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Grandparenting From Around The Globe

Grandparenting From Around The Globe

By Amalah

Hi Amy,

I have a question about super-long-distance family. I’m married to a (wonderful, awesome) man who’s originally from Jordan. We have two boys (3 years and 4 months old).

We try to Skype with my in-laws once a week or so, but lately our older son hasn’t wanted to talk to Teta and Jiddo (Arabic for Grandma and Grandpa). I talked with him a little about why he felt that way, and he said, “Because they’re like strangers.” Ouch. (Granted, he’s going through a rough time right now. He’s super strong-willed, and sibling rivalry is starting to rear its head through misbehavior.)

He loves calling his aunt, uncle, and cousin who live in Canada, since at least his cousin is about the same age and has toys. I totally understand why he’s not super comfortable talking with my in-laws. It’s weird talking to tiny people who live on Mama’s phone. He’s only visited with my mother-in-law five times and my father-in-law twice. On the other hand, he sees my parents at least once a week and frequently spends the night at their house.

We’re probably going to visit my husband’s family this summer. What else can we be doing to stay close with that side of the family? I feel like they’re missing out while my parents get to have sleepovers and weekly family dinners.

Thanks!

Patience, and persistence. And making extra sure that you don’t mistake “pushiness” for persistence.

And also, realistic expectations. Your son probably DOES regard your in-laws as strangers, but it’s not your fault. You aren’t going achieve total family “fairness,” and your son is likely to bond more with your family than your husband’s. And it’s not because of something you’ve done or haven’t done, it’s just the reality of the current situation. Both because of the geography and also where your son is developmentally, particularly in terms of his long-term and autobiographical memory. (Most of us can pinpoint our earliest memory at somewhere between the age of 2 and 3, so expecting a child that age to be bonding long-distance over Skype is definitely a tall order.)

But this will not ALWAYS be the current situation! Which is where the “patience” part comes back in.

He’s 3 and thinks the weekly Skyping is boring, because it probably is for him. Don’t push it, and try not to take it personally.  (And for your in-laws not to take it personally, but hopefully they understand what 3 year olds are like, having raised at least one.) My kids are all more or less the same: Unless there’s a child cousin on the screen or on the phone, they very, very quickly lose interest in conversations with adult family members. So we keep their greetings short, try to have one set action or story for them to share, and if someone is absolutely refusing to participate, that’s okay. Trying to goad/coax/beg a toddler or preschooler to come say hi to a grandparent when they don’t want to will only exacerbate the hurt feelings and awkwardness.

Instead of just “come say hi and tell them what you did today,” come prepared with something your son has already demonstrated some motivation/excitement about. A really cool art project from school or a new toy, for example. His new big kid shoes or potty or whatever. He shows that to the screen, gets a big positive response, then is allowed to either stay and talk about it some more or be excused. (Luckily your 4 month old is still an immobile hostage and can handle the extra screen time.) If he flat-out doesn’t want to join, then YOU share the artwork or story on his behalf. “He was so excited to tell you about this but he’s shy/missed his nap/whatever right now, so I’ll tell you instead.”

And you can take advantage of any daily motivation/excitement on his part to casually loop in a mention of Teta and Jiddo. Fingerpainting? Oh wow, look how great this is. Let’s make an extra one for Teta and Jiddo. That’s a great song and dance you just did! Want to make a movie of it for Teta and Jiddo?

And then do exactly that. Mail them artwork and handmade gifts. Make photo books on the regular and/or have a private cloud drive you update regularly with pics and video. Even if your son didn’t EXPRESSLY make it on their behalf, they’ll appreciate that you’re doing everything you can to include them. They don’t have to know that your son isn’t all that jazzed about them right now, but knowing their daughter-in-law is going out of her way to share all the little fun moments and things they’re missing will help bridge the gap.

