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Over The River & Through The Woods: Long Distance Grandparenting

Tips for grandparents who live far from their grandchildren

Last month, my family celebrated a special Mothers' Day: my daughter became a new mother -- and I became a new grandmother, and my mom became a great-grandmother! My little granddaughter was named after my grandmother and her father's grandmother. Grandparents are important!

By recent census estimates, there are 70 million grandparents in the United States. First-time grandparents, like first-time parents, may wonder how to succeed in their new roles. Fortunately, there are almost as many ways of being a good grandparent as there are grandparents.

For a variety of reasons, some grandparents and grandchildren have no contact at all, for example, because of bitter divorces with grandparents being denied visitation. But the majority of grandparents are involved to different degrees.

In a 2008 government census, 6.6 million children were found to live with a grandparent, with or without the parents in residence. Other grandparents live within a few miles of their grandchildren. They may see their grandchildren daily: 30% of children whose mothers work outside the home are cared for on a regular basis by a grandparent during their mothers' working hours. Other grandparents see their grandchildren once a week or so. These grandparents intimately watch their grandchildren grow up, but they are not primarily responsible for the childrearing.

Grandparents who live far away from their grandchildren face a particularly difficult challenge. How can grandparents form a close bond with their grandchildren when they are together so seldom?

Families today are often fragmented. In generations before the Baby Boomers, men and women married someone from their hometown and moved a few miles away. Today, that is no longer the case. Through no fault of their own, seniors and their adult children may live thousands of miles apart. Cheap airfare enables people to relocate and also enables visits, so people today don't put as much value in staying put as they used to. Education has become prolonged and may take young adults far from home, where they meet and marry people with backgrounds very different from their own. Career opportunities may take couples to the other side of the country (or the other side of the world), and this may include the grandchildren.

Grandparents may have careers of their own that keep them from following when their loved ones move away, or perhaps they cannot afford to move. In addition, moving closer to the grandchildren may not be practical because of health considerations: seniors may feel the need to remain near their trusted doctors who have known them for many years and near hospitals where they have come to feel secure.

So, too, climate challenges may keep the extended family apart. Some people cannot bear cold temperatures and snow, others hate heat, and still others have no tolerance for high humidity. Extreme weather conditions can be difficult at any age but are especially problematic in the later years. Some locations may be unsuitable because there are persistent allergens to contend with, from plant pollens to industrial pollution. And some seniors dislike the hustle and bustle of city living, while others cannot imagine living anywhere else.

And as if all these conditions and requirements were not difficult enough, imagine what happens when grandparents do move closer to their grandchildren, only to watch their adult child pick up and leave shortly thereafter. I once asked a retired pharmacist why he had moved to California from New York; he told me that he had relocated to be near his daughter and her husband, both professors at Stanford University, and his two grandchildren - but within a year they had moved back East to accept appointments at Cornell. Should he follow them again? Would they stay in Ithaca? He was puzzled and didn't know what to do.

Now imagine having several adult children with several grandchildren among them, and the families are spread out across the country in different cities. Which set of grandchildren would you follow? How often would you see the others?

The good news is that the lifespan is longer now, giving seniors the longevity to watch their grandchildren (and maybe even their great-grandchildren) grow up. The bad news is that these grandchildren often live far away. So how can long distance grandparents create loving, lifelong bonds with their grandchildren?

Psychological research indicates that there is more to attachment than the amount of time parents and children spend together, and the same principles apply to grandparent/grandchild bonds. Lifelong attachments between grandparents and grandchildren can form even with relatively short periods of physical contact.

Video chat is an amazing tool for long distance grandparents. Grandparents can watch the children grow up, week by week, and in turn, when they meet face to face, the grandparents will not be strangers to the children. With video chat, they can do things together visually: the grandparents might buy two copies of a book at the child's reading level, and send one copy to the grandchild and keep one copy for themselves; Then when they talk on the phone or use video chat, they can read the book together. They can share artwork or "attend" a party virtually. (And yet, is there any real substitution for a big hug and a kiss?)

Children's memories of their time with their grandparents may stay with them throughout their lifetime -- long after their grandparents are gone. In fact, this is true even with no time together at all! I have always felt close to my paternal grandmother, even though she died when my father was a young child: I am named after her, I have photos of her, my father has shared his memories of her, and I use her Sabbath candlesticks, that she brought to the United States from Poland, every Friday night. Remembrances may even be passed down to great-grandchildren, as I hope will be the case for my new granddaughter: generation to generation, a glimmer of immortality.

The long distance grandparenting task, then, is to learn how to form these salient memories. I can offer just a few suggestions here.

A preponderance of research on grandparenting confirms that attachments are best formed by being with one grandchild at a time. Each child is different and each wants to feel special in his or her own way. Taking a trip with each grandchild -- whether it be camping for a week or a quick trip to the grocery store -- is one way of forming one-to-one bonds.

Young children love repetition. That's how they learn. They want to watch Little Mermaid 20 times, and read the same book over and over. It's a rare parent who doesn't get bored after weeks of playing the same game. Grandparents have an advantage here. The movies, songs, books, and games that the child repeats endlessly at home are new and fresh to long distance grandparents. And aging gives us the gift of greater patience, a slower pace, and appreciation of little things; the grandchild has the perfect audience in the grandparents.

