Connect with far-off grandchildren

Better ways for busy grandparents to stay in touch with their grandkids

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Sandy Berger is a grandmother in Pinehurst, N.C., who runs Compukiss, a tech web site, and is dedicated to staying involved in the lives of her three grandchildren. Despite the fact that her 6-year-old grandchild lives in Palm Coast, F.L., and the other two, ages 2 and 3, reside in Stockholm, Sweden, Berger says, “I talk to each of my grandchildren every day.”

Many grandparents are intent on staying close to their grandchildren and becoming an integral part of their lives, despite their busy work schedules and long distances between them. Though technology is making communication much easier, becoming part of a grandchild’s life still requires a concerted effort and close communication with the grandkids’ parents.

Berger uses Google Talk and Skype (which has video capabilities), free Internet services, to speak to her grandchildren daily and see them via her Web camera. Because she also connected a microphone and speakers to her computer, the vocal quality is first-rate. Berger says Internet phone service saves her about $100 a month, and she doesn’t have to worry about the costs of extended phone conversations.

“Last night, my granddaughter in Stockholm showed me her new pants with a decal of Mickey Mouse on her rear. She was prancing in front of the computer camera,” Berger says, exuding the closeness that she feels from knowing the daily permutations of her grandchild’s life.

As Americans become increasingly mobile, long distances often separate grandparents and grandchildren. An AARP study revealed that 45 percent of grandparents live more than 200 miles away from their grandchildren, notes Amy Goyer, national coordinator of the grandparent information center at the AARP Foundation. Since grandparents are continuing to work into their 60s, most grandparents only have time for semi-annual or annual visits.

Technologically inclined grandparents can easily stay in touch with grandchildren through daily e-mails, Web cams, and digital photos, Goyer notes. But she advises grandparents to go beyond the “How was your day?” e-mail, which can get stale and stultifying day after day.

“Play games together online, such as video, card and computer games,” says Goyer. That creates shared experiences between grandparent and grandchild, fodder for conversation, and commonalities.

If the grandparent is not computer-savvy, shared experiences can still play a role. Grandparents can read sections of “Harry Potter” or other favorite children’s novels over the telephone, or even make a tape recording that the parents can play at night to help the grandchild go to sleep.

Not being online or owning a computer shouldn’t be a hindrance to staying in close contact with grandchildren. The old-fashioned telephone can work as a tool to communicate, and some grandparents even opt for the anachronistic method of writing letters, a long-lost art form.

One essential factor for grandparents who want to overcome distance and stay involved in their grandchild’s life is communicating closely with their children, the grandchildren’s parents. “Grandparents and grandchildren won’t form much of a relationship without parents helping out, especially with younger children,” Goyer says.

Parents can keep the grandparents abreast of the grandchild’s activities. If the parents inform Grandpa or Grandma of the grandchild’s soccer game or important math test, grandparents can call and inquire how the things went.

Goyer recalls one grandmother who lived in Ohio but was committed to staying close to her grandchildren in North Carolina. She arranged her job so she could telecommute a couple of days a week and would visit her grandchildren monthly. The grandmother also created a Web site, which she used to post photos of her visits with her grandchildren to stay close to them. Despite the distance between them, this grandmother was an active presence in her grandchildren’s lives.

Nothing replaces face-to-face visits, of course, but following up can deepen the experience. For example, if the grandparents have visited their grandchildren, the grandparents can make a scrapbook of their visit together and send it to their loved ones. “Anything the grandparent can do to make the visit not just a one-time thing, but turned into memories, goes a long way,” Goyer says.

Many grandparents pamper their grandchildren by buying presents, but Goyer warns that gift-giving can also be a trap. She advises grandparents to confer with the parents to make sure they are in agreement with the gifts. “What’s acceptable to one parent may be too much for another,” Goyer notes. Some parents try to downplay commercialism, limit their child’s video games, and stress educational games or books.

While many grandparents dote on their grandchildren and try to be sensitive to their needs, grandparents are also encouraged to share part of themselves. Says Berger, “Focus on something you love and share it with your grandchildren — a favorite hobby or avocation.”

Getting involved with grandchildren also helps the grandparents. “It can provide grandparents with an important focus in their life. Connecting the child to their roots or heritage enhances the grandparents’ legacy,” says Lillian Carson, author of “The Essential Grandparent: A Guide to Making a Difference.”

Grandparents offer a different level of acceptance than parents, who must focus on discipline. “Children benefit the most from having caring adults in their life that pay attention to them, show interest, and listen to them. These actions show the child that the child is loved and cared about. It strengthens their sense of self,” Goyer says.

What’s the secret to how busy grandparents can stay close to grandkids who may live far from them? Berger says, “It boils down to love in the long run, doesn’t it? When you love somebody, you find ways to stay in touch and communicate.” Lillian Carson adds, “Grandparents showing up is most critical.” And Woody Allen once said that 90 percent of success is showing up.

Grandparent Resources

The Grandparent Guide: The Definitive Guide to Coping with the Challenges of Modern Grandparenting by Arthur Kornhaber (Contemporary Books)

The Nanas and the Papas: A Boomer’s Guide to Grandparenting by Kathryn and Allan Zullo (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 1998)

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