Learning to send your love by phone, email, fax, and mail is, for many of us, a bittersweet part of being a grandparent. At times, it might seem a thankless job, with grandchildren too young to communicate their thanks and parents too busy and distracted to help your grandchild respond with frequent letters and calls of their own.
It's true that the payback for all your work often is intangible, but it sure feels right when it happens. The next time you see your grandchild after a long separation, you'll be rewarded with a flash of recognition, big smile, and happy shout of "Opa!" or "Bubbie!"-- which will warm your heart and make all your efforts feel worthwhile. Even your stranger-shy grandtoddlers and twos will peek up from their parent's shoulder sooner than you might expect -- and will be joking with you before you know it. It's for these times, and for the hope that you can be an essential part of your grandchild's life no matter how distant your homes, that we know you will continue to package the best of your love and send it in ways that delight and intrigue your youngest grandchildren.
We've assembled some valuable tips on how you can add zip to long-distance communications with grandchildren.
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It's what puts topspin in a grandparent's letters and pizzazz in their calls. Whenever you energize your relationship with unique stories and games, you make yourself more interesting and memorable to your little one. So get ready, grandparents. We're going to give you the tools you need to make your relationship with your grandchild actually improve between visits!
Photos tell a story to even the youngest grandchild. Laminated onto construction paper or wrapped in clear contact paper, a display of family pics becomes a "night-night board" to kiss before bed. Pasted onto a plain paper background cut into an interesting shape (house, boat, island), a vacation snapshot invites your little one to color a special frame. Videos of yourself in action will entertain and teach your young grandchildren, too. For the littlest grandbabies, try filming yourself playing peek-a-boo from behind a chair or couch, saying "So Big" with arms stretched upward, and singing "Twinkle, twinkle, little star," "Open, shut them," and other classic children's songs. Grandchildren ages two and three will enjoy a video "tour" of your home, especially before a visit. You can even prepare your grandchild for their stay by showing them the park, library, and other places in the neighborhood they'll see with you. Or give those little ones a rainy-day alternative to Disney with your own production of a children's classic tale — they'll love it!
What was the name of that scrappy neighbor child who worries your granddaughter so? And do you remember the names of your grandson's teacher and best buddies? Asking open-ended questions, paying special attention to feelings, and respecting your little one's ability to solve some problems alone will draw out your grandchildren and show them that you really are listening. You might even keep a little pad by the phone to help you remember. Keeping track of these details shows that you're listening and that you really care.
If you and your little one both have home computers and sign up for an internet service (such as CompuServe, America OnLine, or Prodigy), you can zip electronic mail messages back and forth. It's so easy to type up a message, and so gratifying to have it delivered immediately, that you will find yourself writing frequently and about everyday events that often don't make it into a letter. If you want to be really hip, you can buy a fax modem that will send images to be printed, colored on, or simply displayed. In our family, pictures "drawn" by grandchildren are passed to the computer memories of the grandparents, and "slide shows" of scanned-in photos become backdrops on the computer screen. If your computers have sound cards, you can even send sounds back and forth (Nick's toddler giggle is the "error alert" on our computer). If you don't have a fax, try sending and receiving through your local copy shop or other fax support store. The possibilities are endless, and they can make a long-distance relationship seem at times as close as next door.
Ever wondered what to do with your old socks? Try sending them to your grandchildren with a note to "run around outside and see what sticks." The burrs and seeds that get caught during this sock walk will be exciting to plant, and you won't believe the fun you'll have talking about the caper by phone. Between visits, when you can't smell the flowers together, try growing some in identical gardens and comparing notes by mail; exchanging seeds; or sending a magic rock or two for a bit of gardener's luck.
Perhaps your little one, like Bert on Sesame Street, will delight in hoarding paperclips and bottlecaps. Maybe your older grandchildren will have a knack for spotting interesting leaves or stamps to catalogue. Or perhaps you both have a passion for fishing, woodworking, or trying out fancy recipes (or anything that uses chocolate chips) in the kitchen. Whatever your grandchild's interest, you can build on it — -and add your own twists — by starting a collection or nurturing a hobby together. That elaborate creation in the basement may turn out to mark the beginning of a young engineer's career, or a lifelong appreciation for a fulfilling pastime. But most important will be the experience of learning something new alongside a caring, involved grandparent.
Grandbabies in our family don't have to read to know something's from Oma — they smile as soon as they smell her perfumed envelopes. And a winking, happy face from Grandpa is their cue to see what's inside. Developing a personalized "signature" like these will help you reach even your youngest grandchildren and will start a unique family tradition that even teens won't want to end. You can extend this idea to any kind of communication — try inventing a unique way to say goodbye on the phone, a smiling sideways "face" at the end of an email message (try a parenthesis and colon), or a special sticker or stamp that lets your grandchild know the package is from you.
