Three keys to a great family reunion

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My parents are very deliberate parents. They choose to have nine children and worked hard to raise us to be best friends. And now we live all over the country but crave each others’ company and really want our children to know and love each other.  So yearly family reunions are a high priority for all of us.

When we were young, we got together for several days each summer with my cousins and aunts and uncles at my parents’ little two-room cabin near a lake. Everyone brought tents and trailers, and we had a great time playing in the water, catching lizards and putting on talent shows. Then as my siblings and cousins started getting married and our numbers swelled, we started gathering with just my siblings and our spouses and children at a larger cabin my parents built by the lake. We gradually evolved from my parents taking the lead with planning the activities and agenda for the reunion (lots of meetings involved – my dad sure likes meetings) to each sibling and their spouse taking a turn doing the planning (lots more games involved …). We also evolved from a full-week reunion to a more manageable four-day reunion (usually a Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday) with an “open house” period before and after the actual reunion when those who are available can come and spend extra time together.

Over the years, we’ve learned a lot about what works. Since we finished this year’s family reunion just a couple days ago, I sat down with several family members this morning and brainstormed about what we’ve come to realize. Whether you’ve got a small family or a large family, whether you gather for a few hours or several days, whether you’ve got a good-sized budget or a tiny one, here are three keys we came up with for creating a successful family reunion:

1. Clear Responsibilities and Expectations

It’s really important to spread out responsibilities and make sure responsibilities are clearly defined so no one feels too put-upon and the important things get done. Here’s what works for us:

LEADERSHIP: One couple is in charge of the overall reunion each year. They make food assignments, put together a schedule and assign others to conduct the specific activities that will go on during the reunion. To keep things simple, we just go in order of age when it comes to which family is in charge of the reunion each year (but, of course, families can trade years if need be).

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Reunion chairs announcing the agenda and activities at the beginning of the reunion

MEALS: Each family is assigned a meal or two to plan and prepare.  Many families opt to make the same meal every year, and everyone looks forward to that family’s specialty (Eli’s curry, Kristi’s fish tacos, Jonah’s burgers …). Others like to try something new every year. Some like to do something more gourmet while others like to keep it simple. Whoever’s around pitches in to help the family in charge with the chopping and prepping involved in their meal, and great chats naturally happen during meal prep. Everyone’s in charge of their own breakfasts since everyone likes to get up at different times. Then we do lunch and dinner together. My mom does one big Costco run to buy all the ingredients for the meals that people have entered on a Google Drive document that everyone can access. If you don’t get your ingredients on the list by the date of her Costco run or need ingredients that can’t be purchased at Costco, you’re on your own to get those ingredients. We all bring our own breakfast food and food for the pre- and post-reunion time that we stay at the lake. Everyone labels the food they need for their planned meal or want to keep for just their family with a Sharpie marker and everything else is up for grabs.

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EXPENSES: Every family handles expenses for reunions differently based on their financial situation and overall giving philosophies. My parents help with travel expenses for those who live far away from our reunion location. When it comes to food, my parents pay for all the Costco food for the four days of the actual reunion, and we each pay for the food we need for our meals that can’t be purchased at Costco.  My parents provide the location (our family cabin they’ve had for 30+ years), and the cabin’s upkeep is paid for by renters who enjoy the cabin during the parts of the summer when no family is using it. While there are a lot of expenses for my parents and some expenses for all of us when it comes to reunions, the experiences we have together are priceless so we all make it work and save money in other areas, keeping our Christmas gifts very basic (and we draw names so everyone just gives to one other person) and mostly keeping our birthday gifts to nice emails sharing what we love about each other.  Even though we’ve got a large family, by cooking from scratch, using a free location and keeping things simple, we spend a lot less than many other families spend on reunions.

CLEAN-UP: The grandkids are assigned to groups based on their ages for activities and for clean-up duties. After each meal, one group does dishes, one sweeps, one clears and wipes countertops and tables while assigned adults supervise as needed. There’s also a list of extra jobs that the grandkid groups can do to earn stars (clean a bathroom, vacuum a room, put away all the beach toys, etc.). At the end of the reunion, the group with the most stars gets a special prize (a special outing on the boat, a chance to have a sleep-over on the deck, that sort of thing).

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2. Good Balance Between Structured and Unstructured Activities

When we started having formal reunions, my dad planned a whole lot of discussions of interesting and important topics with some waterskiing and playing in the water in between meetings. But as the babies came along the logistics of formal discussions just weren’t feasible and as we grew up and in-laws came along, everyone brought fun new ideas to the table. We’ve found that 2-3 games/activities/meetings a day (about an hour each) works quite well. Daytime activities and games involve the kids and then by 9, all kids need to be in bed and we have time for adult discussions and fun games.

