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The Family Kinkeeper Role

Supporting communication for family relations has benefits and challenges.

Key points

  • Kinkeepers are family members who help enable and assist family communication, plan family gatherings, and help the family keep in touch.
  • Family kinkeepers today need to be savvy at using different communication technologies.
  • The kinkeeper role may be challenging in terms of time or financial commitments and emotional demands.

Today’s families have access to ever-expanding ways to stay connected and maintain family relationships. Families may not be able to visit for a variety of reasons, such as being overly busy or living far apart. Families may also avoid getting together when there is illness, divorce, or conflicts over different beliefs and values. The good news is that families have multiple ways to stay connected, including video technologies, texting, family newsletters, blogs, email, or social networking sites. My goal is understanding different options for family interaction and building close relationships.

The Family Kinkeeper

To help families plan get-togethers or interact using technology, many families have a member who takes on the role of a family “kinkeeper.” Kinkeepers are family members who help enable and assist family communication. Kinkeepers plan family gatherings or help the family keep in touch with one another by providing updates on issues such as graduations, birth of a baby, or publicizing support needs if a family member becomes unemployed or is having surgery.

Even with the increase in available technologies that can help families stay connected, most family kinkeepers have been, and still are, women. We first studied kinkeepers in 1996 and learned that 85 percent were women, mostly in middle-age (mothers, aunts, and grandmothers), who ranged in age from 40 to 69 years, with some taking on the role into their 70s (Leach et al., 1996). As kinkeepers age, they usually pass the role down to younger family members.

Changes in the Kinkeeping Role Over Time

In recent years, we decided to come back and study kinkeepers again. Our goal was to understand how, if at all, the kinkeeper role has changed. We thought this was especially important with the growth in different communication technologies, such as texting and social media (Braithwaite et al., 2017). In this study we tracked the work of 34 kinkeepers over a two-week period, examining reports of 1,487 interactions of kinkeepers and their family members.

Not surprisingly, today’s kinkeepers communicate most frequently using text, telephone, email, and social media. The messages they send and receive are centered on everyday activities, family rituals, and the health and safety of family members. This includes updates and reminders, planning dinners, talking about current events, or sharing photos or family history. One of the kinkeepers explained what she did:

I sent out a photograph from a family gathering at our grandparents’ home on a summer Sunday in the mid-1950s. I have more than 50 cousins on my mother’s side and most of us are rather close, considering the time and distances involved. I send out photos or notes from time to time to remind the cousins that they are remembered.

We learned that kinkeepers regularly send out current news about family members and items they thought would be of interest, as well as cartoons or jokes. Kinkeepers were often solely or centrally involved in planning family events such as birthday parties, weddings, reunions, graduation celebrations, and memorial services.

In terms of the different ways kinkeepers communicate, in our study, text messaging accounted for 27 percent of the total kinkeeping interactions, followed by telephone (22 percent), social media (19 percent), and email (17 percent). In total, these four ways to communicate with family accounted for 85 percent of all kinkeeper interactions. To understand how pervasive mediated communication is, in our recent study, in-person (face-to-face) interaction accounted for just 8 percent of the kinkeeping work. Thus, family kinkeepers today need to be savvy at using different technologies and keep up on technological advances, and, at times, kinkeepers may have to teach less-skilled family members how to use these technologies as well.

Challenges for Family Kinkeepers

While kinkeepers may experience benefits to taking on this role, it is important to remember that the role may be challenging in terms of time or financial commitments and emotional demands. These middle-aged women (and men for that matter) who take on the kinkeeping role are likely balancing many different demands in their own lives at home, at work, and in their communities. They may have their own caregiving responsibilities for children, partners, and/or ill or older family members. We can easily envision various demands of kinkeeping work at any stage of life.

Even when conditions are not the best for taking on a time-consuming role in the family, kinkeepers are still expected to find the time to help the family maintain their ties. In fact, researchers have found that kinkeepers tended to dedicate time to their role, no matter what is happening in their own lives. In addition, the demands of kinkeeping tasks often take away from time kinkeepers had to devote and build their own friendships; thus, they may be giving up some of the support they receive from friends.

Finally, kinkeepers do play the role of a family gatekeeper. A gatekeeper is the person in the midst of everything. Gatekeepers have the power to decide what information is shared, when it is shared, and who receives the news (and not). While kinkeepers may benefit from being in the center of family activities and the person “in the know” in the family, they may also find themselves caught in the middle of family disagreements and conflict. Intentionally or unintentionally, kinkeepers may also bring about family conflict.

Even with the challenges kinkeepers face, this can be an important role to help family relationships thrive and stay strong. If your family is experiencing difficulties keeping in touch, one or more people stepping forward to take on the kinkeeping role may be an important answer to help the family become better connected. Since this is a role that is not without costs and challenges, families also need to think about the “care and feeding” of kinkeepers. In other words, families should consider how they can encourage positive kinkeeping roles and help support this important communication activity.


Braithwaite, D.O., Marsh, J., Tschampl-Diesing, C., & Leach, M. (2017). “Love needs to be exchanged”: A diary study of interaction and enactment of the family kinkeeper role. Western Journal of Communication, 81, 601-618.

Gallagher, S. K., & Gerstel, N. (1993). Kinkeeping and friend keeping among older women: The effect of marriage. The Gerontologist, 33, 675–681.

Leach, M. A. & Braithwaite, D. O. (1996). A binding tie: Supportive communication of family kinkeepers. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 24, 200-216.

Rosenthal, C. S. (1985). Kinkeeping in the familial division of labor. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 47, 965–974.

More from Dawn O. Braithwaite Ph.D.
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