Antipating the fun of a visit with a creative picture "calendar" will captivate your young grandchildren. Simply draw a big box for each day of your visit — or their visit to you — and decide together what you might do that day. With words, imaginative drawings, or photos, this wish list of activities to share can be passed back and forth until you're together again. After your visit try extending the fun by leaving love notes or small gifts — if you send a "treasure map" afterward your little pirates will be thrilled!
We know, we know. You're not a professional storyteller. Come to think of it, even your singing voice, which was passable in the fourth grade chorus, now sounds like a World War II bomber in heavy turbulence. But wait. Your voice, whether confident or shaky, couldn't be more special to your littlest family members. Read a story, sing a song, sing a story, read a song — any combination will do. You might also read (or rap!) a nursery rhyme, talk as you make a favorite recipe (you can send a tasty sample in the same package), read off a list of "I like you because" statements, or even make a tape of sound "riddles."
Mystery, intrigue, drama... there's a package from Opa in the mail! Whether you try your hand at "magical mirror messages" (written backwards), make your own special letter codes, or start a story that can be exchanged until one of you creates a thrilling conclusion, playful games like these can recharge an established long-distance relationship. One such trick that we especially love is to buy a blank puzzle, write and draw on it, and then divide the pieces to send in two or three separate envelopes. A similar idea for young children is to write or draw on an inflated balloon and deflate it; your surprise picture or note will reappear when Mom or Dad blows up the balloon again.
Whether you start with a bunch of plain papers stapled together or a purchased "blank book," the unique spin you put on your cooperative creation will make it a prized record of your thoughts and times together. Think of it as a "time capsule" of your relationship that can be enjoyed throughout your life — and your grandchild's.
Here's one foolproof way to get a project started: ask them what ingredients they would put into their cookies. Applesauce? Pepperoni? Oatmeal? Whatever imaginative response you get, jot it down with others in a shared recipe book. You might want to put a favorite "real" recipe on one side and your grandchild's whimsical version on the facing page. Pictures you draw of the two of you cooking together will make perfect illustrations.
A journal for each grandchild is also a wonderful way to share your thoughts and hopes. But this little journal is not for you to look at alone. Instead, let your grandchildren rediscover theirs each time they visit (or every time you visit them). Your young grandchildren will delight in hearing all that you've written, and you will have the satisfaction of having created the most personal keepsake you can for each of your little ones.
Dan R., of York, Maine, wrote to let us know that "the tradition of Saturday morning calls that my parents started and we make sure to continue (by calling if they haven't) keeps us connected. It's regular and reliable. It's a call that is not about a crisis but is an update." One of the most enduring and rewarding rituals you can begin with your family is just this sort of "warm fuzzy" call — one that is at a time convenient to everyone, doesn't necessarily last long, and gives you a way of touching base regularly with each member of your clan.
Your littlest chatters will look forward to your calls with eager anticipation. Even a grandchild as young as six months enjoys hearing voices over the phone, and by the time your little one is a year old, he'll be grabbing the receiver to listen to you — and probably playing touch-tone "music" in your ear. At this stage, the most important aspect of your phone calls will be your happy, interested voice and the way in which you use easy words to carry on a one-sided conversation. Questions can be fun, but you can't expect a relevant reply from the little gigglers in your family. Moreover, as your grandtoddlers mature, they will enjoy hearing the same questions in successive phone calls. With the same gusto usually reserved for that favorite bedtime story read just the same way night after night, your youngest grandchildren will love the familiarity of your repeated phrases and songs — and best of all will learn to associate them with you.
Sometime during your grandchild's second year, those phone monologues you've been carrying on will become dialogues — but not the sort that you have with adults or even older children. Toddlers will happily burble out phrases that come to mind, but these snippets of conversation often have no relation to what you've been talking about. One of the greatest joys of listening to a child this age is simply to realize that you are getting the unedited exclamations of a growing thinker. As a way of showing your happiness with their new skills, you might try building on the little stories they tell by saying something like, "And then what happened?" or "That was a big surprise! What did you do next?"
Two- and three-year-olds have their own rules about conversations, too. The most apparent one is that their needs and interests come first. This view is only natural, because at this age your grandchildren are just beginning to learn that other people can have a different outlook than they have. (In fact, while teaching nursery school, we used to smile at the two-year-olds who would play "story time" with their friends and think that just because they saw the pictures, their friends could, too!) Some typical interests of your grandchild during this time are food, toys, pets, recent outings, and songs. As a way of tapping into these interests, why not sing the "ABC" song together over the phone at the end of your talk (or as your entire conversation)? Ignore the doubletakes your grandpartner spouse might do at your end of the phone--they'll see the light soon enough — and use your most interactive, child-oriented conversation starters to get your young preschool-age grandchildren talking.
