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How to Stay Close With Long-distance Grandparents

Erin Zammett Ruddy

My mother-in-law actually suggested this topic a while back because she feels like Nick and I do a good job of keeping her and my father-in-law in our kids’ lives, despite the many hundreds of miles separating us. That was a nice compliment, but the truth is, I don’t just do it for them, I do it for my kids, who adore their grandparents no matter where they reside. And that relationship is so important to kids (and to parents); I want to do whatever I can to foster it. Naturally we rely on plenty of 21st Century technological advancements (i.e. Apple and all its fixins) to make it happen, but some of the most meaningful stuff still comes the old-fashioned way (handmade cards and drawings sent snail mail, for example). Of course there are times when life gets hectic and we slack on some of this stuff, but we try to stay as much in touch as we can as often as we can. Here are the six big ways we make it happen.

1. Skype! We try to Skype or Facetime a lot, usually around once a week for a good long time. Sometimes the kids run around and Nick or I do most of the talking, but often the kids will sit (or walk around with the phone) and talk their granparents’ ears off. Either way, it puts my i- laws in our house with our family. And while I imagine it’s hard not to be able to squeeze and hug and kiss the kids, it’s the next best thing. Bonus: My MIL actually got Nora to brush her teeth without a fight the other night over Facetime after I walked out of the room defeated again.

2. This blog. And now my personal blog. My mother-in-law reads my posts religiously and I’ll often get a call or email telling me things like, “you’re such a good mom,” or “you’re such a good writer.” Awesome, right? (My MIL is my biggest fan and I’m hers.) And since you guys know how detailed and long-winded and descriptive I can be on this blog, you know they’re getting a real picture of what’s going on. Neither of my in-laws is on Facebook though we’re trying to remedy that. As many of you know, that’s a really great tool for keeping long-distance family members up-to-date on your youngins.

3. Phone calls (both from me and Nick and quick hellos from the kids). This seems like a no-brainer but I often have to remind myself not to wait until there’s something important to say to call. They just want to hear the regular old stuff going on in our lives. When Alex and Nora were babies, I’d call my mother-in-law after a well visit to report their height and weight and what they doctor said. I’ll call from the ER (we’ve had several visits), and yes, we call when we’re doing good stuff too, like the super-excited convo Alex had last week, the night before his first ski trip. Just filling them in on the mundane stuff—Alex’s school project, Nora’s latest sassiness—makes them feel like they know what’s going on in their lives and that makes them feel included in a way that sharing only the highlights doesn’t.

4. Emailing photos and videos. Nick and I both have iPhones now, which makes this so much easier. We can snap a quick shot or shoot a quick video (Nora reciting her ABCs, Alex showing off the snow fall) and forward them to Pat and Debbie. Even the silliest or most simple gesture can make their day.

5. Making cards and pictures. My kids (Alex especially) are really into coloring so Debbie requested some original art for their fridge (I didn’t think to do this, it was her idea and it’s a great one). So we’ve been sending stuff their way. We also send b-day cards and gifts for holidays but it’s the in-between surprises that are the most fun. And I love reminding my kids that snail mail exists and is a wonderful way to communicate. (Of course the kids were so excited about the last drawings they made that they first showed them off over Skype, then we sent.)

6. Trips to see them! Our big summer vacation every year is to Traverse City, Michigan where my in-laws live (thank God it's a super cool place!). They come to us every Thanksgiving and we usually sneak in another visit or two somewhere. My mother-in-law is a huge help with the kids and recently flew in to watch them while Nick and I went away. Nothing is better than actual face time, but we do our best to make the time in between special for everyone, too. And we have photos of them in our house and we tell stories about them and bring them up as often as we do any other family member. They may be out of sight but they are never out of mind.

Nick and I were both very close with our grandparents growing up and we want that for our kids. And so far, so good. We also know how lucky we are that our kids have four awesome, active grandparents in their lives. A while back, I interviewed Allison Gilbert, author of Parentless Parents, a book about the challenges of raising kids without grandparents in their lives (she argues that as women have children later in life, their parents won’t be alive as long as our parents’ parents were and so there will be a new family dynamic to deal with). Grandparents offer unconditional love, lack of judgment, lack of to-do lists—all things that boost self-confidence, especially as kids get older. But, says Gilbert, that safe haven can come from anyone—an older family friend, a neighbor. “You have to be proactive in thinking about who you can pull into your inner circle. And then nurture that relationship,” she says. A surrogate grandparent helps kids’ net feel bigger, and deeper, and makes them feel more connected. “When you fill that void with an honorary grandparent, kids feel that they have more lines of access to information, to love, to handholding and affection.”  The idea is to fill their universe with people who will support them and love them.

I couldn’t agree with this more. My kids are lucky to have four grandparents but they also have other special people in their lives that I foster their relationships with. My aunts, who live in Massachusetts, are a big part of our life and my kids adore them. Our neighbors, who just moved to Florida last week (I cried), are like bonus grandparents to my kids. And I plan to use a lot of the tactics above to stay in touch now that we’ll be long distance. We also have special friends of my parents’ that my kids adore and who we try to stay in touch with in a special way. The more people my kids have to love and who will love them back, the better, right?

So, do you have long-distance grandparents? Any other special people who are long distance? How do you stay in touch and make them feel like part of your kids’ lives? I can always use new ideas to keep it fresh. Share please! And come visit me over at my new site, Lot's of fun posts coming this week!