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Long distance grandparenting can be challenging, but there are many creative ways to help you stay connected and form a lifelong attachment with your grandchildren. In this article, Lori Ann Wood shares 7 tips to help your long distance relationship flourish as you share love and experiences across the miles.
I never wanted to be ‘that kind’ of grandma. The kind that lives across the country, is too unfamiliar to be comforting when she visits, mails a birthday gift (or check), and attends a graduation or a wedding if it’s a good year. So I am struggling with my new role in long distance grandparenting. I long to watch this new baby grow and to influence her life. I want to be right there in person for the first smile, the first steps, the first day of school, the first date. And I long to be a first-hand witness of my own child growing into her role as a parent.
Maybe you can relate. A 2019 AARP survey found that more than half of American families are dealing with distances greater than 200 miles between a grandparent and a grandchild.
I scoured the Scriptures looking for examples of faraway grandparents and found little to cling to. Life was different back then, for sure. The internet and airplanes have made the distance somehow seem palatable, or at least approachable. But as we navigate this modern life, it seems more important than ever to span the divide.
And in a dramatic turn of events, my young adult child actually wants me close. Many empty nesters experience this. After the tumultuous teen years with your own son or daughter, instead of pushing you away, they’re pulling you in. As new parents themselves, grown children now long for role models, support, and advice (and let’s not forget handy, free babysitters!). But established careers, your own aging parents, and firm roots hold you somewhere else. It is a struggle I didn’t anticipate being so intense.
HOW TO SPAN THE LONG DISTANCE GRANDPARENTING DIVIDE
I am digging deep, determined to conquer the miles between me and my new grandchild. If we’ve learned anything from the separation required from the pandemic, it’s that we can become creative in staying connected. Research shows lifelong attachments can be formed between long-distance grandparents and their grandchildren. The key is being intentional.
And as in anything else with parenting, it takes a village. So I called on my trusted tribe for advice on how to connect with grandchildren long distance. Here are seven ways other faraway grandparents have stayed involved in their grandchild’s everyday life and long-term spiritual development. I’m planning to implement every one.
Spoiler alert: Many involve ever-changing technology. If you’re not tech savvy, now is the time to enlist a neighbor or a friend’s teenage child to get you up and running. Like it or not, it will be crucial in order to stay relevant.
7 TOOLS TO HELP YOUR LONG-DISTANCE RELATIONSHIP THRIVE
By far, the number one response I got to my question about how to stay connected to a faraway grandchild was to call them. When they are very small, video calling works best. The combination of your voice and your face are captivating and familiar, even to babies.
Eventually, voice calls and text messages should become part of your grandparenting routine. Set a specific time so they’ll look forward to hearing from you at regular intervals. Or choose certain events of the day or week: after school, just before bed, Saturday mornings. Share what’s going on in your life, or use the time to teach them a skill or craft, such as knitting or painting. Older kids appreciate sessions on joke-telling or magic tricks delivered via video chat.
Carefully chosen long-distance grandparent gifts can be an investment in your relationship with your grandchild. Consider paying for a tablet and possibly a hotspot so you can connect while they have ‘downtime‘ in the car running errands, on the way to school, or on road trips. Once they reach a parent-approved age, offer to help pay for a simple phone where yours is one of the few numbers they can call.
Voice calls or video calls, Facetime or Duo, Skype or Zoom, planned or spontaneous—make it a priority, and make it happen.
The second highest suggestion I received about long-distance grandparenting involved photographs and videos. Sharing special events, everyday routines, and even snaps of school artwork or videos of soccer games keeps the connection strong. A popular idea was to set up a shared virtual album. This feature is available on both Apple and Android devices. Invited members can upload photos and view uploads from other members. The FamilyAlbum app offers easy photo sharing even for those of us who are less than tech experts.
For long distance grandparents who prefer something a bit more physical, websites offer easy ways to turn digital photos into books. Shutterfly, Snapfish, and Wal-Mart allow you to create fun layouts and themes for photo books, and even caption photos. For a simple, straightforward option, Chatbooks can be created by selecting photos from your phone and uploading them to their website to create mini books. A subscription for 30-page monthly books starts at just ten dollars. A bonus of the books is their permanence—they can serve to recall together past visits and vacations for years to come.
Another product is Frameo, an electronic frame that is updated with shared family photos and videos. As long as the frame is on, a constant slideshow will display. A similar idea is the LoveBox app that deposits digital messages and photos into an easily accessible and attractive box.
Whatever photo format you decide, make sure your face is familiar to them, and their growth spurts never catch you by surprise.
Another popular idea I heard from long distance grandparents is to go old-school with physical mail. Preschool and elementary age children, in particular, love getting something addressed just to them. Flat rate packages from the post office are especially fun to stuff full of surprises for your grandchild (I used this for my own college-age kids for years). Be sure to include a Bible verse or sweet note in your own handwriting.
On the electronic end, several other mail ideas were also shared with me. You can set up a free email account for a baby as soon as they have a name to begin sending them thoughts and pictures. Even before they can read, you will be creating a treasure trove of memories to unveil for them at just the right time. Over the years, this email address will serve as a depository of memories and stories, a place for them to read about you and from you in years to come. Start sharing your life and your history now for them to read later.
Several websites and apps offer free ecards that can be sent by text or email, including Punchbowl, JibJab, Just Wink, Open Me, and 123greetings. The songs and animation make them appealing to younger children, but teens also love some of the humorous themes. Send (and schedule) them for major holidays or even the minor ones, like National Let’s Laugh Day!
