Grandparenting at a distance
GrandParenting when Living Worlds Apart
By Beth Reese 2010
All grandparents hear stories about what other grandparents do with their grandchildren. One has them every Thursday. One makes sure they get to their town to visit at least every month. Another has the kids over for an entire week, or at least a slumber party with Grandma. To still another, Sundays are always family day. For a grandparent whose grandchildren are 5,000 or 10,000 miles away, these comments can be very discouraging. It is hard to listen to others
enjoying their grandchildren, even when you want to have the best of attitudes. But what can a grandparent do when he or she finds himself in that situation?
Dr. Arthur Kornhaber, the Founder and President of the Foundation for Grandparenting, says that the most important thing to do is “to maintain continuity and communication” (“Long Distance Grandparenting,” www.grandparenting.org). This means keep on talking, writing andcommunicating with grandchildren on a regular basis. This is easy to say but, in reality, is more difficult to do. Practical ideas and specific suggestions will often depend on the distance and countries involved. Please allow me to suggest ways that I have found useful for missionary families, but are also likely appropriate for business and military families when either the grandparents or the grandchildren are living overseas.
My husband and I have experienced the grandparent/grandchild relationship on several levels. My husband grew up on a mission field and had grandparents living back in the US. Then we ourselves were missionaries and worked with our parents and children to help them in their grandparent/grandchild relationship. Now, we have four grown children with families living in four different countries. We have always had more grandchildren living overseas than living inour own country. We also work with many missionaries in helping them to have better families.We have experienced the difficulties and struggled with the problems. We have also experienced the joys of seeing our own children have healthy relationships with their grandparents. We nowhave ten granddaughters and have been able to have the satisfaction of many special times witheach of them. We are still growing in the process. Maybe some of these suggestions will behelpful to you.
For the Christian community, it is assumed that one of the main things that grandparents would do for their grandchildren is to be praying for them. My husband often says that the only reason he survived his growing up years was because he had faithful grandparents, in addition to his mom, praying for him continually. Grandparents everywhere can pray for their grandchildren, but sometimes those of us far away might be praying often because we don’t always know what else to do. Christian grandparents are great role models for their grandchildren. Grandparents are also a stabilizing factor for grandchildren that are living overseas. The grandparents’ home is the one they will keep coming back to each furlough. It is the one that will become their home away from home. Just getting to see the same books, toys, furniture each time they come backwill be a comfort for them.
It is wonderful to remember that we are in a world with advanced technology. Phone cards are cheap and easy to obtain. Skype and other Internet based telephone services have revolutionized affordable calling from country to country. Email, Facebook, texting and even Twitter are becoming common forms of communication. We know all of this, but many in the grandparent generation sometimes have to think a little harder about what this means to us. My son andhis family moved to Portugal. They obtained a “Skype” phone number so that all I, or anyoneelse, have to do is pick up the phone and call a local number. For the first two months, I hardlyever remembered to use it. To my mind they were in a foreign country, meaning it was more expensive to call. I have to work on the mentality that these conveniences were made to be used. How many conversations have I missed with my granddaughter? However you are able tocall, remember that those grandchildren need to hear your voice. I have often called and talkedto other granddaughters, even when they were babies. My daughter always encourages me by saying, “She is listening. She is very excited to hear your voice.” As they get older, the small grandchild finds comfort in hearing that familiar voice that sings to them and has fun things to say.
Another type of ‘Skype’ calling is computer to computer—often called video conferencing. When my first two children moved overseas, I bought us all the same kind of webcam so I could be sure we could communicate. Now many computers come with cameras and microphones built in. We have used this (and other similar calling systems) for years, but for some reason always felt it had to be planned. We thought that everyone had to be available at the same time and all be in on the whole conversation. It led to an unnatural, often confusing, seldomproductive conversation. I am slowly (after 10 years) beginning to get the idea that one can justcall spontaneously. Just like with a telephone, if the other party is available they will answer. Ifnot, I can try again later. I am trying this more with one son who always keeps his computer on so it is more likely I can succeed. I am getting to spend much more time with my granddaughterthis way. On a video call, she gets to see my face; I get to see her in various moods. I need toget in the habit of just trying this on a more regular basis.
Email is a way of life now for many of us. Both children and adults like to get emails. I always look for an email from my daughter-in-law in Papua New Guinea when I get up on Sunday morning. Her time zone is fifteen hours ahead of mine, and Sunday evenings in her country seem suited for her to have time on the computer so it is a fairly regular communication opportunity. If I look forward to this, how much more would children look forward to their own email from a grandparent! Many of us have these options available but we just need to set upmore regular habits to take advantage of them. Be sure to send an email or some other form ofcommunication in order to share in the child’s life when any kind of significant event occurs(birthdays, school play, school award, participated in sport’s day, got a haircut, etc.)