Here’s what our reunion schedule looked like this year (and specific ideas are explained in the “Traditions” section below):

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3. Traditions

While some group activities come and go based on the year and who’s in charge of the reunion, these simple, inexpensive and fun activities have become time-honored favorites:

Bonfire and Reunion Playlist

The first night of the reunion, we have a bonfire on the beach. We make s’mores, and sometimes we go around the circle and quickly share our favorite moment from the past year or something like that. At the bonfire, the “Reunion Playlist” is always unveiled. Before the reunion, each person (adults and kids alike) submit their favorite song from the past year to the reunion leaders (or their designated music chairs) who make a playlist (we get everything from country music to techno to classical to folk – great to learn to appreciate things outside the music we might usually listen to). At the bonfire, we play each song, and everyone has to try to guess whose song it is. If there’s a particular reason why they chose that song, they can share that. Then, throughout the reunion, it’s great to have the playlist going, everyone playing and dancing and cooking to everyone’s favorite songs. Then after the reunion throughout the year, the reunion playlist is something fun to listen to in the car or around the house, reminding us of all the people we love. We’re all really into music so this tradition really works for us.

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Fear Factor

We’ve done this for two years now and I think it’s a keeper. The couple in charge gets some really weird foods (all fully safe to eat), and all the grandkids who who want to participate have things like seaweed, canned squid, lemons, canned jumbo mushrooms, sardines and the like placed in front of them. If they eat the food in front of them in 2 minutes or less, they get to go on to the next round. Kids get little prizes for making it through each round, and the kid who eats the item in question the fastest in the last round is the winner of a grand prize of a $15 Amazon gift certificate or something like that. Sure, some kids get a little sad when they can’t quite eat the item in question and get “out,” but they quickly join in the watching and cheering and it all works out great.

Here are a few pictures, but for a lot more information, you can check out this whole blog post I did on this activity last year.

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Talent Show

Every year we have a talent show. Everyone’s welcome to put their name or their group’s name on the sign-up sheet, but no one has to participate. Numbers have to be 2 minutes or less, and no one can participate in more than two numbers (got to keep the length of the show under control). We get everything from lip synchs to piano solos to back flips to funny skits to playing a video they’ve created. It’s a great chance for cousins to work together on something and a fun way to showcase talents and interests.

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A monster dance

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The audience

Family Relay

Quite a few family members have participated in Ragnar-style relay races in the past few years, so the reunion organizers for this year created our own family relay race. They put us on 6- or 7-person teams that had a “real” runner or two on each plus quite a few non-runners and little kids. We “raced” for 12 miles, and everyone on the team ran the distance that worked for them while the rest of their team trailed along in their team car. And once everyone on the team had the chance to run, we started over, letting each team member run again.  Some people ran a few miles. Some people ran about 100 yards. And everyone cheered each other on whole-heartedly with our reunion music blaring. It was so much fun!

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At the starting line – ready to cheer on the starters

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Adults ran alongside the little kids for their short runs

One team crossing the finish line together

One team crossing the finish line together

Late-Night Games

After all the little kids are in bed, we love playing games. Some of our favorites are:

  • Reverse Charades (One person guesses and everyone else on the team works together to act out the word – it’s hilarious. There’s a cheap app for this game or you can buy it as a box game)
  • Speed Scrabble (Use the tiles from a regular Scrabble game – or two games if you’ve got lots of people. Turn all the tiles upside down in the middle of the table. Each person starts with five tiles and creates their own little crossword. When someone has used all their letters, they say “go” and everyone has to take another tile from the tiles in the center of the table and works to incorporate that new tile into their personal crossword. The game is over when the last tiles are taken from the center and someone finishes using all their tiles. When the first person has incorporated all tiles, they call out “stop,” and everyone totals up their points by counting up the value of each letter tile in each word they’ve created. We usually play several rounds or until someone gets to 100. Great group game and a lot faster-paced than regular Scrabble.)
  • Word on the Street (we do this one with my husband Jared’s family – love it)

Discussions

As we prepare food or sit on the beach with little kids playing in the sand at our feet, we talk. We make a point of getting a little one-on-one time with most everyone at some point during the reunion and enjoy learning about the things each other is worried about, excited about, working on, etc.

One evening during the reunion when all the kids are in bed, we discuss what we’re all doing to “broaden and contribute” right now in our lives. Our family mission statement is “Broaden and Contribute”: Broaden = seek and embrace opportunities to learn and grow and experience things; Contribute = seek and embrace opportunities to share and make the world a better place in any way we can.

I could go on and on, but I won’t overwhelm you! Hopefully the ideas here offer some food for thought as you think about the family you’re working to create right now and what that family might look like down the road a ways.

Question: What are some of YOUR favorite family reunion activities?

Challenge: Think about what you want your family reunions to be like now and in the future. Then work toward that vision.

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