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The (Almost) Lost Art of Kinkeeping Makes Families Happy

Here are 8 ways you can stop kinkeeping from becoming extinct.

Key points

  • Kinkeepers are the family communicators who help the extended group stay in touch.
  • Social science research has determined the act of kinkeeping acts as a sort of familial glue.
  • The work of kinkeeping is still predominantly done by women.

I was delighted to read an article in the New York Times titled "The Constant Work to Keep a Family Connected Has a Name" for a couple of reasons. First, it made me aware of the term “kinkeeping” to describe labor that, as a psychiatrist, I know exists and is vital to the health of our communities but often goes unnamed. Second, the article points out something consistent with my observations as a clinician: that the work of kinkeeping is still predominantly done by women.

What do kinkeepers do?

Kinkeepers are the family communicators who help the extended group stay in touch by sharing family news and planning family gatherings. They create or carry on family traditions and celebrate birthdays and holidays. Kinkeepers also coordinate the medical care of relatives and perform emotional caregiving. Social science research has determined kinkeeping fosters family connectedness by acting as a familial glue.

Source: August de Richelieu / Pexels
Source: August de Richelieu / Pexels

From my 25 years spent as a clinician, it is my observation that the art of kinkeeping is at threat of extinction for several reasons:

  • Women, traditionally assigned the role of kinkeeper, thanks to better educational and employment opportunities, now have other options for how they spend their time. More notably, no one else has stepped in to fill the resultant void.
  • The definition of family has changed, and this has altered the scope and definition of the work of kinkeepers.
  • The geographical distance between family members has increased, posing barriers to effective kinkeeping.
  • Many old-world or religious lifestyles that had kinkeeping activities built into their fabric have declined in popularity.
  • Kinkeeping activities can be thankless, taken for granted and viewed as having little value.
  • Role strain in our modern lives is an obstacle to performing kinkeeping duties. For instance, modern parenting has expanded to encompass the roles of tutor, driver, coach, or manager. These other responsibilities can conflict with kinkeeping duties.

What happens if this art form becomes extinct?

In my experience, the decline of kinkeeping is an underacknowledged contributor to the epidemic of loneliness experienced by one out of two American adults.

Feeling emotionally distanced from our families or not feeling rooted in a sense of familial identity or traditions also seems to be a social factor that exacerbates many common mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety.

Finally, family members play a huge role in keeping people healthy, either via their role as health care advocates or as caregivers. If kinkeeping becomes extinct, it may mean poorer health care outcomes for individuals and more strain on health care systems that are already at capacity.

Try these strategies for keeping your family connected and healthy.

1. Set expectations that everyone in the family will play the role of kinkeeper.

Having protected time set aside for kinkeeper duties may feel like a luxury. One way to offset that bind is to set an expectation that everyone in the family will be a kinkeeper. This underscores the fact that we all benefit from the work of kinkeepers, so we should all do our part to contribute.

For example, all the tasks associated with a family celebration should be divided equally (e.g., one member is responsible for grocery shopping, others for cooking, others for cleanup, and so on). Children should be encouraged to take on age-appropriate tasks, too.

If a relative needs ongoing emotional support as the result of a bereavement or sickness, every available family member should take turns checking in, and preferably these contacts should be coordinated. This helps reduce the strain on any one individual without diminishing the support offered.

Regular family meetings with agendas that give advance notice of upcoming important dates may help take some chaos out of kinkeeping activities and allow time for the equitable distribution of tasks.

2. Recognize that some family members will need upskilling.

Communication, compassion, and empathy will not come naturally to everyone. Rather than expecting other family members to overcompensate for this deficit, it’s more productive to encourage a view that such skills are teachable and kinkeeping is a role one can grow into.

3. Cultivate a collective tolerance for new ideas about how to connect.

If a family member would prefer to connect differently—say, by organizing a game night or planning a nature hike rather than coordinating an elaborate meal—that should be supported. Rigidity about what constitutes kinkeeping interferes with the overarching mission: to have a memorable, joyful gathering.

4. Accept when kinkeeping is becoming stressful.

Kinkeeping can become stressful, especially if it takes up a lot of one’s energy, the work is taken for granted (“I thought you enjoyed doing that”), or a kinkeeper is going through a stressful time. If this is the case, then there is no shame in taking a time-out or delegating and letting self-care take priority.

5. Keep things simple.

Every meal, party, or event does not need to be elevated, upgraded, or “pop” to be worthy of attending. Overcomplicating family events can contribute to unnecessary stress and distract from the main purpose: meaningful connection. Keep things simple and shy away from details that don’t serve your family.

6. Establish a family philosophy tailored to everyone’s values.

Meals cooked from scratch versus takeout? One large reunion versus several intimate dinners? Elaborate gift-giving versus handmade trinkets? Be on the same page about what effective kinkeeping feels like to you as a family.

7. Expand the definition of kinkeeping to include chosen family.

For those with familial origins steeped in trauma and toxicity, kinkeeping may have a negative connotation. Kinkeeping does not have to be limited to family of origin and may be expanded to include, or only include, one’s chosen family. The goal is to leverage the art of kinkeeping to create a healthy support system.

8. Don’t over-rely on digital tools to stay connected.

Digital tools can be a wonderful way to stay in touch, but don’t rely too much on them. Regular, real-time, face-to-face connection should be the foundation of relationships.

Don’t assume your family will stay happy and connected. The (almost) lost art of kinkeeping has historically played an undervalued role in fostering familial solidarity. Incorporating kinkeeping into your life in a way that is attuned to your values will help keep your family happy and maintain those close connections.

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