In the days of email, we often forget that the postal service still works to most places. With such a reliance on email, we would do well to remember to send cards and letters to our grandchildren. Birthdays and Christmas keep us busy with sending to them special treats. There could be an endless list of good things to send, but with the cost of postage I often choose considering how much it weighs. Occasionally it may be good just to send some Kool-aid or bubble gum in an envelope along with a message that says “I am thinking of you today.” Howspecial the child will feel to receive their own letter! One thing that my husband and I especiallyenjoyed doing for our grandchildren one year for Christmas was to read them a book he hadwritten. We sent along the recording and the book for the children to look at as they heard ourvoice.
As I write this article, I am actually sitting with my son and daughter-in-law as they time her contractions for their second child to be born in Portugal. The Lord has been gracious to arrange that I could be present to help and encourage the parents as our granddaughters have been born. As a missionary myself I gave birth to three children overseas. My mother often came later
when she could get away from school teaching, but one of the things I missed most was having family present to share in the joy of the birth. Because of this, I have made it my goal to do all I can to be present for my children at the birth of my grandchildren. (At times I am the only one there but more often other grandparents, aunts and uncles are also there.) So far with the birth of 10 granddaughters, I have been present for all but two. One of these I missed was in PapuaNew Guinea the same weekend I was turning in my master’s thesis on missionary families (isn’tthat a conflict?). I was very stressed but it was impossible to be there. The second time, I was attending to my mother-in-law for a traumatic operation, but went to be with my daughter twoweeks later after making sure that the other grandmother was able to be present in Italy for thebirth. Five of these ten have been born overseas. My jobs varied depending on whether theother grandmother was also present or not, but usually I am kept busy with cooking, cleaning, babysitting older grandchildren and being of general help. It has been interesting having to getmyself around in foreign countries with only a short crash course in the language, bus and metroroutes, and a toddler for a guide. Of course the most important thing is that my children and theirfamilies have really appreciated the effort.
Another missionary family I know (they live in
four different countries since the parents and two of the kids are missionaries) makes it a point to set aside a full week every year or two
for all of their kids and grandkids to get away to a retreat with just them. This has been a wonderful time for them to reconnect without
interruptions. It takes a lot of planning to time everyone’s furloughs and vacations (and often the birth of a new baby) to be at the same time. The
time spent with those children and grandchildren is well worth the effort.
Health and finances may not always allow this, but if at all possible it is wonderful for grandparents to go and visit their grandchildren. It is great to be part of their lives in their adopted countries. We have had many tearful departures and joyful reunions over the years. It takes creative planning but we have tried to be able to see our overseas grandchildren at least once every year or year and a half. Sometimes it has stretched a little longer, but that is our goal. This example was set for us by my parents. Even though they were school teachers on a moderate salary, my parents committed to come to Africa to visit us in between each three year furlough while we were missionaries in Africa. My father made it only once before he died, but my mother kept up that commitment, making seven trips to Africa while we lived there. Besides the obvious motive of being able to spend time with family this traveling accomplishes threemore family goals: 1. They have a much better understanding of the daily lives of their kidsand grandkids in their host country. 2. Their grandchildren have an easier time saying goodbyebecause they are more confident that they might see these grandparents again before too long.The time between visits is shorter. 3. The grandparents send the message to the grandchildrenthat they are worth the time and effort to come visit. The inexpressible emotion on the younggrandchild’s face when they meet you at the airport will keep the grandparent coming back timeand again. (I again experienced that welcome two weeks ago, and will never forget it.)
While you are visiting (whether you have gone to them or the family is home on furlough), try to find some way to spend time alone with each grandchild. My grandchildren call this “going on a date with Papa or MomMom.” Each child feels really special. They get to share about their lives with the grandparent. Someone is really listening to them and they are not sharing that time with anyone else. How special! As a bonus, that grandchild is getting to know that grandparent on a deeper level.
Grandparenting across the globe is not impossible, just different. It takes some creative use of the technology available to us and a little more determination and planning to get the job done. It takes saving some of the family money to be used in making trips to visit and a lot more concerted effort as to how to be a grandparent. It takes grandparents who are dedicated to the job of being part of the lives of their grandchildren, even when they may live worlds apart.