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The unique bond of childhood cousins

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Q. Summer vacation is at hand, and my kids will soon see their out-of-town cousins. Normally, they love the prospect, but this year the age range — some cousins are becoming moody teenagers — may be problematic. How can I finesse a little extended family harmony, even with this challenge?

KATHY: You won’t see too many parenting books that focus on cousins, but I think they’re among the most special relationships our kids have. Not a sibling, not a friend, but a powerful mixture of both — and they’re yours for life. My father was one of six kids, and I have 15 cousins alone on his side, and we’re all archivists of a sort, helping each other remember and understand our extended family. Your children don’t have this big picture yet, but cousins will be there for many of life’s rituals, from weddings to funerals. They will know you at all your life’s stages, and the journey will be shared in all sorts of unpredictable ways.


That said, like any lifelong relationship, cousins too will have their dry spells. You have to accept this. On the other hand, it’s good for the aunts and uncles to brainstorm how to pull off some togetherness, even if it looks orchestrated. Never underestimate the power of mini-golf, for instance. And surfing the waves transcends most age differences. If cousins bond over the fact that their parents are annoyingly camp counselor-ish, so much the better. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. Or my cousin.

JEFF: In our extended family, other than the one grown-up cousin, we don’t cover much of an age range. We have three boys born within six months, two girls less than a year apart. But even within all of that sameness, there are hues of distinction. One preteen will show up at a family reunion newly obsessed with the Mets, another with Banksy, another with Ed Sheeran, and they’ll all stare at each other blankly. For a second. Then they resume the whirlwind life of The Three Amigos, an unbreakable bond forged while frolicking together in diapers in the grandparents’ grassy yard.


The cousin connection is inexplicable, so allow me to explain. Cousins are an intoxicating mix of the comfortingly familiar with the precariously exotic. Unless they live next door, your kids don’t see too much of them — not enough to get tired of them, anyway. You can reinvent yourself around the cousins. You can show off how much you’ve grown up. You can act childishly.

KATHY: Yes, childish is the key here: These kids get to revert to who they were one, two, or five years ago, because the cousining template is mostly based on boisterous fun in a school’s-out setting, be it winter or summer break. Bonus: No schoolmate is there to out them for doing little kid stuff like flash tag or sandcastles. In short, cousin gatherings provide a safe space for regression. On the other hand, my kids have two cousins on my side, each a decade older, and even though the four couldn’t bond as little kids, my children totally look up to them as mentors, and cherished, uncomplicated family. They are their better selves with their big cousins.

My kids and their cousins on my husband’s side are more parallel in age, like the questioner’s. And as they’ve grown, I’ve learned you can work off their shared muscle memories. For instance, this gang is beyond Go Fish now, but that old card-playing camaraderie can be reinvented with, say, poker — played with a big fat pile of coins. I mean, who doesn’t like an auntie who antes?


JEFF: You’ve been saving that quip since you and all the cousins chartered that bus to Foxwoods, haven’t you, Kathy?

As for me, I grew up as an only child with no cousins other than some older, distant ones. So when I became a dad, and I developed a vision for what I hoped my growing family would look and act like, I had nothing tangible to base it on. What comes closest to what I envisioned? The relationships my kids have with their cousins. Love and longing and laughter.

Bottom line for our questioner: Don’t sweat it. Siblings rival each other and neighbors build fences, but cousins cover whatever distance is necessary — from the next state, from the deep past — to find their way back to each other’s hearts. Give them time together, just them. Allow them to be treehouse mates, coconspirators, an audience for each other’s cinéma vérité. And watch even the moody teen rediscover the silly preschooler within.

Jeff Wagenheim and Katharine Whittemore were founding editors at the innovative parenting magazine Wondertime. Whittemore now writes the “Seven Books About . . . ” book review column for the Boston Globe. Wagenheim writes for Sports Illustrated and the Globe, covering sports and the arts.


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