The bond between grandparents and grandchildren is unique. Ideally, grandparents enjoy the company of a grandchild free of the stresses and responsibilities of a parent, and the grandchild basks in the grandparents’ undemanding attention and love.
If you live far away from your grandchildren, you may worry that this bond will be harder to maintain. When you don’t spend time with grandchildren, will they grow up barely knowing you? You worry that they may feel closer to the “other” grandparents because they see them more often.
You can be an integral part of your grandchild’s life even if you aren’t geographically close. Here’s how…
Maximize Video Calls
You don’t have to be a technical wiz to use video-call services such as FaceTime (for iPhones), Google Hangouts (for both Android and Apple devices) or Skype (for computers, tablets and smartphones). Being able to see each other on a call creates a greater feeling of closeness and involvement. Video also lets you see how your grandchildren are changing over time so that you feel part of their development.
To get the most out of video calls…
Favor frequent, short calls over less frequent ones. Grandparents often think that the key to a close relationship is long, in-depth conversations. Not true! Calls can be short, but they should be frequent. A video chat allows you to stay in touch without being intrusive. Schedule a recurring day and time so that the call is an expected routine that the child looks forward to.
Enlist the child’s parents as allies. Tell your children—your grandchild’s parents—that you want to build the most positive relationship possible for the grandchild’s sake as well as yours, and find a regular time that is convenient for the family. Get the parents’ input on the activities, projects and interests that are central to their kids’ lives so that you can bring these up during chats.
When a new grandchild arrives, start your video chats soon after. As the baby grows and begins to respond to your voice and face, you will be establishing a connection and a ritual that are special to the child.
Ask questions that are easy to answer. Children—even teenagers—generally are not good at small talk. They tend to clam up at questions such as, “How are you? What did you do in school today? What’s new?” Make your questions specific instead of open-ended—“What was something funny or weird that happened in school today? Do you like your teacher?”
Just as you do with your friends, ask your grandchild about the things he/she enjoys. Example: If the child is interested in dinosaurs, you could ask, “What’s the biggest dinosaur? The scariest? Wow, that’s such a long name—can you show me a picture? What else can you tell me about Tyrannosaurus rex?”
Ask an older child about sports, crafts, shopping, movies, theater, video games or other interests.
Don’t just talk. Read the child a story or have him read to you. Based on your grandchild’s interests, ask him to teach you the words to a song…share a favorite poem…play the piano for you…demonstrate a new toy. Ask an older child to show you a model car, craft project or scrapbook. Find out her favorite food, and offer to cook it together the next time you visit.
Send Surprises by Mail
As people rely more heavily on electronic communication, receiving packages in the mailbox every few weeks is a very special treat. Don’t make these gifts elaborate or expensive. Depending on what your grandchild enjoys, you might alternate among books, puzzles, craft kits, games the family can play together, notebooks, key chains, costume jewelry or homemade delights such as a cartoon or other picture you drew just for the child. Search the Internet for “inexpensive gifts for kids” or “inexpensive gifts for teens” for more ideas.
Learn Your Grandchild’s Communication Tools
Find out what methods your grandchild uses to communicate with his friends, and try using one or two of those tools. Expect these methods to change as the child grows—and be sure to embrace those changes.
Example: Older children often prefer text messaging or Instagram to Facebook, e-mail or talking by phone.
Have fun exchanging jokes, funny videos, cute animal pictures and photos you take of interesting sights in your neighborhood. On smartphones, you can play games together, in real time, from a distance, such as Scrabble, Words with Friends or the trivia game QuizUp.
Make the Most of Visits
Whether you visit the family on their turf or they visit you, arrange to spend at least some time alone with your grandchild or grandchildren without their parents. If possible, spend time with each sibling individually as well. You will interact differently with each other one-on-one. Children feel special when you spend time alone with them.
Consider a family vacation destination. If budgets allow, a vacation for the whole family away from home—whether at a cabin or a family-friendly resort—can be a wonderful way for all generations to reconnect away from the tensions of school and work.
Make kid time convenient for the parents. During a visit, offer to take the children for an excursion so that the parents can have some uninterrupted time together…or, if possible, watch them for the weekend so that the parents can have a child-free getaway.
Keep outings simple. When spending time with your grandkids, don’t get caught up in planning elaborate outings that put everyone under pressure to have a good time. Often, the most enjoyable and memorable excursions involve low-key activities that will be fun for all and that give you something to talk about together.
Examples: Miniature golf, a movie, the zoo, a library or children’s bookstore or just a walk in nature searching for signs of the season.
At home, enter your grandchild’s world. When at your grandchild’s home for a visit, do what the child loves to do. Draw pictures together…play dress-up or make-believe…read to each other…find nursery rhymes on YouTube and sing them together. Play a card game, and let the child make up the rules. Ask an older child to teach you the finer points of using your smartphone, walk you through a dance routine or play you a song or video he downloaded.
In addition to playing, take part in the activities of daily life. Help your grandchild wash up at bedtime…look after the family pet…make lunch for each other. Some of the closest feelings and fondest memories are created during relaxed, everyday time together.
When Other Grandparents Live Nearby
Living far from your grandchildren can be especially painful if other grandparents live close to them. You may feel left out or at a disadvantage.
This doesn’t have to be the case! If you shift your thinking so that you do not view the situation as a competition, everyone will benefit. And if you don’t, your anxiety and resentment may negatively affect how you act around your grandchildren—and around the other grandparents. Remember that the more people who love a child, the better, and children have a limitless capacity to receive affection.
Focus on enjoying your interactions with your grandchild, and you will be able to build a unique and rich relationship no matter where you live.