At this time of year, many families are traveling to visit other family members, or longing to spend time with faraway family, or overloading on time with local family. Check out last year’s posts on Building Relationships with Family Near and Far; Staying Connected with Family Long-Distance, and Resolving Differences with Extended Family.
Unlike much of human history, where all the relatives were within a very short distance, today’s parents are often separated from their extended family by hundreds or thousands of miles. (For example, amongst parents who participated in PEPS support groups in Seattle, only 42% had family they could count on for support within a half hour drive versus 22% “longer drive”, and 34% “too far to drive.”)
However, with the assistance of modern technology and travel, it’s possible to build and maintain friendships over the miles.
Good old-fashioned snail mail is very appealing to children – they love having something tangible to open and look at. This doesn’t have to mean a hand-written letter. A grandparent could send postcards, or an envelope with a few stickers in it, or a puzzle from a magazine, or the comics. We don’t get a newspaper at home, and years ago when my girls visited my parents, they loved reading the comics in the paper my parents subscribe to. Ever since then, my parents pack up the Sunday comics every few weeks and send them to the girls. Now half of the comics come to our house, and the others go to my oldest daughter at college to share with her dorm mates.
Skype and Phone Calls
Phone calls are nice. But Skype is even better! Being able to see the child’s face will be precious to your family. And for your young children, having the image of the face as well as the voice makes a huge difference in helping them to connect. Here are some ideas on how to make the most of calls:
- Prep your family member ahead of time with ideas for questions to ask that will help engage the child in a conversation. With a toddler, you might tell family to ask “what does a dog say? What does a cat say” and so on. With a teenager, you might clue in your family in advance that they should ask about a movie your child recently saw, or a trip you’re planning.
- Prep your child ahead of time by reminding them what they know about that family member.
- Remember that toddler attention spans are short. Short but frequent calls are better for building relationships. A 2 minute call every day is more fun than 15 minutes once a week.
- Some people read a story book to the child over the phone / computer. This may be easier for a young child to engage in than a conversation is. They could read the same book every week and the child would probably love that! (When they visit, they can read it in person!)
- Some grandparents like to do “magic”: they coordinate with you to have a snack at home that they also have. They can then “send it through the phone” and you make it magically appear.
Recordings and Photos
- Search for “recordable storybooks” on Amazon, or at Hallmark.com, and you’ll find several picture books that a family member can record their voice on, telling the story.
- Film a family member talking or telling stories, or giving your child a tour of their home or one of their favorite places. Your child can watch it again and again.
- Photos: have photos of family members around the house, and talk about those people often. (And not just formal portraits on the wall! Also have snapshots the child can carry around.)
- Take plenty of pictures when family members visit. Make a scrapbook. Review it with your child before the next visit.
Other recommended articles: http://www.helpguide.org/mental/grandparenting.htm
Having your child’s grandparents, aunts, and uncles involved in their lives can be a wonderful thing. Whether your family lives down the road or around the world, here are some tips to help build a positive relationship.
- Encourage your family member to establish a ritual that they do with the child every time they get together – something as simple as going to the park to swing (no matter the weather), going for a walk to get an ice cream cone, working on a craft project or puzzle together.
- Rather than bringing gifts on each visit, encourage your family member to bring simple things that they can DO WITH THE CHILD. Like puzzles, paints, a game, a book to read.
- Playing board games or card games together can be a nice way to interact. Your family will see your child’s growing skills, and your child will learn about rules and fair play.
- Have your child spend time alone with family members, without you always there, and without siblings along. A trip to the library or the local park can be a nice outing.
Gifts and Traditions
- Encourage family members to create traditions. My mother has made every Halloween costume for my kids over the years, and they have had the joy of picking any character from any book or movie for Grandma to re-create. (Some have been pretty challenging!)
- Encourage family members to give gifts that showcase their talents. If they knit, sew, cook, take photos, or build things, then that gift has its own meaning, but also gives you a chance to talk to your child about all the cool things the grandparents know how to do.
Comforts of Home
Children are reassured by routine and predictability. Although my husband rarely visited his grandmother in England, he knew that when he did, there would be buttered bread and digestive biscuits. My grandparents lived nearby, and at one house, I knew I would find home-made taffy, coloring books and Reader’s Digests. At the other house, there were always word-search puzzles and my grandmother’s collection of little ceramic and metal shoes, which I could play with if I was very careful. Encourage your family members to think about what the reliable treats will be at their house.
Find things your child has in common with family members, and encourage them to share that interest. My toddler son and his grandpa spend a lot of time talking about trains! My teenage daughter and her aunt go on Starbucks runs and shopping trips together.
Share family stories
- Talk to your kids about your childhood, your parents, what their lives were like when they’re younger, and what they do now. This helps to ground your child in the history of the family.
- Encourage family to share their memories of day-to-day life when they were young, and their memories of historical events. This gives your child a deeper understanding of the past.