And that’s all it is right now. A developmental memory gap that with PERSISTENCE, will eventually be filled in with memories of fun visits and birthday presents and a delayed but eventual bonding. He probably just doesn’t remember his prior visits, but he WILL be able to retain memories from the one this summer. And with persistent follow-up (showing him photos, bringing home lots of souvenirs, talking about things he did and saw, etc.) you’ll be able to cement those memories for him in a positive way. He might not bond super-close or immediately with them (so again: realistic expectations), but they won’t be strangers to him. Rinse and repeat as often as you can swing a visit, and you’re son will have a set of grandparents he might not be all THAT close to (8,000 miles will just do that, to some degree or another), but ones he loves and thinks positively about. Or grandparents who are actually extra special to him, because seeing them is a rare treat.

My sister lives across the country from us, and tries to visit us about once a year. And it took a few visits before each child was able to connect her name with her face, and then who she was in relation to the postcards and gifts she sends them throughout the year. My 4 year old is still working it out — he loves her visits and was so sad when she left, but still says things like “when is That Girl coming back, That Girl I do the puzzles with?” He’ll point to something she sent to him and ask me over and over again who sent it, just to get a reminder of her name and how she connects to him as an aunt. He will talk to her on the phone but more because of the novelty of talking on the phone is interesting to him now, although I have to constantly remind him that she can’t see him through the screen or see whatever toy he’s aiming the phone at to “show” her. (And yet when we try video chat he consistently wanders off 30 seconds later.)

But it’s okay! We’ll get there. Patience, persistence, zero pushiness. I am happy to pick up the bonding/communication slack with tons of pictures and videos and whatever. My 7 year old recently painted a rock with watercolors and decided it was for my sister, so heads up Auntie C, you’ll be getting a random painted rock in the mail soon. And Ike says thanks for all the puzzles.

Amalah
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch

Amalah

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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Comments

  • Dan

    Super helpful. We have both sets of grandparents on completely different continents from us (hello, 8 14hr+ flights before the kid’s 2), and I’m always concerned about how to connect the kid to his grandparents longterm, so thank you.

  • Heather

    Some great suggestions! We lived about 2000 miles from all family for the first three years of my son’s life. We did a lot of the same things. For our Skype sessions I would also have a current favorite toy or activity handy – often I would turn the camera so they could watch their grandson play Legos, race cars, etc while I chatted about the week’s events. Another thing that helped us a lot was to hang pictures of our family members in the hall just outside my son’s room. We would say goodnight and call them by name on the way to bed. They also sent us pictures and videos, giving us a chance to see them and talk about where they lived. His interest definitely varied over time, but I think he understood these are important people in our lives.

  • Jenelle

    Can you work the power of Amazon Prime and send them copies of some of your son’s favorite books? Then they could read them together over Skype. Or when he’s a little older and into simple board games, give each of them one and they can play together. You can also customize board books and photo books and write a story to go along with pictures of them that you can read him at bedtime.

  • Liv

    Everything Amy said. My in-laws are a 10 min drive away but my own family is on the other side of the country. My son loves to spend time with them when they visit or when we visit but it took a while (he’s 5 now) to build that and even now, we use all those tips/strategies for keeping his interest during FaceTime calls. And still sometimes he’ll take the phone and spend 40 min showing them stuff and sometimes he waves blows kisses and says he’s done after 30 seconds. Luckily they don’t push or guilt if it’s the latter. I also started using Chatbooks to print photos from my phone and subscribed both sets of grandparents. Every 60 photos I upload, everyone gets a printed photobook in the mail. They just started shipping internationally too! 

  • Leigh

    We have been dealing with this for years with both sets of grandparents. Best things ever, light up clown noses. Some for us and some there. Hysterical on both ends. Performing for the camera showing off toys and reading books all help too. And playing got your nose.  

  • Meg

    I’m an American living in England with my husband and the only grandchild my wonderful parents in Texas have. We have had weekly Skype dates with Grandma and Grandpa since he was born. My son is now 4 and loves “playtime with Grandma and Grandpa”. I have a few suggestions. If you can, use an HDMI cord to attach a laptop/ipad/whatever to the TV. It makes them bigger and more interesting than a tiny image on a screen. Also, Skype time is totally playtime with the grandparents. He shows them books, games, Lego. He runs in and out of the room. He dances and sings for them. He really is playing with them. We’re lucky that my parents will happily sit there for an hour while he does some really boring and repetitive task for them. Lastly, my son gets very irritated if there is too much grown up talk. If I have anything to actually talk about it gets wedged in to little bursts or done via chat at other times. He’s the main boss during playtime.
    My parents come visit once a year and we went there for 3 weeks at Christmas this year, but you would never know that his grandparents aren’t down the street based on his comfort level with them. I definitely credit our Skype dates with that.
    Good luck!

