A Family Virtue That Men Are Pretty Bad at Protecting

We can get a lot better at "kinkeeping," fellas. Here's how it works.

A man on a bike ride with three kids, black and white.
Kinkeepers regularly put in the work to make things feel special.
Photo by Valerie WINCKLER/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

I read a fascinating article in The New York Times a few weeks ago about the sociological role of “kinkeeping.” As the name suggests, it relates to relatives — a kinkeeper is a family’s thoughtful steward, a person who tends the family’s fire and keeps it burning bright.

It sounds like one of those TikTok words (and it is), but it also has researched roots. The APA Dictionary of Psychology defines kinkeeping as “promoting and protecting relationships between family members.” It sounds nice — what family couldn’t use someone who’s organized and generous? Someone who’s able to steer clear of the usual family drama in order to make things happen?

That said, the word’s official definition includes another blatant fragment: “[It’s a role] usually assumed by women.” And it’s true. Researchers have demonstrated that women are almost always the designated kinkeepers of their families and extended families. They don’t just keep the fire burning — they collect the kindling, start the fire and protect it from the wind, too.

This dynamic may had made more sense on a large scale half a century ago, but the workplace looks completely different these days — and besides, there’s also long been a “leisure gap” in men’s favor, to the tune of five hours a week. If women aren’t working for pay, they’re working for the family’s contentment, compelled to find creative and consistent ways to keep people entertained, motivated, surprised or inspired. Think cooking family-favorite foods, organizing birthday parties, arranging for kids to join teams, booking experiences like concerts or games, making reservations for romantic dates or planning family reunions.

Believe it or not, men still lag behind women in housework (despite gains in education and employment and the fact that “dirt blindness” has been disproven). So shouldn’t the focus be on shortening the gap on real house chores before we start fretting about trivial fare like putting pumpkins out on the front stoop?

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Not necessarily. It all matters. Kinkeeping only seems like a relaxed job — or an even glamorous one — to the people who don’t do it. And the unjust irony of it all is that the same women who work so hard to make sure something happens are sometimes the ones least likely to enjoy it because they’re either working through it, overly invested in making sure everything goes perfectly or mentally already on to the next thing. This can breed resentment and lead to emotional burnout.

Recently, as my parents were sorting through old boxes and binders from my schoolboy days, I reread some mini essays I wrote in the fifth grade. One of them talks about my love of the holidays — the foods I couldn’t wait to eat, the decorations I was always so excited to see. All the little rituals. Well, kinkeepers are ritual generals. That fifth grader didn’t fully realize the sweat that went into making sure the holidays always felt special (even with me waxing poetically in essays). You’re a kid. You expect magic on certain days of the year. In return, you promise to not be a pain the neck and ruin everything.

But that arrangement doesn’t seem appropriate for adult men, right? We have to do our part in kinkeeping, even if it feels like extra work (which it may well at first, if you’re not used to doing it). But the payoff could be immense.

In whatever form it assumes, it’ll take pressure off your partner, create more opportunities for familial connection — at a time when older Americans are increasingly kinless — and give you a more proactive role in your larger family, which might catalyze a self-fulfilling cycle. (That’s to say, you may start a ritual that you thought of and like; and if it appeals to others, amazing, it’ll keep happening because you commit to the bit.)

Before doing anything, start by thinking about how kinkeeping manifests in your family (both your intimate and extended family). Do people show gratitude for whomever assumes this role? Do you? From there, consider the hallmarks of their kinkeeping. How can you help? Are there any rituals you can add? Talk to them, express your appreciation and desire to help, then start looking forward.

What binds us beyond our shared names? What will prove most memorable in our disconnected digital age? I’d say silly things — stuff like cookies, reunions and water fights. But making them happen takes some work. And we should all be able to enjoy them when they arrive.

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