Are you in a long distance relationship where you or your partner has children? Are you raising children far away from family and friends who are important to you?
If the answer to either of these questions is yes, you’ve probably wrestled with the question of how to best help your kids get to know these people and maintain meaningful relationships with them.
I know my own parents grappled with this question–they country-hopped around the world for 21 years while my siblings and I were growing up.
Now I’m married and a parent myself. Since my husband and I spend an average of two months of the year apart from each other, my kids are frequently in a long distance relationship with their dad. And because we live in Vanuatu and both sets of grandparents live in other countries (one in Australia and one in America, groan!) our children have a predominately long distance relationship with their extended family members.
Here are some of the things we have done to help our children build those important relationships across distance, and to help family and friends feel connected to us even though we live in the South Pacific.
These tips are not a “how to” manual–they are simply things we have done. As you read through them, think about which of these you’re already doing, and what else might work for you. Then leave a comment below and share your thoughts. I’d love to hear them!
1. Visit when you can
This goes both ways. It’s as important for grandparents and partners, etc., to visit as it is for children to visit them.
This helps children feel that their grandparents, your partner, or other important figures have seen and understand “their” world. It also allows you to spend time together while the children are relaxed and at home, rather than when they are out of their element and busy meeting the myriad demands that come with traveling.
2. Help contribute to the cost of the other person’s travel
If the people you love can’t afford to visit you, help them out if you can.
My parents have a policy that’s still in effect despite the fact that all of us “kids” are more than 30 years old now. Here’s their deal: My parent’s will pay half of a return air-ticket to Australia for all of us (children, spouses, grandchildren) every year.
Their generosity has helped us travel to spend time in Australia at times when we would have decided against it for financial reasons.
So if you have parents or relatives that would love to visit but can’t afford to, consider whether you could contribute to the cost of their travel. Encourage other friends and family members to help subsidize travel instead of buying other birthday or Christmas presents.
3. Involve children in some Skype or FaceTime calls
Make sure you involve your children in some (but not all) of your Skype or phone calls.
Consider making these “kids included” calls a regular part of your routine (e.g., every second Saturday morning) and schedule these “all family” calls for times when your kids are not likely to be too tired or hungry.
Resist any temptation to make the calls extra long to make up for preceding weeks of no contact (you don’t want to turn these calls into infrequent extended chores that children learn to dread).
Use a webcam whenever internet bandwidth allows. Even if your computer doesn’t have one build in, external webcams are cheap, easy to set up, and add enormously to the quality of the contact. If grandparents don’t have webcams on their end, buy them one for Christmas and install it during a home visit.
(However, don’t push communication styles that step too far outside another’s comfort zone. For example, if a grandparent is partially deaf phone and video calls might be very taxing. They may prefer to type emails or instant message so that they can catch everything.)
A note for parents on the kid’s end of the call
If your child struggles to connect well on Skype, encourage them to identify something they want to talk about or show family before the call (toys, books, something from school, bugs–whatever) and something they want to ask. You can also grab a free PDF with 30 good questions to ask kids during video calls in the box below.
Also, try doing the call in the playroom while you’re sitting on the floor doing something together, like building a train set or a tower. Having an activity can help calm and focus children.
You can always try following kids around with your phone or the laptop, too. The person on the other end would probably love to see them riding their bike, etc. So don’t feel like you have to do the classic “sit and talk” call.
A note for grandparents or partners on the other end of the call
Children often freeze up or struggle to talk via telephone or computer.
You can help them by asking a couple (not dozens) of open-ended questions that require the children to give more than a simple yes or no answer. (Grab a free cheat sheet that can help with this below).
Give children time to come up with those answers after you ask a question. Don’t rush in too fast to fill pauses or silence–children may just be struggling to find some words.
And try not to take it personally if the child doesn’t seem interested in talking to you on a particular call. Kids are going to be kids at times, whether they’re on a special bi-monthly call with you or not.
4. Blog, keep a private family Facebook or Instagram account, or write a regular newsletter
If you live far away from friends and family, figure out some way you can help them feel connected to the little details of your life, not just the big news.
There are lots of ways to do this nowadays. I’ve kept a blog throughout our years abroad. I’m also very active on Facebook and regularly share photos and stories about the children.
Other families I know have a closed, private Facebook group or Instagram account that’s only for families and close friends.
5. Send paper copies of photographs in both directions
Send children photographs of yourself (especially photos of you with the child, if you can). If the children are young, ask the in-house parent to show these photos to the kids, and display them where children can see them.
When you spend time in-person with the child, take a lot of photos. Then make some sort of record of things you’ve done together during the visit (a photo book or other project.) These sorts of tangible reminders that children can handle and hold help cement memories of all the good times you’ve had.
And if you’re the one raising children far away, send or email photos and videos regularly, especially if you don’t blog. There are few things that mean more to grandparents and siblings than photos of their grandchildren or nieces/nephews.
6. Send letter, postcards, cards, or packages
Children love to get mail of their own, so send children letters, cards, photos, or packages addressed to them by post occasionally.
Packages are especially exciting, and several small items usually go over better than packages containing one big item.
Also consider sending some of your favorite children’s books. If you have a copy of the same book on your end, you might even be able to read it to them via Skype at some point.
If they’re old enough to have their own email account, you can email them as well.
From the other side, if you’re the parent of children living far away, help your kids draw pictures or write short letters or post-cards to send to their grandparents or other important people.
7. Schedule a special “themed” call
Because it can be challenging for some kids to open up on via phone or video call, you might want to put some extra effort into having “themed” calls you plan in advance.
For example, you can schedule a special “5 Questions” call. Partners or grandparents can come prepared with a list of 5 questions for their child and vice versa.
If kids are young, start with favorite movies, foods, colors, etc. For older kids, try more complicated questions like, “What would you do with a million dollars?” and “What three things would you bring with you to a deserted island?”
Other “themed call” ideas are:
- Help with home-work or reading call
- Cook something in the kitchen call
- “Tea party” call
- Tell jokes call
8. Create a “marker” of the child’s presence in your home
Both our children were born in Australia, at the hospital near my parent’s house. When they were born, we planted a tree for each child. Now, when we return there every year, the kids are excited to go see how much “their” tree has grown.
There are other ways to create physical markers, too. You could put a height chart on the wall and measure the child every time they visit.
9. Play a game via video call
I’ve actually never tried this one, but several people I know play games (like UNO) with kids via Skype. Hangman or charades also work well.
10. Create an ongoing shared “story” or “adventure”
If kids are young, consider getting two identical stuffed animals. You can take pictures of the child and toy on your end and send them to your partner or family. They can take pictures of the toy on their end having adventures in their world and send them along. If it “takes” it can be a fun way to create a shared bond.