Strengthening Family Bonds During the Holidays

November 01, 2022

The coming months offer an occasion to build ties and affirm shared values.

The fall and winter encompass an array of holidays that provide the opportunity to reconnect with family members. In my work in facilitating and structuring philanthropy and family governance, I also see this period as a time when families can deepen their ties in ways that may encourage charitable endeavors and strengthen relationships more generally. The holidays provide a great opportunity, in my view, to reaffirm collective values, and close out the year with appreciation and renewal of family cohesion. Here are three practical ideas that I believe can help strengthen family bonds for the current year and into the future.

1. Practice Gratitude

As suggested by psychological research,1 gratitude has been strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity and build strong relationships.

Family members may feel and express gratitude in multiple ways. They can apply it to the past (retrieving positive memories and being thankful for elements of childhood or past blessings), the present (not taking good fortune for granted) and the future (maintaining a hopeful and optimistic attitude). Regardless of the inherent or current level of a person’s gratitude, it's a quality that family members can successfully cultivate together.

As you gather with your family, the following questions asked of each member may stimulate a dialogue based in gratitude:

  • What happened today/this week/this month/this year for which you are grateful?
  • What’s something you’ve learned recently that has improved your life?
  • What’s something you’re looking forward to in the future?
  • What's one positive attribute that you can describe for each family member?
  • What made you laugh or smile recently?
  • What have you learned recently that will help you in the future?
  • Have you had an opportunity to help someone recently, and how did you feel about that?
  • Who made a positive difference in your life recently (on any level)?
  • What comforts or basic needs are easy to forget and appreciate?

Asking these questions may establish a pattern of expressing gratitude within the family, and also enable members to know each other better. A goal of this exercise is to shift the emphasis away from receiving presents to witnessing how parents, aunts and uncles model their expressions of gratitude.

In addition, small gestures by parents can have a powerful educational impact. Children who see parents’ displays of gratitude and kindness to others, especially those who are less advantaged, may develop perspective beyond their immediate concerns.

2. Strengthen a Family Tradition of Giving

Integrating philanthropy into a family’s culture and activities can strengthen family cohesion by:

  • Demonstrating family values in action in a very tangible way.
  • Enhancing a sense of gratitude and empathy, and a larger perspective on material wealth.
  • Enabling the family to communicate and collaborate toward a positive goal.

The holidays offer various opportunities to involve your family in charitable giving:

  • Family Giving Pool: Whether to start or continue a tradition, you may create a family giving budget dedicated to charity. Each child can suggest a cause to help everyone decide where and how to distribute the budget. You may then ask the children to narrow the field of possible recipients by researching their background and presenting those findings to the rest of the family. A Donor-Advised Fund may serve as a convenient way to execute family philanthropy, with the ability to view online how the family has allocated its philanthropic funds. An annual holiday tradition of charitable giving enables the family to begin a collective discussion on how best to improve the world with its resources. 
  • Family Volunteering: Children generally love hands-on activities, and many organizations encourage family participation. In advance of a holiday gathering, you may identify and reserve a family volunteering time slot to participate in a project that your family can enjoy, such as helping in a soup kitchen or delivering food and supplies to the elderly. While schools often coordinate volunteer activities, nothing replaces the impact and role modeling opportunity of a family participating together. Many adults recall volunteering with their parents as one of their most cherished memories of spending time in a way that inspired their own philanthropy.
  • Give the Gift of “Giving”: In place of a traditional present this year, consider giving through a donor-advised fund a grant certificate to your friends and loved ones. Recipients can give a grant to a nonprofit that is important to them or to one that your family decides on together. The minimum certificate amount may be as low as $50; such certificates are available during the holidays and throughout the year.

Parents may assume that their charitable motivations are clear and don't need explaining; however, providing specific context helps your family values to resonate more. Therefore, even without a structured activity, it remains important to simply communicate to your children and grandchildren why you support the causes and organizations that you do, and the personal experiences that have informed your choices. For example, one mother explained that she supported a medical research institution in light of the disease that affected her father. And a grandparent explained his passion for a housing initiative that he had started, as it helped to revive a neighborhood of his childhood after the local industrial employer had closed.

3. Share Family History

In cultivating family unity, families generally benefit from recalling their history and the lessons it offers. A multigenerational narrative also unites families, enabling descendants with disparate personalities and varied interests to bond over a common heritage and source of pride.

At an early age, affluent children may sense their relative level of wealth from a number of indicators, ranging from residences and vacations to the preferential treatment they have received. However, they might not necessarily understand the labor involved in creating such wealth—or that it is not guaranteed to last. Sharing the family narrative may help engage a child’s interest in the journey of prior generations and also inspire pride in the family’s achievements.

Children gravitate to stories on all levels, especially if enhanced by family pictures and other visual media. Hearing how their parents and grandparents achieved success and overcame challenges may provide a vivid backdrop for understanding the resources available to them. Rather than engendering guilt, the family history may become the opening chapter of a narrative that younger generations can continue and enrich with their individual interests and talents.

For young adults, sharing family history can foster a connection to the source of their wealth. The family story of overcoming challenges may also motivate high school and college students, contributing to continued success.

To prompt a discussion of family history, you may pose the following questions to older family members. Involving younger children in collecting information on the prior generations’ journeys can help inspire pride in the family’s achievements. Their answers can be enlightening, filled with details and insights that resonate with the younger generation.

  • How did our family members first arrive to this country?
  • Who were some notable ancestors, and what made them memorable?
  • What financial circumstances or defining challenges did family members overcome?
  • What lessons learned do you want to share?
  • Do you notice any recurring or enduring characteristics in the family?
  • What notable qualities of the family inspire the most pride?

Other ways to explore your common past include:

  • Passing around a family artifact as a tangible and meaningful representation of the family's past.   Even a humble cooking utensil can stimulate stories of meals and nurturing of years past.
  • Sharing/displaying old family photos. You may challenge your family to guess the identity of the individuals featured as well as the time and place. Conveying the full story, context and funny moments of that day can bring the family narrative to life.
  • Continuing family recipes. Food and shared meals have always embodied family culture, as aroma and taste can evoke vivid memories of childhood, and relationships with family members who have passed away. Collecting, implementing and passing down the recipes, especially at holiday time, establishes family rituals and a shared heritage across regions and politics, so that future generations can continue to strengthen those ties.
  • Taking a heritage trip. For example, one family traveled to the site of their grandparents’ humble beginnings abroad. Traveling to a destination with fewer modern conveniences can also deepen everyone’s appreciation of how far their family has come.
  • Just as importantly, exploring past challenges—failures and adversity, not just triumphs. Did certain family members have to make personal sacrifices? What costs of success did individuals endure along the way? How did living through certain calamities feel?  Once shared and maintained, family history can exemplify long-term resiliency.

Perhaps the biggest message to younger family members may be that family history has yet to continue, with the next chapter in their hands to write.

Continuing the Dialogue

Whether in seeking assistance to develop a family giving plan or advice on building family wealth and transferring it efficiently to future generations, speaking with your advisors can be an important first step. Drawing on a tradition of advising multigenerational families, your Neuberger Berman team can provide expertise and insights specific to your family’s objectives.

1See “Giving Thanks Can Make You Happier,” Harvard Health Publishing, August 14, 2021.

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