Matilija Press
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Published Article
by Patricia Fry

Across the Miles

First published in Columbia Magazine in 1995

We've all seen the bumper stickers announcing "I love my grandchildren." Some of us may even sport one on the rear bumper of our car. More likely than not, however, when we see one of those advertisements for grandparenthood, the folks inside the car are miles away from where their beloved grandchildren live.

Few family circles remain unbroken. With parents uprooting their families to accept jobs in other states, Junior marrying his college sweetheart and settling in her hometown, and grandma and grandpa retiring to a warmer climate, more of our dearest relationships are being experienced from a distance.

The most difficult of these long-distance relationships are with our grandchildren. We miss being part of their daily lives and watching them grow and change.

Countless families, however, maintain a wonderful relationship with their grandchildren even across the miles. It takes thought and creativity, but the rewards are well worth the effort.

Touch Tone Togetherness

What grandparent doesn't melt upon hearing the sweet voice of a beloved grandchild? Some grandparents find it difficult to carry on a telephone conversation with a grandchild, however. Marianne, for example, calls her 5- and 9-year-old grandchildren once a month hoping to have a meaningful conversation with them. "Instead," she says, "the children never have much to say."

According to Irene Endicott, author of Grandparenting by Grace and a grandmother of twelve, "A grandparent who calls a grandchild and expects to have a flowing conversation is mistaken." She suggests, "You need to know what interests that child at their age and ask them questions about it." She gives an example. "If your grandson likes dinosaurs, you need to be a little bit up on dinosaurs."

Questions like, "How are you?" and "What are you doing today." aren't going to take you very far in a conversation with a child. Instead of the information you seek, you'll probably get simple, one-word responses such as: "Okay" and "Nothing."

Here are a few telephone tips:

  1. Note potential conversation starters before dialing. Write, "Talk to Jeremy about the Lakers game" or "Ask Sarah what she wants for her birthday."
  2. Ask about something that's going on in the child's life. Maybe the last time you talked, your grandson was going dirt bike riding or to a theme park with his class. Ask about his trip.
  3. At the end of each conversation, give the child something new to think about in preparation for your next call. Say, "The next time I call, I want to hear you read the essay you're working on for school" or "When I call next week, let's talk about what we'll do when I come to visit."
  4. Relate something interesting about your life-bumping into a rock star while sightseeing on your trip to California, for example, or taking a glider trip out in the desert.
  5. Expect silences. Endicott says, "Conversations with children sometimes include silences and those silences can be golden." She advises, "It's a wise grandparent who avoids trying to fill the whole time with his or her voice. Let the child think for a minute. They may be formulating what they want to say. If we come right in with our words, some real gems can go by the wayside."
  6. Establish an appropriate calling schedule. This will vary from family to family. Following are some suggestions:
  • Call at an agreed upon time each week.
  • Call before and/or after special events-your granddaughter's all-star softball game or a grandson's science fair.
  • Allow the grandchildren to call you collect. A conversation with children comes easier when they initiate it.
It's In the Mail

While some folks prefer letter-writing to calling on the phone, others won't touch a piece of stationery with a 10-foot pen. But it's a wise long-distance grandparent who uses both means of communication with his or her grandchildren. It gives you two avenues for making your loving presence known to your grandchildren.

Tips for writing to children.

  1. Write in a style and format compatible with the child's age.
  2. Write separately to each grandchild in the family.
  3. Make letters lively by painting word pictures. Instead of "Three birds came to the feeder today and made a big mess with the seed, " say, "While Grandpa and I were having breakfast this morning, we looked out the kitchen window just in time to see three beautiful bluebirds at the feeder happily eating seed. They were so fun to watch. They scratched and danced around in the seed until they had it scattered all over the patio."
  4. Vary your stationery. Brightly colored paper accented with stickers, rubber stamp imprints, drawings, photographs or cut-out pictures are always a hit.
  5. Send items of interest to the child: a seashell or ostrich feather you found while vacationing or a poster depicting the child's latest interest, for example. Write something interesting about how you found the items.
  6. Send photographs of you and the child enjoying a special moment during your last visit, you participating in something that would interest the child or involved in an activity with other family members.
  7. Write original stories for your grandchild. Use the child as the main character in your stories.
  8. Start writing your family history and send segments of it to the child. Ella Martin of Florida sent the first chapter of her life story to her granddaughter in Idaho in a large binder so future segments can be included. Sometimes correspondence with a grandchild is a one way street. Do everything you can to encourage the child to write back. It teaches the child to take responsibility for his or her share of relationships.
To encourage grandchildren to write:
  • Send the child a self-addressed stamped envelope, colored paper and stickers or a postcard for his or her message to you.
  • Ask questions in your letter that the child can easily answer in a letter back to you. For example, "What were your grades this semester?" "Where have you and your dad been mountain bike riding, lately?"
  • Talk to your grandchildren's parents about helping the kids establish a letter-writing routine.
  • Teach your grandchildren letter-writing etiquette and skills during your visits with them.
Electronic Communication

Many grandparents are discovering new and fun ways to communicate with their grandchildren electronically. Here are a few ideas from Creative Grandparenting Across the Miles, Ideas for Sharing Love, Faith and Family Traditions:

  1. Connect through email. It's a comfortable and familiar way of communication for most kids today. And you'll be surprised what your grandkids can teach you about using a computer.
  2. Record your message to your grandchildren. When his eight long-distance grandchildren were young, Grampie Robert used to record himself reading stories to them. "I'd go down to the library and take out a stack of children's books then I'd set up my tape recorder and record Grampie stories." The kids enjoyed the stories so much that for Christmas he bought them each their own tape recorders.
  3. Use videotape to share events, excursions and daily activities with one another.
When You Visit

The most thrilling part of being a grandparent is spending time with your grandchild. The actual visit, however, is sometimes a disappointment. Why? Because we often have unreasonable expectations. We sometimes try to do too much when its much more important and joyful to just be with our grandchildren.

Here are some suggestion to ensure a more successful visit every time:

  • Walk in with open arms for a hug, not with a gift in your hand. You want your grandchild to be thrilled with your presence not just your presents.
  • Be patient and understanding. A child might not rush into your arms upon your arrival. Don't be hurt. Don't coax the child. Just wait.
  • Ease yourself into the child's day. Suggest a board game, ask the child to show you his room or his collection of baseball cards.
  • Be ready with some loose plans-things the family doesn't ordinarily do. Suggest a ride across the lake on a paddleboat or a jaunt to the airport to watch the planes, for example.
  • Take lots of photographs to capture every aspect of your time together. Have duplicates made and send the grandkids copies in their own special albums.
If you're a long-distance grandparent who finds it difficult to maintain a close relationship with your grandchild, don't give up. Your influence is valuable to that family. You are a link to your grandchildren's past and their future. They need you as a role model. They need your wisdom. And they need your love as much as you need theirs.

Patricia Fry is the author of A Writer’s Guide to Magazine Articles for Book Promotion and Profit (Matilija Press, 2000).

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