In turn, grandparents can initiate their own routines and traditions with the grandchild; for example, by picking an old song from when they were growing up that the child might enjoy. This can become "your song." Like teens in love who think of each other when "their song" is playing, you can create a loving bond with a grandchild by having a song between the two of you. One of my own memories of my grandmother, when I was a very young child, is dancing with her around her apartment, holding her hands, while she sang, "I Don't Want Her, You Can Have Her, She's Too Fat For Me." So okay, I was a little chubby then. But I'm sure she chose that song because she tried it and it made me laugh. It became our song.

And what child doesn't like to eat? Preparing, and even mailing, a particular type of food, repetitiously, can create lifelong memories. For me, it was Grandma's potato knishes and Aunt Rose's butter cookies. Maybe that's how I got chubby in the first place, but the extra pounds came off long ago and the memories remain priceless.

Grandparents can be predictable, to their advantage. Oft repeated stories that are annoying to grown children will be appreciated by young grandchildren; if a grandparent "told them that already," so much the better. So tell the same jokes, share the same stories -- and call on the telephone or video chat at a routine day and time. Let them anticipate. Expectation is part of the fun.

One of the tasks of successful aging is doing a "life's review." This involves dwelling on one's past, making sense of it, making peace with it. When decisions made long ago can be brought into the light, examined, and accepted, one's life can be integrated - past, present, and future, including the acknowledgement of mortality. Healing can take place and drive away despair, drive away each "woulda," coulda," and "shoulda." Telling stories of past history to grandchildren gives them a greater sense of their generational place in the family, and it may teach them something about making decisions, making mistakes, and moving on. Meanwhile, the grandparents are doing the psychological work that will benefit them, too.

Grandparents can tell stories to the grandchildren of what they were like when they were babies. And it's fun for grandchildren of all ages to hear stories about when their parents were young (without undermining the parents' authority with critical anecdotes); the best stories are humorous incidents, or sharing some touching aspect of a parent's character. Children are more tolerant of their parents' idiosyncrasies when they can see their parents as whole people, not just as The Authority and Boss.

When taking a trip together, like going to the beach, grandparents should be sure to set the rules in advance (e.g., who can go into the water, and when). It's often a good idea to stay close to home if the grandchildren are young; if it rains, if they get sick, or if there are discipline problems, home they go.

And although many grandparents are afraid to set limits in their home, especially if the rules are slightly different from the children's home rules, it will not alienate the children to do so and will avoid arguments. Stating limits clearly, offering some reasons, and staying consistent are all important, with logical consequences (e.g., "If you continue to complain about sitting in the back seat of the car, I will go without you.").

If the grandparents plant a bush or a tree at their home when each child is born, they can take photos of it as it grows from year to year and send the photos to the children. Better still is taking pictures of them in front of the tree each time they visit, and watching the tree and the child grow together.

When traveling, grandparents can send attractive postcards or e-cards. They can send ordinary pictures of themselves in their hometown, too, even if the pictures just show daily routines, like playing with a pet. Pictures of the grandparents with their grandchildren, taken during their last visit together, are especially helpful for young grandchildren. Sending video is another good idea.

Slightly older grandchildren can keep in touch through texting or instant messaging, and digital photos. If grandparents don't know how to use a new technology, let them teach you! Preteens and teenagers enjoy feeling like they have valuable expertise. Do they have other, special interests or talents, like playing baseball or collecting fossils? They can teach their grandparents about these interests of theirs, too.

Grandparents can arrange to talk to preteens and teenagers, maybe by cellphone, at times when the teens know the grandparents are not calling to talk to their parents, that the phone call is just for them. The can talk about their problems at school or their favorite music or TV shows; then the grandparents can find out more by watching the TV show or buying the CD and really listening to it. No, the grandparents don't have to like the show or the music; but perhaps they can talk about it intelligently with the teens and indicate their interest and open-mindedness. It may not be easy to understand this upcoming generation, but grandparents may be able to avoid some generation gap issues if they keep up with technology and popular culture.

When grandchildren visit, grandparents can do basic science projects together, or let the children sleep outside in tent, put on a puppet show, or invent secret codes. Do the grandparents have any hobbies they can share? Perhaps they enjoy photography and can teach some basics to the grandchildren, or cooking together, or yoga.

Ideally, a grandparent is a mentor who can increase a grandchild's aspirations, imagination, decision making, and self-esteem. The children's parents can have the uncomfortable tasks, like critiquing their apearance or making sure their homework gets done. Grandparents can offer unconditional love -- and grandparents are perhaps the only people in life who ever do so.

The benefits of being an involved grandparent actually enrich the world beyond family boundaries. Research shows that adults who were close to their grandparents as children have greater compassion for aging, in themselves and in others, than adults who as children were deprived of these bonds. I still miss my grandparents, who died many years ago. My parents have been loving grandparents to my daughter. I can only hope to be that kind of grandparent now that it is my turn.

Copyright 2010 by Nancy Kalish, Ph.D.

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