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Family Dynamics

10 Things to Know About Grandparenting From a Distance

Managing the distance in long-distance relationships with grandchildren.

Key points

  • Grandparent–grandchild relationships elevate the lives of each generation.
  • Contemporary life can separate grandparents and grandchildren.
  • Research on long-distance grandparenting encourages continuity, friendship, and focusing on recent events.
Mart Production/Pexels
Source: Mart Production/Pexels

For most of human history, grandparents and grandchildren were close—geographically and emotionally. But today, long-distance grandparenting is becoming increasingly prevalent as grandparents and their grown children (and grandchildren) move away from each other for personal and professional opportunities.

How can grandparents and their grandchildren maintain their personal bonds over distance and time?

1. Forming Friendships. Research on grandparents and older grandchildren documents that both generations define the grandparent-grandchild relationship as a friendship based on mutual trust and shared confidence. Central to this intergenerational friendship is leniency on the part of the grandparents, which shows itself as the near-absence of moral judgments and criticism.

2. Staying Current. Grandparents stay engaged with their grandchildren by focusing on recent events in the grandchildren’s lives.1

More specifically, a 2021 study at the University of Salzburg showed that young grandchildren were most interested in telling their grandparents about daily activities (reading, meals, hobbies, homework), favorite places (school, a park, a friend’s house), and humorous incidents.

Interestingly, while grandchildren enjoy talking about everyday activities in their own lives, they’re most intrigued about unexpected events in their grandparents’ lives.

The Salzburg study also found that showing effectively augments telling. In video conversations, grandchildren enjoyed showing pets, books, toys, drawings, homemade food, and clothing. They were also eager to sing and play musical instruments for their grandparents.

3. Reminiscing Appropriately. With older grandchildren, reminiscing is welcome with two subjects: what they were like when they were infants and stories about their parents when their parents were kids.

In addition, when grandchildren have specific interests that align with past family events, grandparents can serve as valued resources for family history. In this case, the past is current. For example, my eldest granddaughter and I have talked at length about an uncle of mine who was a screenwriter because that fits into her ongoing passion for old movies.

4. Diversifying the Channels of Communication. The relationship between grandparents and grandchildren is strengthened when communication is carried out in multiple ways: phone calls, video chats, emails, cards, letters, and, if appropriate, texts.

Even with current technology, grandchildren continue to enjoy receiving cards and letters from their grandparents, and they especially appreciate small gifts at times other than birthdays or gift exchange holidays.

Sibling grandchildren can communicate together, but efforts should also be made to interact with each grandchild individually, particularly when sending cards and texting.

personal collection
Source: personal collection

5. Talking About Learning. Younger grandchildren love talking with their grandparents about what they’ve learned—at school or preschool, during home activities with parents, or at extracurricular events. At this time in their lives, they are what they learn, and new ideas and skills are noteworthy.

6. Maintaining Continuity. When grandparents intentionally cultivate stability during their grandchildren’s adolescence, relational closeness remains consistent and strong. Many grandparents naturally show patience with their grandchildren’s adolescent difficulties because they know the turbulence will subside.

As grandchildren move through adolescence, the easy exchange of small messages in texts is particularly valuable for maintaining frequency and continuity. Over the lifespan of the grandparent-grandchild relationship, Facetime, Google Meet, and Zoom support the long-distance relationship by providing immediacy and versatility.

In general, maintaining a long-term relationship with grandchildren requires being supportive of variability. It’s not unusual for a grandchild to be very excited about a new project only to drop that project abruptly and start a new one.

7. Suspending Reciprocity. While reciprocity is something we normally expect in relationships, it’s not necessary when communicating with grandchildren. It’s okay to send unanswered cards. Even without responding, grandchildren appreciate the cards, which often become keepsakes.

8. Expanding the Effects of Visits. By continuing in-person activities remotely, visits can be extended after grandparents return home. My 4-year-old granddaughter and I currently have silly time on Google Meet as an extension of our in-person silly times during my last visit.

9. Savoring During Visits. When visiting, grandparents can actively savor even the smallest interactions with their grandchildren, approaching each experience the way a connoisseur tastes a new glass of wine. With devoted attention, grandparents immerse themselves in the interactions, feeling each one more fully. And later, after returning, they can savor the memories of their visit.

10. Attending to Sadness. Many long-distance grandparents experience undeniable moments of sadness at not seeing their grandchildren grow up. These moments are helpful reminders to reach out by calling, emailing, texting, video chatting, or sending cards and letters—staying close and current in the lives of their grandchildren.

Facebook image: Inside Creative House/Shutterstock

References

Bangerter, L.R., & Waldron, V.R. (2014). Turning points in long distance grandparent–grandchild relationships. Journal of Aging Studies. 29, 88–97. A pdf of the full report can be accessed at https://scholar.google.com/scholar?hl=en&as_sdt=0%2C36&q=Turning+points…

Forghani, A. & Neusraedter, C. (2014). The routines and needs of grandparents and parents for grandparent-grandchild conversations over distance. Proceedings of he SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. 4177-4186. Abstract: https://dl.acm.org/doi/abs/10.1145/2556288.2557255 Full Text is available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/266655480_The_routines_and_needs_of_grandparents_and_parents_for_grandparent-grandchild_conversations_over_distance

Fuchsberger, V., Beuthel, J.M., Bentegeac, P. & Tscheligi,M. (2021). Grandparents and grandchildren meeting online: The role of material things in remote settings. University of Salzburg. Presented at the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. https://dl.acm.org/doi/fullHtml/10.1145/3411764.3445191

Kemp, C.L. (2005). Dimensions of grandparent-adult grandchild relationships: From family ties to intergenerational friendships. Canadian Journal on Aging, 24(2), pp. 161-177. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1353/cja.2005.0066

Note 1. Children younger than five years old stay with the activities of the current day. Grade-school grandchildren older than five will talk about the past week.

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