Grandparenting From Around The Globe
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.
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.