Today, millions of American families are separated by distances that are too vast to make day-to-day grandparenting possible.
Whether or not statistics measure this phenomenon, personal experience hints that it is widespread. You can get a personal idea of the extent of the problem by examining your neighborhood or workplace. How many of your friends, colleagues or neighbors live in families with three generations present? How many grandparents in your locale live near their children and grandchildren? How many parents have their own parents nearby?
Why do Americans move so much? The Census Bureau cites many reasons; people move because of need; to make a living, or for health. Others move out of choice; to retire or to heed the call of adventure. Certain regions of the country attract people because they specialize in certain industries or have a specific appeal (Hollywood for the film industry, New York for the financial industry, Silicon Valley for the computer industry, the Sunbelt for retirement). America has always been a nation on the move.
But whatever the reasons, we know that distance adversely affects family closeness and especially the grandparent-grandchild relationship. We know this first-hand because we have been privy to the laments of grandparents, grandchildren, and parents in these circumstances for over twenty years. People of all ages continually call and write asking for suggestions on how to overcome the difficulties distance imposes on their relationships.
Does “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” Hold True?
Many long-distance grandparents want to know if the axiom “out of sight, out of mind’ holds true. They ask, “does living a long-distance away from a grandchild inevitably relegate me to play only a token role in my grandchild’s life?” A grandfather wanted answers, “When such situations are unavoidable is there is anything I can do to countermand the results of not having frequent contact with my grandchildren? Do we have to be strangers? How do I minimize the negative effects of distance? I don’t want to become obsolete as a grandfather.” This is a serious issue with no easy answers.
What are the negative effects that distance inflicts on the grandparent-grandchild relationship? To answer, first we must understand two of the emotional and spiritual ingredients of the “Vital Connection” between grandparents and grandchildren:
ONE: Time alone in a one-to-one situation. Undivided attention between grandparents and grandchildren is difficult to achieve when grandparents and grandchildren live a long distance from one another.
TWO: Day to day contact. To make the bond flourish, grandparents and grandchildren need to be part of one another’s daily life, especially in the child’s early years. Living far apart, grandparent and grandchild do not come to know another because there is little one-to-one contact, and little time for loving attention.
No matter how far grandparents and grandchildren live from one another there are two things working in their favor that can help to keep their bond alive and kicking.
First, young children have the ability to expand time. Remember when you were younger how time moved more slowly, and the streets seemed wider, the buildings bigger? This means the time you spend alone with your grandchild is savored by the child, and can nourish your grandchild for a considerable period. Second, believe it or not, technology is a blessing. It has become a great asset in helping to foster emotional relations over distance. Sure, technology can’t help to soothe a fevered brow, go fishing with a grandchild or help out a harried parent, but it can be a boon to foster ongoing communication—the most indispensable factor in keeping grandparent and grandchild as close as possible no matter how far apart they live.
Here are some basic principles and practical ideas that take advantage of the factors cited above, for long-distance grandparents to use to keep a strong attachment over distance:
- The primary principle is to maintain continuity and communication
- Convene a family conference with children and grandchildren.
- Identify the issues and discuss the pitfalls and problems of being geographically apart.
- Pledge to minimize the damage to the fabric of the family by keeping in constant communication and being physically together as much as possible. The kids will love to hear this.
- Devise a step-by-step action plan to be together as much as possible. Kids will love this too.
- Pledge family financial resources to support the plan. Allocate resources to specific activities. Ex. Pay Grandma’s airfare to visit while Mom and Dad go on vacation. Grandparents save all year and pay for themselves and their grandchildren to attend our Grandparent-Grandchild Summer Camp.
- Allow for as much grandparent-grandchild “alone” time as possible and coordinate this with visits, parent vacations, etc. Plan “alone” outings when together.
To keep an attachment going over distance is to be creative in becoming as much a part of your grandchild’s everyday life as possible. Then, when you get together in person, there will be no gaps in time where you did not know exactly what you both were doing. Young children grow and change quickly. Many tell us that when they don’t talk with their (long-distance) grandparents regularly, and send them pictures, they feel that, when they meet with them, their grandparents don’t really know them. Happily, this changes quickly after a couple of days together. And many complain that their grandparents spend too much time with parents (because they haven’t seen them for so long) and not enough time with the children.
Keeping the connection going is critically important. These modalities allow daily, spontaneous, contact:
Technology, technology, and technology
Technology is a blessing to long-distance grandparents. You can use computers, faxes, or regular (“snail”) mail to keep in meaningful touch with your grandchild.
Lots of kids are computer literate. Grandparents must become computer literate too. Happily, the cost to buy a computer is significantly less than in the past. The opportunities afforded by E-Mail, and now videoconferencing (you can talk with your grandchild real-time, face-to-face) is upon us. E-Mail, computer games, and the ability to send notes back and forth (or recipes, jokes, love letters, gossip) can keep your contact loving, interested, vibrant and relevant. You can even get your own home page on the world-wide-web.
Faxes are useful. One grandmother we know gave all of her grandchildren fax machines so they could keep in touch on a daily basis. Children can fax jokes, report cards, drawings etc. to their grandparents and vice versa. She faxes her grandchildren a little note of encouragement several mornings a week.
Telephone contact is important too. It’s a live voice! But make sure that you call your grandchild alone. Your grandchild wants to feel special, and individual. If you want to call someone else, or talk with everyone in the family make a special call. It’s best to call at a regular time when your grandchild is not rushed, a parent is not harried about getting a meal on the table and people have time to talk.
Mail: Love notes and small tokens are great. If you don’t have a fax or computer, encourage your grandchild to send pictures, report cards etc. Just a note with a piece of chewing gum is O.K. to begin with. Young kids like the thought more than the content. Just the fact they receive a letter is more important than what is in it.
Videotapes & audiotapes. Cameras and tape recorders are excellent ways to establish contact with your grandchild. Your grandchild will treasure videotape or audiotape with you recording the family history, singing a song, and telling a story. Send pictures. Give your grand child his/her own camera to take pictures for you.
Most importantly, be there when your grandchild is born and be there for the important events; graduations, religious passages, recitals, holidays, whatever events your family values highly.
Be creative in using your own ingenuity to keep your grandchild emotionally close. Experience shows when grandparents make the effort to love and care for grandchildren who live far away, the kids know it, and it means the world to them. And when they get older, and are able to travel by themselves, they are eager to take their turn to go to where their grandparents are. “My grandmother really loves and misses me,” ten-year-old Louella writes, “even though I live a thousand miles away from her I hear from her almost every day. She calls and writes and sends me wool for knitting. And every year I spend two weeks with her in the summer. When I get older I am going to go to college in the city where she lives so I can see her a lot.”
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