We know, we know. You're not a professional storyteller, and you never even had any illusions about attending broadcasting school. Come to think of it, even your singing voice, which was passable in the fourth grade chorus, now sounds like a World War II bomber in heavy turbulence.
Wait. You don't have to be a professional, or even a good amateur, to make terrific audiotapes for your grandchild. Your voice, whether confident or shaky, is the only one you've got and it couldn't be more special to your littlest family members. Read a story, sing a song, sing a story, read a song — any combination will do. You might also read (or rap!) a nursery rhyme, talk as you make a favorite recipe (you can send the recipe and a tasty sample in the same package), read off a list of "I like you because" statements, or even make a tape of sound "riddles" (see the activity "Cassette Connections" in this chapter). If you simply use your imagination, you can make a wonderfully inexpensive and personal gift for your grandchild.
When making an audiotape of a read-aloud book, it will be fun for your grandchild if you say why you like the book, or that "this was your Mommy's book and she loved it when she was your age." Children love hearing about themselves and their parents as babies, because it gives them a more historical perspective — a sense of belonging. It's also a good idea to say "time to turn the page now" or to develop your own signal, such as a bell or even a sound unique to you (like your dog's bark), for this purpose.
No, you don't need a driver's license to merge onto the information superhighway — just a sense of adventure and the confidence that comes with knowing that as this technology has become more popular, it's become ever easier for even non-technical types to use.
You also, of course, need access to a computer, and so does the part of the family with whom you'll communicate. Then it's a matter of buying some communications software and a communications service such as America Online.
Are you still with us? Let's just say that a knowledgeable salesperson will get you set up in no time, and if you can afford the initial costs, the continuing benefits are huge. For one thing, emails never interrupt. Imagine being able to send a quick message to your far-away family members and have it almost instantly received, but not have to wonder whether you've contacted them at a bad time. At their convenience, they log on and reply to your message — or print it out for the grandchildren to keep.
E-mail messages are also wonderful because they encourage a casual writing style that can help build a closer relationship than a letter. Speed is the reason for this, we think. It's just so easy to type up a message, and so gratifying to have it delivered immediately, that you will find yourself writing more frequently and about more everyday events. You might find, as we have, that email provides the perfect balance between a warm and personable call and an unintrusive, but more formal, letter.
If you want to be really hip, you can even invest in a fax modem that allows you to send whole images over the phone lines and into either another fax or your extended family's computer to be printed, colored on, or simply displayed. In our family, pictures "drawn" by grandchildren are passed to the computer memories of the grandparents, and little "slide shows" of scanned-in photographs become computer screen savers and backdrops on the computer screen.
If you're a family of more savvy computer users with sound cards in your computers, you can even send your voices back and forth (Nick's toddler giggle has been the "error alert" on our computer). If you don't have a fax, try sending and receiving through your local copy shop or other fax support store. The possibilities are endless, and they can make a long-distance relationship seem at times as close as next door.
Video cameras are another item that more and more families find they can't live without, though purchasing and using one can be rather expensive. There's nothing like the image of your first grandson teetering to the slide on his new "walking legs" or your first granddaughter's gleeful laugh in the tub to warm your heart. The newer video cameras help even the most amateur of filmmakers produce quality home movies.
Grandparents can make the most of a videocamera in their own home by sending videos of themselves doing things that will entertain and enrich their young grandchildren. For the littlest grandbabies, grandparents can film themselves playing peek-a-boo from behind a chair or couch, saying "So Big" with arms stretched upward, and singing "Twinkle, twinkle, little star," "Head, shoulders, knees, and toes" and other classic children's songs. Slightly older children, say ages two and three, might enjoy a video "tour" of a long-distance grandparent's home, especially before a visit. You can even prepare your grandchild for a stay at your home by showing them the park, library, and other places in the neighborhood they'll be seeing with you. Or give those nearby little ones a rainy day alternative to Disney with your own video production of a children's classic tale — they'll love it!
Long-distance grandparents will find other ways to make a videocamera bridge the gap. Their home and environment might have things that the grandchild's doesn't — for example, a grandparent might make and videotape a snowman and snowangel for a child who lives in the South or, if the grandparent lives near the ocean, they could videotape themselves building a sandcastle for a grandchild who lives inland.
Videotapes, made with either rented or owned video cameras, can be an important part of documenting the growth and development of all members of the family, and you'll find you treasure these moving images as much as your cherished family photos. Some families we know make a point of asking grandparents questions about their lives to make an interview library for all to share. Perhaps you'll like the idea of becoming immortalized in this way, too.
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