Ten tips I envy my friends whose parents live nearby. Not only is free babysitting just a phone call away, but their children are privileged to develop a special bond with their grandparents. My son’s grandparents, aunts and uncles live thousands of miles away in Pakistan. We try to visit every other year or invite them to come here, but it’s not the same as living close by. Not everyone’s grandparents live halfway across the world, but visiting them may entail a long flight or car trip. Still, “out of sight, out of mind” need not hold true. Here are some tips to help overcome the obstacles to long-distance grandparenting.
1 Start young. Look for soft, plastic picture-album books such as Sassy’s Who Loves Baby? Slip a picture of a loved one in each sleeve and instantly it can be a family story to read to your infant. Or make one by placing pictures between contact paper and binding the pages with a soft spine. Soon your child will begin to recognize the familiar faces. Include pictures of grandparents who have passed on to minimize that void in your child’s life—and his scrapbook.
2 Pick up the phone. Shop around and take advantage of cell phone plans that offer free nights and weekends. Amy Goyer, coordinator of the AARP Grandparent Information Center, believes that grandparents can build amazing relationships with toddlers. “Toddlers recognize people. They laugh out loud if someone amuses them. These little social beings love hearing voices on the other end of the telephone line,” she says.
3 Personalized stories. Make up stories with immediate relatives as main characters such as “Jack’s Sleepover at Nana’s” or “Grandpa and Jane Go to the Zoo.” Capitalize on the fact that children love repetition and soon it’ll become the “Grandpa Story.” Look for books at dollar stores and portrait studios with cutouts to slide in pictures of loved ones to make them visual parts of the story.
4 Audio-visual ideas. Ask grandparents to record personalized messages in talking picture frames and do the same for them. Goyer suggests grandparents tape stories for grandchildren from memory or by reading aloud from a book and sending that tape as a special gift. Children love to be the center of attention: Capture them on video with their grandparents and make copies so everyone can watch when they’re not together.
5 Connect with your computer. Invest in a video-cam so your parents can see you and your children in action. Tehmina Mehmood of Wheeling, mother of 1-year-old Ramis, doesn’t wait for a special occasion to take out her camera. She e-mails pictures regularly and then mails a CD so that both sets of grandparents, in different countries, can print and enlarge the poses they like best. If grandparents don’t have e-mail, fax copies of report cards or mail kids’ artwork. Encourage grandparents to reply even if they are not computer savvy. Children love receiving their own mail; a surprise package from Gramps can make their day.
6 Family reunions. Sacrifice your expensive cruise to take a vacation with your extended family. Save on other things so that you can afford to visit more often. Mehmood schedules professional family portraits and hangs pictures on the wall so that Ramis can “see” grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins every day. Exchange hand-me-downs among cousins. One’s trash may be the other’s treasure, especially if the younger child idolizes the older one.
7 History lesson. Make distant grandparents seem close by delving into the family’s past. Older kids can get involved in making a family tree. Look for old family pictures, recipes and antiques. Highlight similarities and share anecdotes about different family members. Talk about heirlooms and consider making a family time capsule.
8 Special occasions. Fly in grandparents for births, graduations and other events if possible. Otherwise, wrap up a present from grandparents so that your child remembers Grandma sent him a train set for his birthday. Encourage kids to give personalized gifts to grandparents, such as a collage of their artwork laminated into a placemat.
9 Build bridges. Grandparents might not know Yu-Gi-Oh! from Beyblade, but if parents build bridges, they are fast learners. Make them instant heroes by buying your child’s current favorite toy on their behalf before they arrive for a visit. You’ll save them hours of wandering in toy store aisles and you’ll cherish the look on your 4-year-old’s face when Nana brings the exact My Little Pony she wanted. Encourage sharing and swapping interests between generations. Arrange for one-on-one time where they can enjoy each other and give busy parents a breather, too.
10 Let grandparents reciprocate. Grandparents might have ideas for connecting with their grandchildren but may hesitate because they don’t know how their suggestions will be received. Give them the green light to “hide” notes of encouragement around the home that kids can find later or let the kids have a jelly bean from the special jar corresponding to the number of days until they see their grandparents again.
Kiran Ansari lives in Roselle with her husband and 3-year-old son, Yusuf.