  • Sarah in Georgia

    A few things that have worked with my mom in Alaska:

    At three (and to some extent even now at five) my son did better with sending short videos privately through Instagram than with Skype. The Thanksgiving my son was three, we sent and (almost) daily “I’m thankful for” video back and forth. My mom used it to show my son her a couple of friends at work on different days and things about her house. My son showed Grandma his preschool and his speech teacher. Two benefits: *)  they are short and *) they can be watched over and over again. My son gets a kick out of watching both the videos Grandma sent and the ones he made. If Teta and Jiddo are up to it, it could be helpful to have them make a few short videos of what you might see this summer when you come to visit them.

    My mom has also instituted a tradition where she’ll kiss her finger and then touch the screen and the kids do it back to send a kiss. Even when my son isn’t interested in video chatting, he has that small tradition that connects him to Grandma.

    I’m also not above turning on the video chatting on the laptop when the kids are eating. My son is already contained, and it gives him a few more minutes before he runs away.

  • Beth

    Exactly what Meg said. I also have whatsapp on my phone and my three year old sends my mom essays of emojis. It’s hilarious. She is really good about sending him postcards and also a book that has recording option that has her voice reading the book.

  • Dana

    Everyone’s suggestions above are great! I wanted to add that just talking about them will show your kids how important they are to your family. Mention them at bedtime, have your husband tell stories about growing up, talk about their favorite activities and foods (if you don’t know ask) and better yet do them and eat them. Our Jido loves golf so we make sure to talk about that when our boys are “playing” with their clubs. If you don’t already, make middle eastern food at home from family recipes. You will be surprised what kids retain. You are wonderful daughter in law btw! May we all be so lucky!

  • Elizabeth S

    My parents live in England and we only see them once or twice a year. I have a 3.5 year old and a 9 month old. My mom keeps a bunch of toys on her end, and when the kids are babies shows them toys and does little games with them. She also reads the kids books, and even goes to the library to get new exciting ones! Basically she entertains them in a one woman kid show! Ha! Anyway, my point is, I think if the adults can do some engaging things on their end, it makes all the difference. And then when we do see her, my daughter just picks right up with my Mom.

  • Anna

    I definitely agree with everything that Amy has said. We live thousands of miles away from my parents (and right nearby my in-laws) and my kids have a good relationship with them through Skype. But my older kid (now 4) also went through a phase of just not wanting to talk to them. As Amy said, don’t push it, it will come with patience and persistence. What I found to be helpful, and also really nice for my parents, is to just letting my kids play in the background as I talked on the computer. My parents really enjoy feeling like they’re “there”, watching them do their normal activities, rather than being forced to sit and say “I love you” etc. Also, if the time-difference works out, try setting up the computer so that they can watch bathtime! (Just make sure it stays away from water/moisture). Bathtime – or breakfast, or story time, etc. – are such lovely times for grandparents, but long-distance ones rarely get to experience them, if at all. Those normal, day-to-day experiences is what your in-laws need the most.

  • Tric

    My best friend lives overseas and we both really want her to be a part of my son’s life.  On her last visit, we took a ton of pictures of them together having fun and she is creating a children’s book so that he can have a context of the “Supper Fun Awesome Times with Teyze!”  I think that will really help him fix her in his mind as someone other than the lady in mommy’s iPad.  

  • Kacy

    My son loves having my parents read books to him via Facetime.

  • Jules

    This is my ongoing battle with myself as I try to forge *some* kind of meaningful relationship between my very shy three year old, who only speaks English, and my in laws in Iran, who only speak Farsi. I feel strongly that it’s important that they be well represented in her family narrative, so I ask my husband to tell stories about them, and we talk frequently about how she was named after his mother, and try to relate their (very different) childhood experiences.

