September 2013
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Long Distance Grandparenting

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In the classic children’s story, Little House on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder describes the parting of the Charles Ingalls family from the rest of the clan. “Grandma and all the aunts hugged and kissed them and hugged and kissed them again, saying good-by.” Such was the scene when our family left a major metropolis 13 years ago and headed for the rural countryside—leaving Grandma, Grandpa, aunts, uncles and cousins, 1,000 miles behind.

At the time, we felt the move was necessary for our children. We wanted them to grow up in a small town. We wanted them to have chores to do, animals to care for, gardens to tend. We wanted them to walk the streets without fear—roam the woods, play in the river, run through the fields. It was a sacrifice that we have never regretted.

At first, the transition was difficult. Our oldest son had pavement withdrawals; but the nearby creek soon won his heart. Grandma, I think, had the hardest adjustment. Over time, however, she began to see the benefits. And, she never gave up nurturing her relationship with the children.

Fostering a long distance relationship between children and adults takes effort—on all sides. But it can be done. Here are some ideas proven to work for other families:

What’s the Parent to Do?

Do what you can to facilitate communication. After our major move, the first thing we did was purchase an unlimited long distance plan. Since the time our children were very young, regular phone time with Grandma, Aunt Kim and Uncle Jerry has been the norm. Grandma never tires of the little boys’ unending telling of silly jokes. She even has a few of her own to tell. Uncle Jerry will listen as they play music and Aunt Kim loves to hear about all the daily goings on in the country. Frequently, friends will call and ask, “Was your phone off the hook? I tried for hours and couldn’t get through.” “No,” I reply, “The kids were just talking to Grandma.”

Parents should also encourage other forms of communication. Grandparents and aunts and uncles love to get mail from their little loved ones. Encourage letter writing and picture drawing. What do you do with all those school papers that come home? After they’ve spent a week on your refrigerator, package them up and send them off to distant relatives.
 

If the distant relative has some technological know-how, encourage your teen to e-mail or text them regularly. Betty Grayham, grandmother of twelve, was included on her daughter’s family cell phone plan so that she could text her family members in Denver for free. Imagine her smile when she receives a text that reads, “Happy birthday, Nana. Love, Kemel.” Or, a picture text with the message “Look at how much snow we got today.”

Make it a point to visit at least once a year. “I think it’s very important to visit them,” says Joanna Horner. “We make it a priority to visit my parents in Tennessee once a year and my parents come our way once a year.” Be aware of your parent’s health when they discuss travelling. Aging parents that should not drive long distances can fly instead. In addition to Colorado, Grayham has a daughter in Florida. They both fly her to their prospective homes every other year for a lengthy visit. Alternatively, they visit her on the opposite years. Offer to help out with the airfare, or pay it if necessary, to keep the bonds strong.

 

Send pictures regularly. Before the digital age, I always got double prints from the developer so that I could share the extras with the family. Now, I rarely print photos. But if Grandma is not computer savvy, please don’t tell her to go on Facebook to see your pictures. Make the extra effort to mail photographs to her. If you find it a hassle to stand in your local photo lab printing pictures, try an online service. A web search for digital photo printing will provide a myriad of sites where you can upload your photos directly from your card. You can then choose traditional prints or have your shots made into gifts like calendars, clothing, books, or stationery. Or, give Grandma a digital frame and periodically send a new memory card with up-to-date snapshots of the kids.

 

For Christmas, or another special occasion, compile home movies onto a DVD. If Grandma doesn’t have a computer, she can pop it into the DVD player and watch it on TV anytime she wants. In fact, send it to aunts, uncles, and family friends that do not see the children regularly. This is not a costly project. Over the course of a year, using an inexpensive point and shoot type camera, allow your children to take a few videos on their own. My children love to take impromptu movies of each other playing musical instruments, doing stunts on the bicycle, or just plain being silly. The older ones have even staged skits using stuffed animals and puppets that send their parents into side-splitting laughter. These little videos are wonderful candidates for Grandma’s DVD. You can also include slide shows of photos you took of them. Using software that is probably already on your computer (Windows DVD Maker is one), it will only cost you the time you put into it.


 
What’s the Grandparent to Do?

If possible, get online. As frightening as it may sound for a lot of older folks, the Internet is how people communicate today. Social networking is all the buzz. But social networking is nothing new. You already have a social network. It includes your family, classmates you still keep in touch with, members of your church or bridge club, those you see at the gym or grocery store. In the computer realm, social networking simply means how people group themselves and find each other online. Facebook currently is the most popular social networking website. On there you will find personal pages, business pages, fan pages for celebrities, and pages for various organizations. You join up with others on Facebook by ‘friending’ each other and then following what they ‘post,’ or say, on their pages. Understand that while having a paper photograph to frame for the top of the piano is what you’re accustomed to, that today’s generation is happy with viewing photos on their computer. Facebook is also where many people post pictures of themselves and their families. Other popular social networking sites include Twitter, LinkedIn, and MySpace.


 
Try Skype. If you have a computer, install the relatively new communication software, Skype. This interface allows people to video call each other free of charge. Using a webcam, you are able to see the person you are talking to on your computer screen. “My husband and my brother-in-law were both excited about getting Skype when my sister and her family moved to Uganda four years ago,” shares LeAnn Wakeman. “My sister’s children were young—two, four, six, and eight—when they left the United States. Without Skype the younger ones would likely have no memories of their aunt, uncle, and cousins.”

 

Send packages. Collect goodies for your distant grandchildren. Whenever you see a little something at a yard sale you think one of them would like, buy it. Picks up books, toys, music, even clothes and shoes and pop them in the mail. Don’t worry about spoiling them. That’s what grandparents are supposed to do. When purchasing though, keep the cost of postage in mind.  And remember that sending several small packages over the course of the year is better than one huge one.

 

Call the grandkids on the phone. Have a nice long chat. Listen to their silly stories. Listen to how the ball game went, the driver’s test, the prom. Share with them stories about your childhood.

 

Invite them for a visit. When your grandchildren are old enough for you to manage for an extended period of time, offer for them to come and stay a weekend, a week or whatever feels comfortable. Joanna Horner’s oldest daughter said that she got to know her grandparents in a way she never would by spending a week with them last summer. Put what you would normally do on hold and take the time to spend with them, doing the things they would enjoy.

In Laura Ingall’s day, a long distance move probably meant never seeing your loved ones again. “Back in the Big Woods so far away,” wrote Wilder, “Grandpa and Grandma and the aunts and uncles and cousins did not know where Pa and Ma and Laura and Mary and Baby Carrie were. And sitting there by the camp fire, no one knew what might have happened in the Big Woods. There was no way to find out.” Today’s world is much smaller. And with the latest technology, it seems to get smaller all the time. Take advantage of these methods, or even the more traditional ones, and your loved ones won’t seem far away at all. In fact, they can be just a text message away.

 

Freelance writer Carol J. Alexander and her six children have used all these methods to stay in touch with their long distance relatives.

Updated 4:26 pm, July 9, 2018
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