Gives grandparents hundreds of activities to enliven their relationships with grandchildren.
Farm and Dairy
Creative Grandparenting Newsletter
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Love Across the Miles
"How is school?"
"Umm . . . here's Mommy."
All right, confess. You've had this conversation before, or one a lot like it. If you haven't yet been the discouraged grandparent, you can remember being the bored child on the other end of the line. It's the phoniest phone call ever, and you seem destined to repeat it endlessly. Or are you? Get your pencils out, grandparents. We're going to give you the tools you need to make your relationship with your grandchild actually improve between visits.
Phone Calls: Long-Distance Snuggling
Dan Rothermel, of York, Maine, wrote to let us know that "the tradition of Saturday morning calls that my parents started and we make sure to continue (by calling if they haven't) keeps us connected. It's regular and reliable. It's a call that is not about a crisis but is an update." One of the most enduring and rewarding rituals you can begin with your family is just this sort of "warm fuzzy" call-one that is at a time convenient to everyone, doesn't necessarily last long, and gives you a way of touching base regularly with each member of your clan.
Your littlest chatters will look forward to your calls with eager anticipation. Even a grandchild as young as six months enjoys hearing voices over the phone, and by the time your little one is a year old, he'll be grabbing the receiver to listen to you-and probably playing touch-tone "music" in your ear. Creative parents, with encouragement from you, might place your picture by the phone so that little ones can "see" you during the call.
At this stage, the most important aspect of your phone calls will be your happy, interested voice and the way in which you use easy words to carry on a one-sided conversation. Questions can be fun, but you can't expect a relevant reply from the little gigglers in your family. Moreover, as your grandtoddlers mature, they will enjoy hearing the same questions in successive phone calls. With the same gusto usually reserved for that favorite bedtime story read just the same way night after night, your youngest grandchildren will love the familiarity of your repeated phrases and songs-and best of all will learn to associate them with you.
Sometime during your grandchild's second year, those phone monologues you've been carrying on will become dialogues-but not the sort that you have with adults or even older children. Toddlers will happily burble out phrases that come to mind, but these snippets of conversation often have no relation to what you've been talking about. One of the greatest joys of listening to a child this age is to realize that you are getting the unedited exclamations of a growing thinker. As a way of showing your happiness with their new skills, you might try building on the little stories they tell by saying something like, "And then what happened?" or "That was a big surprise! What did you do next?"
Two- and three-year-olds have their own rules about conversations, too. The most apparent one is that their needs and interests come first. This view is only natural, because at this age your grandchildren are just beginning to learn that other people can have a different outlook than they have. (In fact, while teaching nursery school, we used to smile at the two-year-olds who would play "story time" with their friends and think that just because they saw the pictures, their friends could, too!) Some typical interests of your grandchild during this time are food, toys, pets, recent outings, and songs. As a way of tapping into these interests, why not sing the "ABC" song together over the phone at the end of your talk (or as your entire conversation)? Ignore the doubletakes your grandpartner spouse might do at your end of the phone-he or she will see the light soon enough-and use your most interactive, child-oriented conversation starters to get your young preschool-age grandchildren talking.
As your grandchildren grow into school-age, many more possibilities open up. Gun Denhart of Portland, Oregon, suggests for this age "reading a book nightly over the phone, while a grandchild holds a copy of the book, too." Our kids have enjoyed getting into the act as well, by performing simple pieces on the piano, reading stories created at school or at home, and describing inventions and adventures.
Little Events Seem Big to a Wee One
If it's been a while since you've talked to your grandchild, you might be astonished at how sensitive they are to the nuances of other people and to the subtleties of day-to-day events. It can seem amusing to us as experienced as we are, but the drama, excitement, and fun of these ordinary details are very real to your little one. Judy Smith, a Grandma and educator from Seattle, Washington, suggests that grandparents take advantage of their little talker's fresh perspective by "telling stories of the little things that might seem interesting to your grandchild." We couldn't agree more. Focusing on the activities of your family pet or on the latest snowstorm is exactly the kind of conversation that children appreciate most.