    • Praepes

      I see your nine pointed star there 🙂 My dad also left his family pioneering in South America, so my mother-tongue was different from my grandparents. Fortunately my dad only spoke engllish to me, always. My first years I would answer in spanish of course, but after visitng and spending time inmersed in a foreign language environment, my english appeared. I guess it was even easier with my little brother because by then it was three of us!
      I have to say, my mother never spoke an inch of english, and whenever it was the four of us, we would speak in my brothers and my mothertongue. This was not an issue 🙂
      Same thing with my half persian friends, they speak farsi because their father would only use farsi when speaking to them. They feel it’s lovely too, because most of our endearment phrases come from our first language, as you probably already have noticed.

  • Traci

    This is such a helpful post! My mom is on the other side of the country and I know she wishes she could be with us more! For Christmas I got my little guy a cloudpet. It’s a stuffed animal that connects to your phone and allows others to send them messages and for the child to send messages back. It’s been great! He gets messages from my mom and from his other grandparents. You can invite anyone to send him messages. He loves it. He is only 23 months so we haven’t managed to get him to send a message back yet, but that will be a great milestone when that clicks.

    My MIL bought one for her house so we can send messages to him when he stays there. My husband had surgery last week and it was so helpful. He stayed with them for five days and really found comfort in the messages and being able to hear our voices at the push of a button whenever he wanted. I like that it is child-directed and gives them the power to have their own communications with loved ones.

  • Angela

    amy had a post a few years ago (can’t find it now!) that also suggested making a “who loves kidsname” book with pictures of everyone. this helped enormously (along with the regularly scheduled skype sessions, and chatting about the the grandparents) with my kids. we have a photo book (old style with the plastic sleeves so that even babies could play with it) with all the relatives and grandparents and we try to update it with pictures whenever we see them, preferably with pictures of the grandparent and kid together. it goes a long way toward making these people seem real and part of our lives. 

  • MR

    We did this too. We created a small photo album with their pictures, and I made sure their pictures were on our wall of family pictures. We would often go through and point at the pictures and say, “Who’s that? That’s Grandma!” And then for a couple of months before a visit, I would make sure to do that EVERY day, at least once, and in the last few weeks before the visit, do it even more often. Talk about them a lot too. Talk about what you are going to do with Grandma and Grandpa, talk about how excited you are to see them, and how excited they are to see all of you. Also, tell him that it is ok for him to be a little shy when he gets there, but that it is also ok for him to not be shy. When he is ready, he will open up to them. And make sure they understand he might not be ready right away, and that they shouldn’t press him for hugs and things, no matter how much they want to. But, if you can have him make some art work or something for them, and make sure to pull it out and have him holding it when you get off the plane (or whenever you will see them first), that will most likely help propel him forward a little because he can hand it to them.
    And, yeah, if you can Skype on a bigger screen, it will definitely help.

  • Emily

    Shutterfly! We made a photo book on Shutterfly and really edited it into more of a “story” that we can read with our daughter. It talks about her family and calls out the grandparents/aunts/cousins by name with pictures of them. We made sure to include pictures of my daughter with her family wherever we could, and the story emphasizes on how lucky she is to have such a big, loving family. She loves it, and it’s really helps her remember who is who when she gets to see them in person. 

  • My in-laws live in Germany, and my parents live a plane ride away, but still in the U.S., and they visit more, and my kids know them better than they know Oma and Opa, and while that is too bad, letting go of the idea that they should have equal relationships with all their grandparents has helped me a lot. Also, my son is now five and when he was three he also had less than zero interest in Skyping with Oma and Opa (not to mention that they speak German, which he also speaks, but at ages 3-4 he went through a pretty solid phase of only wanting to speak English). And we… pretty much let it go. We kept Skyping every week, we asked him if he wanted to say hi, we encouraged him to tell Oma and Opa about what was going on in his life and reminded him of specific things he could talk about, and if he didn’t want to (and he almost always didn’t), that was fine, he could wander away, and my husband would chat with them alone. Now that he’s five, it has gotten better, though still not perfect, and we can see that it is continuing to improve. Agreed that patience and persistence without pushiness is key! 

