The dos and don’ts of long-distance grandparenting – part 2

Ellyn Osher is a retired Chicago school teacher whose 8-year old grandson was born and lives in South Korea.
She sees him twice a year for extended visits, but she’s not worried about her relationship with him. When she’s not with him, they speak every day by phone. It’s not ideal, she knows, but it’s reality and they make it work.
In just under four weeks’ time, Leslie Cantor became the proud grandmother of twins born to one daughter and a granddaughter born to her other daughter.
The good news is both daughters live in Washington, D.C. The bad news is she and her husband do not.
Her grandchildren are now a year and a half old, and Leslie feels very close to all three, despite the distance.  She attributes her success to frequent trips to Washington, which are planned with her daughters’ input, constant conversation with her daughters and son-in-laws, and lots of FaceTime and Skyping with the grandchildren, even when they were babies.
These grandparents, and most of the other long-distance grandparents I spoke with, have found ways to form close attachments with their grandchildren, despite the challenges that distance presents. Here are some of the lessons I learned from speaking with them:
Lesson 1:  Talk to your children and their spouses or partners before they become parents. Let them know what becoming a grandparent means to you. Reminisce about your grandparents and ask how they feel about becoming parents. Ask if they’ve thought about your new role as grandparents and, if you can help after the baby is born – emotionally, financially, etc. Don’t take it personally if you’re not invited into the delivery room. Many about-to-be parents want to share this special milestone privately.  Start this new chapter in your life by letting your children write the introduction.
Lesson 2: Start bonding early, as soon as the grandchild is born, if possible. Psychologists say the best time to bond with a grandchild is during the early years, when children are becoming attached to their parents and other family members.
Lesson 3: Arrange your visits around their schedule, not yours. As grandchildren grow, their schedules become busier and less flexible. Grandparents, even those who are working, are likely to have more flexible schedules than their children, many of whom are focused on career development and progress. Recently, I read a story about a grandmother who changed her work hours to be able to visit her grandchild once a month. Not everyone can do that, but you get the idea.
Lesson 4: Make every visit special. Children bond when one-on-one contact is frequent. Plan ahead and make sure every visit is memorable and fun, the kind that grandchildren will still talk about when they’re teens and adults. Children remember what they enjoy. If the kids are into sports or the performing arts, make sure your visit coincides with a game, a recital or a play. Each visit with your grandchildren should be all about them, so don’t even think about finishing the novel you started on the plane; save it for the return flight.
Lesson 5: Stretch out your time together with a follow-up that will seal the memory. Grandparents I spoke with post videos on YouTube, mail photo albums, and send “thank you” notes to their grandchildren after a visit. Every visit should be one that the grandchildren bring up in future conversations: “Remember when we….”
Lesson 6: Take advantage of technology. I grew up in the world of Smith-Corona typewriters, but, I have learned to use technology to stay connected with my grandsons, and so has every long-distance grandparent I know.  Grandparents use their smart phones to talk, text, email and share photos and videos with their grandchildren (FaceTime, Skype, Voxer) and “play” with them (Jeopardy, Words With Friends, Candy Crush). New grandparents can even read a book to a grandchild while the grandchild turns the pages (Kindoma), and grandchildren can share their art work and school projects with their grandparents (Keepy). The possibilities are endless, and the learning curve for baby boomers may be steep, but harnessing the power of technology yields positive dividends: stronger ties with grandchildren.
Some long-distance grandparents must also learn to manage their feelings because the other grandparents live closer to the grandchildren. Author Barbara Graham has written about the jealousy she felt because her son-in-law’s parents lived in the same neighborhood, while she lived a plane trip away. Only after she acknowledged her feelings and let them go could she stop competing with the other grandparents and stop worrying about feeling “special” to her grandchildren.
On the other hand, Phyllis Green, another long-distance grandmother, has never felt threatened by the frequent visits the other grandparents make. She has put a lot of time and energy into building close relationships with her daughter-in-law and grandchildren and her positive attitude and willingness to make each visit special for her grandchildren and convenient for their parents has won her a special place in their hearts.
“Everybody brings something else to being a grandparent,” she said. “Some grandparents get frequent, but short, visits with their grandchildren. I get less time, but it’s 24/7. In the end, it’s what you do with the time you have together that really counts.”
All the long-distance grandparents I spoke with work hard to maintain close ties to their grandchildren, and, when asked, they affirm that their efforts pay off. They have met the “out of sight, out of mind” cliché and conquered it; they have found ways to ensure that absence does, indeed, make the heart grow fonder. But, that’s the nature of distance. All other things being equal, grandparents have tools for dealing with the distance between them and their grandchildren.
But all other things are not equal. Some grandparents must deal with challenges created, not by distance, but by personality, culture, family dynamics, relationships, relatives and even politics. The tools for coping with these challenges are not as cut and dry. A grandfather I know was dis-invited to his daughter’s Thanksgiving dinner last year because he didn’t vote for the candidate she supported in the presidential election.
In my next article on grandparenting, we’ll discuss some of the complications of 21st-century life that impact grandparent-grandchild relationships. If you have been dealing with complicated grandparenting challenges, shoot me an email at and share your thoughts.
Until next time, take a few moments to appreciate how your grandchildren enrich your life, then reach out and let them know how you feel.

(Ruth Greenberg is a professor emeritus at the University of Louisville School of Medicine, a free-lance writer and a grandmother.)


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