When it comes to forming a bond with grandchildren across county and state lines, calling little Annie to ask, “How was your day at school?” won’t suffice. Using a phone for anything other than texting and photographing is a Hannah Montana-generation horror. You may receive a few grudging moments of attention between soccer practice, homework, and a text message from her BFF that makes her LOL. But those distracted moments will provide little insight into how Annie is really feeling.
If hope for a strong bond with far-away grandchildren seems bleak, you may not be alone. According to a 2002 AARP report, approximately 50 percent of grandparents live more than 200 miles from their grandchildren.
But long-distance grandparents should not be discouraged. The role grandparents play in providing “a sense of continuity beyond the immediate household in which the child lives, continuity over time, across generations, and geographically... apply whatever the distance,” says Dr. Douglas A. Kramer. A clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison. Dr. Kramer is also a member of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP).
Engaging grandchildren in creative activities can provide a forum in which long-distance grandparents can play a meaningful role. Dr. Kramer, who has two toddler-age grandchildren, one of whom is about to move to Europe, uses an online site to maintain a family photo album and videos. (Check out our Picture Box, which lets you collect and store photos privately. Click here to find out more.)
“The fact that they’re doing activities loosens up grandchildren so that they are more forthcoming... [which] leads to a stronger bonding process,” says Doug Hewitt. With his wife, Robin, Hewitt coauthored The Joyous Gift of Grandparenting (Hatherleigh Press, May 2008), a handbook designed to offer advice and practical lessons for grandparents faced with the modern-day realities of grandparenting.
While Hewitt, who has five grandchildren, points out that children’s lives change quickly, and long-distance grandparents might feel at a loss when trying to keep up with the day-to-day details, the rewards of sharing activities can last a lifetime.
Dr. Geri Fox is a professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a member of the AACAP. Dr. Fox watched her daughter’s interest in art blossom through a long-distance relationship with her artist-grandmother. Her daughter would write letters and illustrate pictures and mail them to Grandma, who would have the images reproduced on T-shirts and stationery.
“My daughter really felt that her art was encouraged and valued, and she is now doing art in college,” says Dr. Fox.
Here are additional ways to keep the bond going with your long-distance grandchildren:
Start a Book Club
Book clubs aren’t limited to living rooms, thanks to Skype, software that offers free calling services. Using webcams, as many as ten people can participate in a book club through Skype’s conference-call option, depending on your computer. You’ll have valuable face-time while the group discusses the impact that J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, had on the explosion of children's fantasy novels. Allow your grandchildren to direct the readings, which will give them pride in sharing their knowledge with you.
Make a Quilt
Nineteenth-century American women were known for their ingenuity when it came to keeping the family warm and fashionable by making quilts of discarded fabric. Reinterpret their technique by rescuing your grandchild’s receiving blankets and baby clothes from the dusty attic and transforming them into an heirloom patchwork quilt that tells your family’s story. Freequilt.com features beginner patterns for inspiration. As your grandchildren get older, the squares can be made from camp and concert T-shirts, and be hand-embroidered with significant dates and accomplishments. Take turns adding squares to the blanket by mailing it back and forth.
Create a Fantasy Sports League
Ignite a friendly rivalry between you and your grandchildren by inviting them into your fantasy sports league. A little trash talking never hurt anyone — poking fun at each other’s general management style will reveal a carefree and clever side of you that may be new to your grandchildren. Beware: Age and experience are not always advantages. Charles Pike of Shrub Oak, N.Y., was taken by surprise when one of his 19 grandchildren, Tommy, 64 years Pike's junior, won the family football pool.
Share Family Recipes
Your own bubby’s sweet noodle kugel recipe can live on through generations with the help of your grandchildren and the Internet. Plan a monthly cooking session that begins with an email exchange of a recipe and grocery list. When it’s time to make the meal, log on to Skype and let loose your inner Barefoot Contessa. Tell stories about your bubby while you cook. It won’t be long before your grandchildren engage in the family history and open up about their own experiences.
Play a Game
Check out the games on Grandparents.com. Across the miles you can do crosswords, sudoku, word jumbles, and jigsaw puzzles. Also, help develop your grandchildren’s strategic thinking skills by playing online chess. You can join a free website, such as Chess.com, to have access to live matches or to turn-based matches, which allow you to ponder moves for days. Parents will have to sign up as guardians for children 12 and younger.
Teach Morse Code
Teach your grandchildren Morse code. Children love secrecy, and they'll want to teach their friends after they learn. This could be done via email with simple "dots" and "dashes" such as SOS being "... - - - ...." Note how educational this activity is, too! And when any two people share a secret (or a code), a strong bond develops.
Both of you can carry around a notebook, pen, binoculars, and a camera as you explore your respective neighborhoods in search of birds. Make notes on birds you see and use field guides to identify them. Exchange photos online. During migratory seasons, this could be especially interesting. And the search really turns into a bonding activity when your grandchildren spot a new bird and get excited about it. Of course, you'll return the enthusiasm in kind!
Play 20-Questions via E-mail
This can be an ongoing game, with you setting the level of difficulty higher and higher. The neat thing about doing this by email is that it's a process that can take a few days or a few weeks. The continuous back-and-forth helps keep the lines of communication open.
How well do you get along with your grandchild and other family members? Want to know if your personalities mesh?Find out here.