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Long-Distance Bonding With Grandkids

How To Bond With Your Grandkids Who Are Far Away

Marty O'Connor's children have all grown up, moved away and started families of their own. Though her child-raising years may be over, O'Connor has been promoted to another cherished role in the lives of her children and her children's children. Today, she is a grandmother of five young ones, ranging in age from a few weeks to 8 years old. They call her "Grammi," and she could not be any more proud of the next generation of her family.

Some of those grandchildren live within minutes of her home in St. Louis, Mo., meaning that spending time with them is fairly easy. A few others live many hours away in Atlanta, Ga., but O'Connor is certainly not going to let a few (hundred) miles stand between her and her grandkids. A little creativity is all that it takes to send messages of love anywhere in the world.

As she looks to the future of her family, O'Connor cannot help but reflect on the past. "My mother's father died before I was born and her mother died when I was 2 years old," she says. "I always wished that I had known them, and I felt a loss because my mother wished so much that I had been able to know them and love them as she did. I remember her telling me stories about them and her life growing up. These are precious memories."

Her paternal grandparents lived within a "dogtrot" of her family, and she was able to have a relationship with them though she admits that she probably took them for granted while they were alive. Now, nearly three decades after their passing, she finds that she still misses them. She knows just how important grandparents can be in the life of a child.

O'Connor is able to spend a lot of time with the grandchildren who live so close to her. "Babysitting them so regularly helped establish a close and loving relationship," she says. "I also found that I play with and entertain my grandchildren more than I did my own. When they are here, they take precedence and the day-to-day housework gets put on hold. Needless to say, since I also work part-time, I am behind on my chores, but having the perfect house doesn't seem to be as important as it was when I was young. I can also do the chores after they leave. When they are your children, they don't leave."

Long-distance Grandparenting

Given her commitment to grandparenting, how does she make sure that her "long-distance" family feels included in her grandmotherly love? For one thing, Grammi and Papa sponsor both weekend and weeklong visits, sans parents, as often as possible. These visits are made to be extra-special, with trips to zoos, children's museums and ballgames being common. Fun things like flying kites, baking cakes and playing games? Check. Allowing some things that cannot be done at home, like watching favorite cartoons over and over again? Double-check.

Between times together, O'Connor makes and receives a lot of phone calls about special and exciting family news, and the mailbox is almost always full. "We try to send books, a magazine subscription or a 'free offer' on the cereal box to them during the year so they get mail and know that Grammi and Papa are thinking of them," she says. "My grandson thinks his Pirates of the Caribbean alarm clock is really cool; we started saving special tokens on the cereal box when he was here for a visit. Unfortunately, we had to keep eating the cereal after he left." Is there no sacrifice that a grandparent won't make?

Sue Johnson knows a little bit about being a long-distance grandmother. In fact, her experience as one inspired her to team with her daughter-in-law, Julie Carlson, to write Grandloving: Making Memories with Your Grandchildren (Heartstrings Press, 2006). From her perspective, it doesn't really matter how you let your grandchildren know that you are thinking of them as long as you are letting them know.

"What you say or what you send isn't half as important as that you communicate frequently," Johnson says. "Remember how long a week or the summer seemed when you were a child? Well, it's the same thing with your grandchildren. Though time for us goes quickly, you have to remember that it doesn't for a child."

Something as mundane as the aforementioned mailbox can become magical with the smallest of efforts. "Even if your grandchild lives just down the street, someone is going to her house six days a week ready to deliver something, and what child doesn't love having her mailbox turned into a treasure chest?" she says. Johnson keeps personalized address labels for each of her grandchildren close at hand. They get to feel special and it makes it easy for her to send off a stick of gum with a note attached telling the kids that she loves and misses them.

When a quick note or small gift just doesn't seem like enough, why not break out the craft box and get creative? "Grandparents usually have shoeboxes of photos," Johnson says. "Put them to use to stay in touch. Send a photo of you cut into puzzle-sized pieces with the note, 'Put this together and see who loves you.' Or we've had fun making 'Smiles from Under the Spaghetti' placemats; these are simple collages of family photos we've laminated into the shape of a placemat so we're there smiling up at every meal."

Grandma and Grandpa. Nana and Papa. Abuela y Abuelo. Grand-mere et Grand-pere. Across families, languages and cultures, kids call their grandparents all sorts of things. No matter how formal or whimsical the title, this is truly a special relationship, with grandparents clearly providing so much not only for the young ones, but for their own children, now parents themselves.

From across the street to across the country, physical distance is no match for the power of love, fun and the desire to create experiences and memories that will span the generations.

Spoiling might be the name of the grandparenting game, but remember that it doesn't have to be a present to be a gift.

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