Keeping in touch: tips for long-distance grandparenting

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Being a long-distance grandparent does not mean you can't be an important and influential person in your grandchildren's lives. A little time and thought can span distances and make for mutual closeness and enjoyment between grandparents and their grandchildren. And a little more ingenuity can ensure the nurturing and bonding of relationships that can go right on dispite the space barrier.

"Realistically, not every grandparent can be close to every grandchild," write Arthur Kornhaber and Kenneth L. Woodward in their book, "Grandparents/Grandchildren: the Vital Connection" (New York, Anchor Press/Doubleday).

"In a highly mobile society," the authors write, "grandparents must also be mobile if vital connections are to survive at all."

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So, they tell grandparents, "Plan family vacations together so you can spend long days with the grandchildren. Make it a rule never to celebrate a major holiday by yourself. Visit your grandchildren often and regularly. If space is tight, put up at a local motel or h otel. And while on your visit, get to know your grandchildren's friends; then ask about them later when you call or write. You might be surprised at their enthusiastic response."

Between visits, they say, "Write each grandchild individually, and avoid collective letters as the main means of communication. And whenever you can, send hand-made gifts....Children understand that what you make for them yourself is part of you, like heirlooms, and so are move valuable that 'store bought' gifts. And even though you live at a distance, think of yourself as a guardian of the young. Let everyone in your family know that they have you to rely on in a family emergency. And if the need occurs go immediately, or as soon as possible."

In his book "How to Grandparent" (New York, Harper & Row), Dr. Fitzhugh Dodson makes these suggestions for long-distance grandparenting:

* Children love getting letters and they get but few. So write letters, and include snapshotes of yourselves, your pets, scenes from your trips, or anything else you think they might like. Send then clippings, poems, sayings, and mottoes. Send colorful picture post cards, expecially if they are under 6. Cut words and pictures from magazines and paste them on a sheet of paper with your own printed messages, and be funny or whimsical.

* Write and send little presents to your grandchildren from his "secret pal." Even when the child guesses who his secret pal really is, he will delight in the game.

* Write and send a "grandparent newspaper" to your grandchildren and fill it full of little stories about them and about you. Type the stories, paste on any pictures you want, and have the whole thing photocopied. Could any child resist headlines like "Katie and George Will Go by Jet to Visit Grandman and Grandpa in Michigan" or "Katie Beats Computer" or "George Names Top Soccer Player"?

* Let tape cassetts add a special dimension to long-distance communication with grandchildren. Children can play them over and over if they wish, and can return the communication by make cassettes of their own. But since most children find it difficult to talk at leength into a tape recorder, parents can help out by interviewing them about their activities.

* Phone calls are another simple and effective way of maintaining contact. But an actual visit is the best way of all to get together with grandchildren.

The author's suggestions for visits include these:

* Arrange for children over 5 to come, one at a time if possible, for visits. You and your grandchild should actually talk over and plan the visit severl weeks in advance, sorting out various sightseeing possibilities and selecting the activities you would enjoy doing together. Then you can both enjoy the anticipation.

* A visiting youngster loves having the total attention of grandparents, and not have to share with a sibling. Grandparents should remember than each time they are with their grandchild on a one-to-one basis, they are influencing him with their character, their value system, and their ways of doing things.

* Give a visiting grandchild his or her own special room or corner. And let a child know, early in his visit, what the house rules are.

* Plan something special for the first or second day of the child's visit, such as a trip to an amusement park, a zoo, a boat ride, or a shopping adventure. Introduce the grandchild to some other youngster his own age, and invite those children to join you in some of the planned activities.

The author also advises long-distance grandparents to invite grandchildren to take a trip with them to a national park or a favorite city, or to any area they can all explore together. Trips, he says, often enable grandparents to teach games and some physical skills such as rowing, swimming, tennis, skiing, or even carpentry or tent-pitching, and make for a genial comaraderie that few other things can produce.

When Betsy Holt of St. Louis is enjoying visits with her young granddaughter, Mary Elizabeth, she loves reading bedtime stories to her. But they live several hundred miles apart, so Mrs. Holt buys children's books, several at a time, reads each one aloud into a cassette recorder, and then mails both the books and the cassettes to her granddaughter to enjoy whenever she wishes. Mary Elizabeth loves to sit down with one of the books and her own cassette player and listen to her grandmother's voice reading, commenting on the pictures, and teling her when to turn the page.

Lois Hagen, a grandmother who is wintering in Naples, Fla., keeps in close touch with three-year-old granddaughter Johanna, in Santa Fe, N.M., by writing to her every two days and phoning her about twice a week. She mails Johanna post cards with interesting pictures of birds or animals, or she draws her own pictures and prints the messages large enough so the youngster can recognize a few of the words.

A few grandparents have even written a book for their grandchildren and had it specially printed. Algo D. Henderson, a retired educator and author in Orinda, Calif., decided to assemble the letters he had written to his five grandchildren into a volume that he called "Skyhooks."

In this compilation of letters he recalls his own earlier experiences, describes trends over his lifetime, and analyzes the values involved. He pictures the changes in American life since he was born around the turn of the century, and interprets their meaning. It is a book full of family history, lore, personal philsophy, and pithy opinion. He had 500 copies printed and has given them to family members and friends, to libraries and historical societies.

James Wagenvoord has produced quite another kind of volume, called "A Grandparent's Book," which is a handsome paperback in which grandparents can record their thoughts, memories, and hopes for a grandchild. The book is available for $9.95, plus $1 mailing charges, from HP Books, Box 5367, Tucson, Ariz. 85703.

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