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Grandparenting at a Distance

The thrill of having grandchildren is a vivid one. To be closely involved in a child's development, without first-line responsibilities for behaviour management, is sheer delight. Sadly, huge distances separate many families, and grandparents may live far away from their children's children. This was, and is, true for me, first when I was a child, then as a young parent, and now as a grandparent. I'd like to discuss some of the ways grandparents can make up for the distance gap.

The studies say that grandparenting matters. For example, Laura DeHaan and Sean Brotherson of North Dakota State University say in "The Influence of Grandparents and Stepgrandparents on Grandchildren" that " intergenerational contact reflects a high value for family connection. Grandchildren exposed to such contact are less fearful of old age and the elderly. They feel more connected to their families." Mariana J. Brussoni and Susan D. Boon, in the International Journal of Aging & Human Development (1998 Vol 46(4) 267-286) examine "the role of relationship strength and emotional closeness" that grandparents play in their grandchildren's lives. So even though we may live many miles from our children's families, the importance of our role validates the effort it takes to be, and remain, involved. If we have very little expendable income, we can write letters often, and phone family members occasionally. We might use a tape recorder to document family stories, or might record a favorite book for little ones, then mail the book with the tape. If money is no object, we might travel frequently, although environmental concerns make casual travel less and less desirable, especially for grandparents who are concerned that the world be a healthy place for their grandchildren to grow up in! The suggestions that follow are for grandparents in the middle of the financial spectrum--grandparents with some expendable income, some time, and a great willingness to expend energy in the interest of maintaining meaningful relationships with their grandchildren.

First, the Internet: what a remarkable communication tool it is. Living as I do in rural Nova Scotia, I don't have access to a high-speed Internet connection, but many grandparents can invest in WebCams for themselves and their children, and skype as often as they and their grandchildren wish. With little children, playing hide and seek, telling stories, teaching action songs and nursery rhymes, discussing the day's events, and showing items of interest to each other would be easy and satisfying. With older children, talking about activities and experiences, reminiscing about past shared experiences, telling jokes, discussing books, magazines, music, games, and movies or television shows could keep meaningful communication doors open. Some grandparents may feel leery of new technology, but interested family members can encourage them, reassuring them that the time and energy invested in learning how to use computers will not be wasted. Relationships are grounded in daily events, and the Internet makes such day-to-day sharing possible over distance. Though I have only a dial-up connection, I use the Internet to send photos of current interest. For example, both my young grandchildren were excited this spring to see photos of baby chicks, and now are fascinated to see how different the birds look as they grow older. Spring blossoms, including a special deep pink tulip, were of interest to my four-year-old granddaughter, whose favorite colour is pink, and who has become interested in flower arranging. Photos can also serve as preparation for young children who will be traveling to visit their grandparents. I plan to send snapshots of sandbox and swing, of our pets in various places about the property, of the seashore, and so on, as the time for a family trip "home" draws closer. For vocal communication, I need to rely on phone conversations, which are not nearly as satisfying as skyping with WebCam, because my littlest grandchild is only two, and without visual contact I'm frequently not sure what she is saying. However, even imperfect phone calls are important, and establish a pattern that will allow for continued communication when grandchildren are older.

Of course, travel is an essential part of staying closely connected to youngsters, especially if they are very small, since babies change so quickly, and forget easily as new experiences fill their expanding worlds. I don't suggest traveling casually, because of what we know about the environmental damage carbon emissions from fossil fuels cause, but there are times when travel is important. When I was a young working mother who sometimes had to be away from home, my mother traveled to take care of my two children while I was absent. She interrupted her own busy life to do this. Did her involvement with her grandchildren matter? Today, my oldest daughter telephones her every night, and my younger daughter and my mother maintain a weekly correspondence by "snail mail." At ninety-four, my mother's world is narrower than it was, and the love and concern her grandchildren show her enriches her life. And, as so often happens, history has repeated itself: I now travel to care for my grandchildren when my daughter has to be away on business. I am about the same age as my mother was when she came to help me, and I have discovered it takes a good deal more energy to manage children when one is older--but it is worth every cup of restorative tea, and every night of exhausted sleep! Knowing firsthand a grandchild's routine, environment, and interests makes telephone or skyping contact far more meaningful when separation reoccurs.

