites you to share your reunion ideas, concerns or questions. You can e-mail Wagner at or visit the Reunions magazine Web site.

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