Whether you use paper and pen or some form of an electronic note, your grandchild will enjoy the suspense of opening the mail, and most importantly, she’ll feel your thoughtfulness and care in sending it.
My fellow long-distance grandparents helped me realize that even when you’re not physically together, you can still share fun experiences with your grandchild that will build lasting memories.
Plan ongoing activities that you work on together with your grandchild: start a story via email or a picture via snail mail that is sent back and forth. New sentences, paragraphs, or details of the drawing can be added over several weeks as the work passes between your two mailboxes or inboxes. Paint by number projects and adult coloring pages sent between you and your grandchild can eventually be framed in your home. Seeing how you value this mutual endeavor will speak volumes to your grandchild when they visit.
Other activities involve simultaneous endeavors. Plant a garden in both locations so you can compare progress. Share a meal together while online—prepare, set the table, pray, and eat as if you were both in the same room. Give a magazine subscription or a book as a birthday gift and send one to yourself, too. Then spend time reading your copies together on Facetime or email each other about special features.
The Together app allows you to read a story online to your grandchild or play a game with them online. Several other sites such as Jackbox offer free games that you can play over the web. You can also play some classics online with your grandchild: Scrabble, dominoes, Uno, Crazy Eights and more are available free.
Don’t let distance take the fun out of grandparenting. Grab hold of these tested ideas, or use your own creativity and technology to share experiences across the miles.
Anticipation can also help bridge the empty weeks and months between visits.
Start planning the next trip before you head home from the last one. Involve your grandchild, get them a calendar to mark the day when you’ll be back. For younger ones, put small toys, blocks, or candies in a jar and let them take out or eat one each day to see how long until you’re back. Text or call back and forth to plan upcoming trip details.
Find a credit card with a good frequent flier mileage or gasoline reward program. Use it for everyday purchases, and switch automatic charges to that card. Without even buying anything outside of your ordinary spending patterns, you’ll be earning trips to your grandchild’s door.
One of the best ways to weather a difficult season is with the help of others who have gone before. Just like I did in gathering input for this article, those ahead of us (or those still on the journey, walking alongside) can be a vital resource.
Join other groups of long-distance grandparents. Local libraries and churches often have in-person small groups on grandparenting. Invest in books such as “Long-Distance Grandparenting,” “There’s a Reason They Call It Grandparenting,” or “Long Distance Grandma,” and consider starting a book club with other long-distance grandparents in your community.
Find comrades virtually, too. On Instagram, follow @morethangrand, and @thelongdistancegrandparent. Check out Debbie Anne Williams’ website, join her GAP (Grandparents at Prayer) Facebook group, and get her free resource for grandparents. Sign up for emails from Legacy Coalition, become part of their weekly webinars, and grab their free ebook, “Shorten the Distance Between You and Your Grandchild.”
As you lean into grandparenting from a distance, commit to pray daily and specifically for each grandchild. And let them know you’re doing it! The PrayerMate app allows you to record specific dates and concerns, which could be organized into prayer lists for each grandchild. You can also share prayer requests with your grandchild through apps such as Echo or Ora. Older children may be more apt to put a prayer request in an app than to bring it up in person. If you need inspiration about how to pray, check out these guides: “Power of a Praying Grandparent” and “Prayers for a Generation.”
A handwritten prayer journal is a powerful tool and eventually becomes a keepsake that grandchildren can keep and reread. I found my own mother’s handwritten, heartfelt prayers for me after she passed away, and those are now true treasures.
For older grandchildren, prayer texts and prayer calls can establish a welcome and comforting routine as well. No matter the format or tool you use, prayer is the communication that holds us all together, and your grandchild will not only benefit from the intercession, but from the example as well.
WE’RE ALL IN GOOD HANDS
As far away grandparents, no doubt we will miss some of the big moments in a grandchild’s life. But each of these tools is a small step toward an even bigger goal—we want our grandchildren to trust us with their deepest concerns and their greatest happiness. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it does happen with consistency. As Brene Brown said, “Trust is not built in big, sweeping moments. It’s built in tiny moments every day.”
These tools for how to connect with grandchildren long distance will help us build such tiny moments into our daily routine. While some of these tips will work for every distant grandparent, they all won’t work for everyone. And they won’t eliminate those pangs when a grandchild hides from us when we first arrive for a visit, or when they learn to read or roll over without us. But they will begin to mold a grandchild’s heart to include us, knowing we care enough to make them a priority in our lives, despite the unwanted distance between us.
Remember His Provision
And even as those miles seem to crack open grandparents’ hearts, we remember our own Father is known for providing in ways we never expected. His hand can reach across continents and His influence can span generations. Distance has never deterred Him or His purposes. He will use the distance between us and our grandchildren too. The sunny side of the separation is that it gives their parents (our grown children) the space and the strife to figure things out on their own, to lean on God and their spouse, and to find a supportive church.
As a longtime friend and fellow long-distance grandma told me, “The consolation is this: You know that little grandchild is in the best, most loving hands—someone you raised to be their perfect parent, no matter the physical distance between you.”
And it helps knowing that parent, and her faraway parent-turned-grandparent, are in loving hands, too.
What are some other tools you’ve used to stay close to loved ones who live far away? What is a memorable experience you’ve shared with your grandchildren or extended family despite living apart?
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