This article is co-authored by Lynda Fink, M. Ed., a reading specialist.
Question: Everyone touts Skype, FaceTime, and Google Hangouts as a great way to bond with your long-distance grandchildren. They certainly haven’t worked for me! I call my grandkids and cannot seem to get a conversation going. The toddlers get distracted: They’ll show me their toys … and then play with them! The big kids see me, but that does not mean they want to talk – there’s homework to do and friends to play with. If they won’t make time for my phone calls, video calling does not really make a difference. Any advice? What am I doing wrong?
Answer: Communicating long distance is a learned skill. Both the adults and our grandkids are learning how to do it at the same time, so it is natural for some mistakes to occur.
A few factors can really make or break the call. First, timing is everything. It is better if the parents call you when the child is in the mood to talk, and when the parent is around to “translate” baby talk so it is understandable over the phone. If the toddler shows you a toy, enter into their fantasy about it. “Are you pushing the truck fast? What noise does it make?”Another way to join in the child’s play is to have the parent follow the child with the video. You can then engage the child periodically, commenting, “That truck goes fast,” or asking, “How tall a tower can you build?” The more specific the question, the more likely you are to get an answer. Keep your expectations low. The point of the conversation is to let the child know that somebody out there loves them.
It helps if you have some cues about what is happening in the child’s life at the moment, too. “How was your day?” won’t get anywhere, but asking a very specific question such as “Were you the Shabbat leader this week?” might.
For elementary schoolers, get a sense of what they’re learning in school and then ask about the specific topics: “Which dinosaurs did you learn about today?”
You can also build a mutual interest: Watch the same TV show, send them your old coins to build a collection together, or send them postcards regularly. Not only will physical objects be valuable when you do not have time to talk, but you can use them as conversation starters during phone calls!
If setting a specific time of day to speak feels like a burden to the parents, see if they are willing to make a video of the child playing or singing, or even telling you about their day. You could respond with another video, asking the child questions, telling them you appreciated their video, or even singing back!
Kids also love real life stories; if you tell them a simplified story about your friends or pets, they will be fascinated! Not only will they enjoy the tale, but they will be awed that you have your own life and friends. Don’t be surprised if they start asking you for updates! You can also ask them for advice as a way of engaging them: “Should I get oranges or bananas from the store later?” Telling them after that you appreciated their advice is a great way to build a relationship which feels reciprocal!
Also consider “joining” into family moments through Skype or FaceTime. Shabbat dinner may feel like a poor time for an extended conversation, but video calling your grandchildren when you’re both saying kiddush and hamotzi may feel unexpectedly meaningful. Some families do not use phones on Shabbat, but Havdallah, the ceremony to end Shabbat, might be another good ritual to join.
Bedtime, a secular ritual, may also be a good time to bond more quietly – check with the parents first, as some kids might get revved up! If it is OK with the adults, you can read a story or sing to the kids, or simply say goodnight as their parents tuck them in. If you create a video of you reading, it can also give the parents a night off when they are totally exhausted.
When you read with the grandchildren, either at bedtime or simply during afternoons when parents need a break, there are a few tips to bear in mind which will keep you both more engaged. If you’re reading picture books, make sure the pictures are nice and big and visible to the child, especially if they do not have a physical copy. When you’re reading aloud, read with a natural rhythm. Think of your first grade teacher or elementary school librarian – I bet they read with lots of expression and different voices, not in a monotone! Through this, you also teach them about the power of tone to communicate happiness, fear, excitement, and anger.
Ask the kids questions as you go through the story: “Can you see the tree? What color is the ball?” To enhance the experience even more, ask the parents beforehand what the child is interested in or even let them pick out their own book. There are children’s books on every subject imaginable – colors, trucks, dinosaurs, fairies, body parts, Jewish heroes and holidays, and so much more. As they turn from toddlers into kindergarteners, talk about the books you read in imaginative ways. Ask your 5 year old, “Who was your favorite character? Why do you think Tommy dropped pancake batter all over the dog?” By this age, they will be able to analyze and contribute original insights – encourage them!
There are many, many ways to communicate with your grandchildren – the aim is just to be a presence in their lives. Don’t get discouraged if something you try does not work right away. It may be the day or the mood, or there may just be a different strategy which works better. Keep experimenting. When they are a bit older or in a different mood, your relationship will feel totally different!
Stress to their parents that this is something of huge importance to you, and that you really appreciate them making time for you. Harried parents may not always appreciate being the biggest link between you and your grandkids, as it is yet another thing for them to fit into their busy days. It will take a little while to establish a routine which works for everyone – make sure to ask the parents what is helpful and what actively makes their life difficult. Also, talk to the parents about things beyond the grandchildren – show them that you care about them, too, and are grateful for their willingness to help you.
If you have any questions for Dr. Ruth Nemzoff, The American Israelite’s advice columnist, please send them to email@example.com.