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Bring on the Cousins! Why Connecting With Extended Family Matters

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Every summer of my childhood, our family piled into our station wagon and traveled 700 miles from Burlington to Pittsburgh to visit our extended family. We'd drive for 12 hours straight, stopping only for bathroom breaks and sandwiches. We entertained ourselves by doing Mad Libs and looking for the letters of the alphabet in road signs. And we always felt a wave of excitement when we passed the Beech-Nut gum factory off Interstate 90 in Amsterdam, N.Y. (Hey, when seat belts are optional, the Walkman doesn't exist yet, and all the Tab has been polished off, anything is entertaining.)

That drive — though hellish — was always worth it for those two glorious, fun-filled, mischief-making, popsicle-eating, cannon-balling, movie-going weeks we got to spend with our cousins. As the youngest of 15 first cousins, my dolls' hair was often mysteriously chopped off, I was generally blamed for blanket-fort failures, and I wasn't allowed to see Poltergeist until it had been vetted by older cousins (who definitely tricked the adults into letting me see it, knowing full well I'd be traumatized for life). Still, I loved every second of cousin time.

These days, my kids' cousins drive up to Vermont from New Jersey every summer to spend a couple of weeks swimming, playing flashlight tag, making bonfires and eating approximately 1,000% more S'mores than they're actually allowed to have. We also have extended family who live locally, and cousin shenanigans are always in full swing at the annual summer family reunion.

Of course, not everyone has cousins, or wants to spend time with family. Some of us have built a family of friends we prefer to our actual blood relatives. It doesn't really matter how we come by our extended family — it only matters that we have one, and that our kids have one.

Why? Speaking to the Chicago Tribune, therapist Larry Shushansky explained that, "Relationships with cousins afford a certain space, a certain independence, that allows us to have different kinds of experiences with them. They can be a source of balance ... affording the closeness and common bond that exists in families, as well as the psychological distance that is one step removed from the dependency that causes anxiety and conflict within immediate (family members)."

"'Remember When We...?' Why Sharing Memories is Soul Food," a post published by the online journal, The Conversation, explains how memories and experiences shared with extended family help shape our identities and provide a scaffold that supports our working memory as we age.

So, go ahead and invite everyone over for a few days, or pile in the car and take that road trip. Whether it's your family of origin or your family of friends, connect with them. Let the kids stay up late, swim until the sun sets, build forts and eat too many popsicles. These are the connections, the experiences and the summer days they'll always remember.

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