Travel can build bridges that help reach grandchildren in time and trouble, too. A dear friend of mine whose daughter died unexpectedly of an aneurysm was able to support her grandchildren, and find solace in that role, because she had been a fully involved grandparent despite thousands of miles of distance. She and her husband had made trips to visit as often as they could, and brought their daughter's family "home" to visit each summer. Their connection with their grandchildren meant that they had a loving and meaningful relationship, so when devastation came they could comfort each other in a desperately painful time. Their deep concern for their grandchildren helped ameliorate the harm such enormous shock must cause in young psyches, and in the purposeful comfort they gave, their own pain was made more manageable.

Interestingly, an old (1987) American study by Clarice A. Orr and Sally Van Zandt, "The Role of Grandparenting in Building Family Strengths," shows "no significant correlation between emotional closeness and the geographical distance of grandparents and children/grandchildren, but there was a significant correlation between emotional closeness and frequency of contact." That's encouraging for grandparents who live far away from their children's families. "Contact" doesn't have to be physical, after all. I asked my daughter how she felt about her children being separated from their grandparents, in light of her own experience as a long-distance granddaughter, and she said there were some things that were actually better, although overall she would much rather live nearby. She says each letter, each phone call, each visit, seems very special, and visits in particular are anticipated events, and cause for happy memories.

My daughter also says she has noticed that her young children have cognitive leaps each time I care for them. Of course, such a report is anecdotal, but it makes sense to me--a new caregiver from a different place who focuses with devoted attention, who enthusiastically enters into games, brings new stories, new vocabulary, new interests and attitudes--how could there not be a cognitive leap in a fast-growing little mind? I have a very clear memory of visiting my far-away grandparents and learning to play solitaire, a card game that demands knowledge of number sequence, when I was four. My grandfather was semi-invalid; he spent hours propped up in bed with a tray on his lap on which he played solitaire. The feeling of being very special is still available to me as I remember sitting quietly beside him and "helping" by putting the cards where they belonged as he patiently explained the rules. His loving belief in my ability gave me a sense of worth that is with me still, yet I saw him only once a year for a week or two each summer. This anecdote suggests another benefit of loving relationships with grandparents, whether near or far. Aging can entail physical challenges; when it does, loved and loving grandchildren will learn sensitivity to and understanding of people with disabilities.

Yet another of the grandparenting roles researchers have found to be important is that of family historian. Very few of us know much at all about even our great-grandparents' lives, and as we get older most of us wish we did. In the article mentioned earlier, "The Influence of Grandparents and Stepgrandparents on Grandchildren," Drs. DeHaan and Brotherson share detailed instructions, adapted from Gilman and Monica Peterson, for "Making a Memory," by creating and videotaping a family history. They suggest interviewing other family members, taking a tour through a family home (if possible), and sharing known genealogical material. Religious or spiritual values, education, work history, life experiences, family stories--any of these and more are grist for a family history. My own mother is, at 94, jotting down descriptions of her youth for our family. In her lifetime Canada has gone from a dark, silent place without electricity, telephones, radio, cars or planes, to a place where astronauts scarcely make headlines. I know her great-grandchildren will be fascinated with stories of "the way it was," if only because it will stagger their imaginations to think of a world without television! Writing or vocally recording stories of their grandchildren's accomplishments is a good (and delightful) task for grandparents, too. Parents often have little time to jot down the funny or interesting things their youngsters say and do. My four-year-old grandchild already asks me to tell stories about her when she "was a baby," and laughs with great glee when she hears me quote her speaking baby talk, or reminisce about her earlier beliefs and experiences. I suspect this supports her developing picture of herself as a growing individual with a past, present, and future, and possibly helps her understand in a visceral way that learning and growing is an intrinsic part of being human.

Civitas, a foundation begun in 1993 by Jeffrey D. Jacobs "to educate front-line professionals working on behalf of abused and neglected children," has expanded its mandate to "benefit a broader audience of adults living and working with children," and one of its products is a book titled The Importance of Grandparents. This book lists some of the roles of grandparents as those of playmate, teacher, counselor, confidant, friend, spiritual guide, mentor, elder, role model, and nurturer. It reports that "kids who have strong connections to their grandparents are far more likely to grow up to be loving, confident adults." While this must be almost impossible to prove scientifically, it makes sense that social creatures like humans feel more confident knowing they have extended family members who love them unconditionally. Even if those family members are miles away, they can make their love known and their interest felt through consistent communication, through occasional visits, and through efforts to connect a family's present with its past. Being apart doesn't have to mean being uninvolved or unimportant, even though we grandparents all would much rather be next door!


[Note: If you are interested in contributing to new research on grandparenting, there is a questionnaire offered by an online journal: "Journal of Grandparenting Research" at www.grandparenting.org/research.htm]
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