    Also, I like the ideas that others have presented about preparing him for the visit, but no matter what, I think just brace yourselves that the first few days may involve a lot of reluctance on the part of your kid and disappointment or hurt (depending on their personalities–my ILs definitely reacted this way) on the part of the grandparents that there isn’t an instant bond. I would definitely recommend (again, depending on how much coaching they need) doing some prep with the grandparents in advance of the visit too–i.e., he can be slow to warm up to people, he doesn’t like it when people are pushy and demanding about hugs and bonding time, for the first few days he may seem distant, please don’t be offended, please don’t take it personally, it will get better, and here are a few things you can do to try to bridge the gap like offer to play his favorite game, bake something delicious with him, whatever it may be–and after a few days it really will improve. We see my ILs about once a year compared to seeing my parents 3-4 times per year, and my experience has absolutely been that the adults in the situation require as much or more coaching and handholding than the kids. The problem then is that they start clucking and complaining and expressing disappointment that my preschooler doesn’t immediately jump on their laps and run off with them without a glance back at his parents, and he picks up on that disappointment and withdraws further, so as much as you can do to prepare their attitudes to be as kid-friendly as possible those first few days, the quicker I think everyone will get over the hump.

    Good luck!

  • Kate

    My parents live far away, so they make photo books: we send a stuffed animal or a cut out of an animal, and the animal goes around with GG and Papa for a few days. They are pictures of themselves with the animal, then put pictures into a book with stories, and send animal and book back to us. Kiddo loves looking at the book and getting new story books, and she’s excited to discuss it with them for months.

  • Christy

    Everything people have posted here is great. Definitely agree to letting go of some of the guilt associated with fostering equal relationships….the important thing is that both sets of grandparents will have their own relationships with your kids and that is awesome. I just wanted to share a totally different idea that my brother and sister in law (who live on the other side of the country) did with my oldest when she was around three. Basically they got a big colouring page. They coloured a little bit of it and then mailed it to her for her to colour some of. She’d colour some and we’d mail it back. They went back and forth for awhile and it was great because Mail is always awesome and because it had that kind of relationship, conversational vibe to it, but at a totally appropriate level for a three year old. It gave us lots of opportunities to talk to her about them and show her pictures of who sent it to her, and to kind of just start developing context for her a little bit. Maybe something like that, separate from the Skype chats, would help a bit? Good luck – it will work out!

  • Jessi

    My MIL lives across the country and visits 1-2x each year. My husband has always called her on the phone everyday (drove me crazy when we first got married, but now that I have a son of my own it I get it…)

    My son (3.5) loves talking on the phone with his Gigi. There are a few ways we sneak in daily calls – We set up the laptop at breakfast and they chat and she encourages him to keep taking bites while hubby and I shower and get dressed. My husband does day care pick up and they chat on speaker phone during the drive. At bed time when our son is asking for “one more story” we get Gigi on the phone to tell a story about her life growing up in Jamaica or when my husband was a boy…

  • Praepes

    I feel so identified with this post! I was your son more than 25 years ago!

    My dad was the only member of his family to live abroad, so all my life my grandma lived in a different country, a 9 hour airplanetrip away.
    When I was a kid there was no internet of course, my dad would record cassette tapes of me singing and talking about my day, to keep Grandma updated on us.
    The first time I visited I was also three, she had visited before when I was less than a year old. My grandma was the sweetest lady, and we bonded great, english wasn’t my first language but by the time I left grandmas I finally started speaking english, instead of answering in spanish which is what i used to do before; that’s how transformative that trip was for me.
    Afterwards e would have international calls once a month, (they used to be expensive). Grandma always called on birthdays, sent books whenever she could, which would then be read to me as bedtime stories, and always sent birthday and christmass cards. We would visit every 4 or 5 years, because that was all we could afford, but they would be long visits.
    From an ousiders perspective it might seem like I didn’t spend much time with my grandma, but I will say I remember every single moment. She was always kind and thoughtfull and she loved me, and my parents loved her and she loved them. My love for her has always been there as far as a I know, because that’s how love and family is, and I don’t mean is as a cliche, I mean it as a natural occuring fenomenon.

    Your kids will be fine! My family was never pushy, no need to stress if a three year old isn’t into weekly skype calls, as Amy said.