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Tips: Keeping in Touch with Grandchildren Who Live Far Away
Dr. Dale V. Atkins, April 2005

As mentioned in TIPS, 66 % of all grandparents live more than a day's drive away from their grandchildren. It is a challenge to find ways to stay in touch over the miles. Because we all have busy lives (particularly children), it is up to grandparents to take the initiative to foster and maintain a close bond with grandchildren. Of course, visiting and just being together (gardening, cooking, building something, playing Scrabble) is wonderful, and whenever possible, visit them regularly. Also, offer them the invitation to visit you because nothing beats face-to-face contact. In between visits, there are some tips at the end of this article to help you maintain your relationship.

It might be helpful to keep in mind the kind of grandparent you want to be. What were your relationships like with your grandparents? How do you want your grandchildren to think about you and relate to you? Also bear in mind that it is difficult to think about the relationship you have with your grandchildren without addressing the one you have with their parents, your adult children. Even though this article is about grand parenting across the miles, try to appreciate that the relationship you have with your adult child can influence your perception of your grandchildren as well as their perception of you.

Although most grandparents depend on their children for information about their grandchildren, as the children get older, the line of communication can become more direct. How you communicate is as important as how often you communicate. The wonderful thing about grandparents is that they can be available for consultation but be careful about giving advice. Rather, listen to what your grandchild is saying and then respond with a caring and open statement like, "This sounds like something you have been thinking about. If you are interested in my thoughts about it sometime, just let me know."

Grandparents can play a vital role in the lives of their grandchildren. Few people can be as unconditionally supportive of a child as a grandparent. Some of our greatest "cheerleaders" are our grandparents. Since this is a relationship of the heart, keep your heart open and the connection will be easier. Try your best to get the message across that you care about and are encouraging of your grandchildren.

Not only do grandparents help to socialize their grandchildren they are excellent resources for family history, values and traditions. Their perspectives are frequently different from their children's and grandchildren have the potential to benefit greatly to this exposure.

Bear in mind that grandparents need to be careful about interfering. It is essential that you do not interfere as you are being supportive. Fine line, right? Remember, these are not your children. They are your grandchildren. Your role is to be encouraging and supportive. Be careful that you are not offering unsolicited advice and that you are careful not to criticize their parents (your adult children) in front of them. The rules in your house may be different from the rules in their house. Be mindful of the rules your grandchildren are brought up with because if you are undermining their parents, you are likely to put a wedge between you. Grandchild may end up being in the middle which is not a comfortable place at all. Whether your grandchildren are dealing with difficulties in their life or not, what they need from you is someone who will listen to them and someone who understands them and their point of view.

Grandparents who live far from their grandchildren need to be a bit creative in keeping the connection alive and vital. There are countless ways to keep in touch and with all of the technological advances; frequent contact is within most people's grasp. Once you are committed to developing and maintaining a bond, you will discover ways to stay connected that will surprise you. Although a challenge, maintaining contact over the miles provides you with many opportunities to get to know your grandchildren (and they you) in different yet substantive ways. It is not uncommon for some grandparents who live far from their grandchildren to have "closer" relationships with their grandchildren than those who live nearby.

So how do you do you create and maintain a close relationship over the miles? Depending on the age of the children, and the ways they communicate best, be sure you write notes and letters, sending cards with enclosures i.e. leaves you pick up when they drop from the trees, a packet of seeds your grandchild can plant in the garden you tilled together the last time you visited, stickers for your granddaughter's collection, or coupons for an ice cream at the mall. And don't forget the value of including a funny cartoon or article about a movie you talked about or something happening in the news. Connections take many forms.

When you send pictures, send pictures of yourself involved in something. "Here I am with my bowling team. Next to me are Josie, Evelyn, Sandra and Roxanna. Two of them have grandchildren who also live far away." "Here is a picture of your grandma and me on a fishing boat. We had a great time and caught three fish." Often grandparents are receiving photos from their children and grandchildren but do not send any back about THEIR lives. You are trying to develop a relationship and that goes both ways. Tell your grandchildren what YOU are doing and are interested in so they have a sense of YOUR day and YOUR life and what is important to you as a person. You are MORE than "grandma" (the person described to them by their parents…YOUR children.) To a grandchild, you can be a different person… unique with many more facets.

By sharing "hobbies" or interests you create a "space" which is just yours. You can not only talk about and collect information about that particular hobby or interest but you learn together. There are few things as exciting as creating an area of interest with a child, especially as a way to bridge the miles between you.

Just because you live a distance from one another does not mean you cannot share stories and read to your grandchildren. Make tapes of yourself reading stories or telling stories so they can hear them in the car, while playing, or relaxing on their own. If you have created a particular area of interest, you can develop it and share with your grandchildren. Telling a special story and keeping that story alive by creating "chapters" every time you see them or sending a tape helps solidify your connection. If you do this, be sure to keep notes because the kids will be asking questions about the "adventures" of this character (and you want to be sure you have your facts straight!) Also ask what your grandchildren are reading so you can discuss their selections.

As a way to share your values, introduce them to stories about people in history who are your heroes and tell them why you admire these special people. Find out about their heroes.

Many grandparents keep to a theme and promote the theme throughout their grandchildren's lives. One grandmother who lives near a beach introduced her young grandchildren to the world of the sea first by shell collecting and then with wonderful walks along the tide pools, and visiting aquatic centers. As the children grew up they not only developed an appreciation for the sea and caring for the environment, but they associated the sea with their grandmother. She taught them to snorkel and most of the books and gifts she sent them were related to marine life.

When the kids are older, consider traveling with them without their parents. Maybe you can take a family vacation together and then take the grandchildren for two of the five days for a special excursion. I know of a family who traveled together to Florida and when there, the grandparents and the grandchildren drove to the Keys for a few days on their own.

If possible, plan visits when the grandchildren are engaged in a special event (dance recital, swim meet, 4-H fair) as well as enjoying the rhythm of their normal life.

Grandchildren and grandparents can experience expansive and nurturing relationships over the miles. Remember to think about the kind of grandparent you want to be and then make it happen.

TIPS:
1. Frequent and Varied Communication: Frequent phone calls help us stay in touch. But don't forget about sending letters in your own handwriting, greeting cards with enclosures (stickers, cartoons, articles from the newspaper), postcards and audio/video tapes (read or tell a story so they can hear your voice and see you "in action".)

2. Kids Love Technology: Become computer savvy and let technology work for you. Use e-mail, instant message, web-cams and exchange digital photos. You can even "surf the internet" together and help on school projects!

3. Find Things to Communicate About: After opening up the conversation with "How are you doing?" establish a bond with something that is "just yours" to talk about. Share a hobby. Knowing what your grandchildren are interested in makes conversation more interesting. If your grandson loves baseball, be sure you read the stats and call to talk about how his favorite team is doing. If you cook together when you visit, talk about a tasty culinary tip.

4. Connect with Stories and Family History: Make an emotional connection by sharing favorite stories such as "Did I ever tell you about your Grandma's and my first date?" Offer information about your family history and traditions such as, "Let me tell you a story about my precious candlesticks."

5. Set Goals: Make a plan with your grandchildren and their parents to stay in touch so everyone knows what to expect.




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