Kerry Byrne, the founder of The Long Distance Grandparent, is a mom on a mission — to help long-distance grandparents build strong connections with their grandchildren despite the miles between them.
Her #1 secret for long-distance grandparenting is: Sweat the SMALL stuff!
At our recent GaGa Sisterhood meeting, Kerry presented a wealth of resources to help us stay connected with our grandchildren whether we’re long-distance or local. It’s a personal mission for her because her 6 and 3-year old sons’ grandparents are all long-distance.
Kerry also knows the importance of a meaningful grandparent relationship. She was so close to her own grandparents that when her grandmother was dying of cancer, Kerry stood at the end of her bed when she took her final breath.
When Kerry’s son was just 2-years old, she and her husband moved to Dubai and they became ultra-long distance. That set her on a journey to keep them all connected — one set of grandparents lived in Canada and the other in the U.K.
The Connection Loop
Kerry explained that of the 70 million grandparents in the U.S., just over half of us live at a distance from our grandchildren. Since we can expect to have a 20-30-year relationship with our grandchildren, we need to be able to bridge the gap with concrete practical ideas.
No matter what ages your grandchildren are, there are three main ways to create what Kerry calls “The Connection Loop:” snail mail, virtual, and in-person. Virtual can vary depending on age — for example, video chat, text message, Instagram, and social media.
The goal is to create a “Grand Path to Connection” by making your involvement intentional, consistent, meaningful, and fun. She reminded us that the mailbox is a grandparent’s superpower because you’ll most likely be the only one sending your grandchild mail.
5 Ps for Making Connections
Kerry explained 5 steps to making those connections with your grandchild. They all involve creating habits you must consciously practice.
PLAN: This first step means getting familiar with your grandchild’s habits. If the family has pancakes every Saturday morning and you can’t be with them, spend the time you would be with them on Saturday morning researching some ideas you might do or talk about with your grandchild. You’re creating a conscious connection with your grandchild even though you’re not physically together. If your grandson loves dinosaurs, spend time looking up jokes about dinosaurs or conversation starters for a 5-year old. Assemble a packet of “thinking of you” notes from when you read or saw something that made you think of him.
PARTNER: When kids don’t want to engage, try to engage their parents or a fun uncle or cousin. Bring together different generations or your other grandchildren on a video chat. Have a theme for the chat. Ask everyone to wear a hat and tell a story about their hat.
PREPARE: The #1 complaint that Kerry hears from parents is that grandparents don’t have anything to talk about when they get on the call. Often they rely on the parents to “scaffold” the conversation. For example, the mom must say: “Tell grandma what you did at school today.” While this is necessary for young children, it’s better if you prepare something to talk about. Make a Skype grab bag that you add items to between calls so you’re prepared for the chat. Collect some tongue twisters, jokes or riddles and remember — it’s quality not quantity. You can expect your grandchild to engage about 1 minute per year of life when you video chat. If you spend 4 minutes with your 4-year old, you’re doing well.
PLAY: Be willing to be a little bit playful. Kerry worked with a grandpa who bought his own Barbie doll so he could play Barbies on the video chat with his granddaughter. Another plays Legos with his grandson.
PRESERVE: Take screenshots of your video chats and then use them to make postcards or photo books. Send notes after the call and say “I loved our time together.” Then mention a detail from your call.
Ideas for Connecting on Video Chats
Fruits and Veggies: Draw a face on a red pepper and voila — you have “Ruby the Red Pepper” who can tell stories, ask questions, or play hide and seek. Take photos of Ruby hiding in different places in your house. Send the photos to your grandchild with a note saying: Ruby wants you to bring 5 red things to our next call.
Kitchen Utensils: Draw a happy or sad face on a wooden spoon and ask your grandchild to sing a song to make the spoon feel happy. You’re providing an opportunity to talk about emotions. Bring out 2 different colored bowls and hide a car or small toy under one of them. Ask your grandchild to guess which bowl it’s under. After she guesses, tell her to check her mailbox in the next few days and send her the toy.
Family Interview: Often grandchildren are given a project to interview their grandparents. Turn the tables and tell your grandchild you’d like to interview him as a project. Prepare 5 questions: for example, What are you really good at? If you could be any animal, what would you be and why? Google “interview questions for a 5-year old” for more inspiration. Ask the same questions to other members of the family too. You can create a pretend mic from a banana or wooden spoon when you do your interview.
The Emotional Side of Long-Distance Grandparenting
There’s no denying long-distance is a tough way to grandparent for lots of families. There are lots of unexpected emotions. We worry about the loss of time and connection. When we do connect in person, we may experience post-visit grief or post-visit hangovers. Kerry reminded us to be mindful of our time and energy when visiting because the inclination is to go all out and then burn out.
She recently coined a new concept called “Mind the GAP” — an acronym for Grief, Acceptance, and Perseverance. If grandparents are caught in the grief of not getting the response they want from their grandchildren or their adult children, it’s harder to benefit from creative ideas. Coming to a place of acceptance is important and an ongoing process because things like in-person visits or not being able to connect as often as you would like, can be tough reminders about the realities of grandparenting from a distance. It can be emotionally difficult at times.
Kerry has heard from grandparents that when they start implementing Kerry’s ideas, it’s endeared them to the parents. They see how sweet the connection is between their child and the grandparent – so they soften because they see and appreciate your effort. Keep making the effort, she says – basically, you’re creating a habit with your grandchild so as they get older, they’ll ask to call you or even call themselves.
The Long-Distance Grandparent Society
If you’d like to learn more creative ways to connect with your grandchild, join Kerry’s Long-Distance Grandparent Society. She leads a monthly online membership program for grandparents who want to create fun, meaningful moments and build strong bonds with their grandchildren. Membership benefits include: monthly connection packs, monthly connection chats, expert interviews/workshops, and a private members-only Facebook group.