Encourage your children to reach out to other family members for advice and support
- Let them know there are other adults in their life they can count on for wisdom and empathy.
Look for a continuation of this article tomorrow with more ideas on connecting to long-distance family members.
Having extended family members involved in your child’s life can be a blessing. But challenges often arise…
Most Common Issues
- Different expectations for involvement: They’re less involved than you’d hoped, and/or not helping in the way you’d hoped. For example, you hoped they would babysit based on your schedule – when you need them. Instead, they schedule times that work for them.
- Advice. They may offer advice that you feel is outdated, or feel comes from a different perspective on parenting that’s not in line with your values.
- Judgment. Their suggestions for improvement feel like they’re judging you to be a bad parent.
- Failure to listen. It may seem they ignore your requests, or do the opposite of what you ask.
- Spoiling. Our culture implies this is part of the grandparent’s job. Also, they may have regrets about ways they “failed” you as a parent, and view this as an opportunity to make up for that.
These challenges can make it difficult to maintain a relationship. But there are good reasons to do so:
Benefits of grandparents / extended family
- Love: Extended family can offer unconditional love. Because they are not involved in the logistics of the child’s everyday life, they may be able to accept and celebrate the child just as he is. They don’t need to make the child do chores, or scold them for undone homework.
- Safety to explore: A grandparents’ home may be the first place your child sleeps without you there by their side. It lets them practice separation.
- Companionship: Grandparents may have time to slow down and just hang out with your child.
- Assistance: Some family members help out several times a week with child care and other tasks, some aren’t but are available in times of crisis when you really need someone.
- Identity and history: Extended family can help your child feel more grounded in the world – offering a better sense of where they come from and what kind of person they may become.
Issue: Different expectations. Solution: Try to see things from their perspective
If their involvement is different than you hoped, don’t assume you know why. Talking with them may reveal a variety of reasons why their expectations of themselves as grandparents differs from yours:
- They may feel like they gave many years of their lives to parenting, and feel ready for a bit of a break to do some of the other things they enjoy.
- They may want to be more involved, but have too many other commitments to make time.
- They may have anxiety about whether they can do a good job, and may hold back.
- They may be trying not to “step on your toes” and waiting to be invited to participate more.
Have a clear discussion with them about how involved they would like to be / are able to be.
Issue: Advice. Solution: Share What You Know / Believe, and Listen to what they Know
- Talk with them about the parenting choices you are making, and your reasons for doing so.
- Arm them with current information: Share articles and websites. Invite them to pediatrician’s appointments or parenting classes with you. Take a baby safety class together.
- Ask their advice from time to time. They may then give less unsolicited advice at other times. Listen to them: they’ve parented before… they may well have wisdom you can benefit from!
- Help them feel important, included, and needed: Give them things to do rather than telling them what not to do.
At some point, you may need to say: “Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this. But, this is how we are choosing to parent our child, and we ask that you honor that and follow what we do.”
Issue: Judgment. Solution: Assume the Best
Assume that they want the best for you and for your child(ren). They may have a different definition of what that looks like, but their heart is likely to be in the right place.
They may feel confident about the way they parented their children, so have confidence that they can do well with yours. They also can’t help but remember you as a child who needed help learning how to use the potty, tie a shoe, walk to school, and learn to drive. There are times it’s hard for your parents to remember that you’re a grown-up and let you find your own path.
If they question your judgment in front of the child (“I don’t know why your parents won’t let you do this… I would let you do it”), let them know that’s not acceptable. They need to show respect of you and help reinforce your authority, not diminish it. Tell them that if there’s something they’re really concerned about, you would like them to speak to you out of the child’s hearing.
Issue: Failure to Listen. Solution: Adjust how you communicate
Sometimes when we’re not being heard, it’s because we’re speaking a different language. Try to see the world from their perspective and think about how you might say things differently.
When possible, listen to them, and show a willingness to compromise / meet them halfway.
Issue: Spoiling / Over-Indulging. Solution: pick your battles, and enforce limits
It can be exhausting, and damaging to a relationship, to squabble over every difference. However, as the parent, you have the right to set limits on acceptable behavior, safety issues, and “spoiling”.
Pick your battles. Some of the less important things you can let slide. Maybe you have a no screen time policy at your house, but your family member likes watching children’s shows with your child. It’s OK if your extended family does some things differently than you do. For example, when your child goes to the grocery store with grandpa, he may always get candy from the gumball machine. When you go to the store, you can say no to that, letting him know that’s grandpa’s special treat.
But, if grandparents say yes to something that you feel strongly about, that can make it harder for you to enforce limits. Ask for their help on this… Make sure they know what are the essential limits for you, so they can reinforce those as unbreakable rules.
Issue: Your Family vs. your partner’s family. Solution: Ally with your partner
You may find that you get along fine with your family, but your in-laws make you crazy. Or vice versa! You may love the way one family interacts with your child, but hate how the other family does. Talk with your partner first to figure out what your challenges and goals are with each family, and communicate with both families as a team.