You'll be excited to know that by doing this you can help your grandchild learn to speak and think more clearly. Jeanne Machado, an early childhood expert, gives this practical advice for those of us who want to play with and love grandtoddlers and twos in the most meaningful way:
Getting the most from everyday experiences is a real art that requires an instructive yet relaxed attitude and the ability to talk about what has captured the child's attention. A skilled adult who is with a toddler who is focused on the wrapping paper rather than the birthday present will add comments about the wrapping paper. Or at the zoo, in front of the bear's cage, if the child is staring at a nearby puddle, the adult will discuss the puddle. Providing words and ideas along the child's line of thinking, and having fun while doing so, becomes second nature after a few attempts.
Machado's example could be easily adapted for a phone relationship. Try this conversation between a Grandma and her three-year-old granddaughter on for size:
"I hear you had pizza for dinner. What do you like on your pizza?"
"Apple and cheese!"
"Oh, my. Did you know that my dog Rex likes cheese?"
The humor in this conversation is fun for both generations, and it blossomed simply because the grandparent-in this case a Grandma-asked questions and interjected new child-oriented ideas that showed she cared about things her young granddaughter enjoys. It's not hard to follow her example. First try to pick up on whatever your grandchild seems to find interesting-or ask your very young grandchild's parents for ideas. Then simply make your chats come alive with heartfelt questions and enthusiasm.
Becoming a Helpful Listener to Older Grandchildren
Steering away from "yes/no" questions and asking about your grandchild's life in an inviting way, with opening phrases like "Tell me about . . ." (rather than "How was") and "What was it like?" (instead of "Did you like it?") is a wonderful first step toward better communication with your older grandchild. Your next step might be to keep a little pad by the phone after your grandchild is old enough to remember events from week to week-in the three-and-a-half to five age range-and ask them about past concerns and triumphs. How is that scraped knee from last week's bicycle crash? Is it still hard saying good-bye to Mommy at nursery school? Knowing these and other aspects of your grandchild's daily life, including, for instance, the names of your grandchild's best buddies and classroom teacher, will mean a lot to your little one. Keeping track of these details shows that you're listening and that you really care.
"'Bye, Bye, Gruppa!"
You won't have any problem knowing when your older grandbabies are through talking with you-if they're anything like our youngest, Charlie, they'll just toddle away from the phone to do something new. But learning how to close a conversation with a preschooler can be trickier. Mixing directness with a good dose of kindness will help you. Just simply say, "Thanks for our great chat-I'm going to say good-bye now, and we'll talk again soon!"
But if you find yourself on the other side of this coin-if you're not yet ready to go when you think your preschool-age grandchild is ready to hang up-know that long pauses on your grandchild's end often do not mean they're ready to move on. In fact, sometimes preschoolers just need a little extra time to think of an answer or a comment. One of the great advantages of being a Grandpa or Grandma is that you may be the one who has the most patience to wait encouragingly for a reply. This simple act of allowing your grandchild to take all the time he needs is a remarkably rare and supportive one for your little one.
Parenting While on the Phone: A One-Armed Juggling Act
Although it is very special for children to get a call from Grandma or Grandpa that is devoted just to them, realistically many of your phone conversations with your grandchildren will include talks with a parent, too. The rules are so different when little ones are around that it's best to give the young parents' perspective some advance thought. It's hard to remember the hectic pace of parenting one or more young children (thank goodness!). But you can decide now that you will graciously bow out and offer to call back (or have the parent call you another time-collect if necessary) if in the background a child is crying, dishes are clinking, and the parents are trying to talk to each other between comments to you. Make it a habit of asking if you're calling at a convenient time. New parents, too, who may not have the hubbub of busy children in the background as a handy excuse-and who may still be in the throes of a "do it all" mindset-may be reluctant to excuse themselves, but will appreciate your sensitivity. And we all remember how notorious toddlers and preschoolers are for making mischief when their parents are on the phone; depending on the day, these parents perhaps need only the quickest of calls from you. In the event you often do make special phone calls only to your grandchildren, you might want to keep in mind this comment from Hannah Rothermel of York, Maine: "I think my mother-in-law must have been a Grandma in a former life-she's so good at it. She writes letters just to the kids, and asks them what they like and think and want (she doesn't always go through us). Yet she's very careful not to 'go over our heads.' [She lets] us be the parents." With a little foresight and good communication with your grandchild's Mom and Dad, you can have a wonderfully independent relationship with your little ones and still support their parents' important roles.
No More High-Tech "Hangups"? Well, That Depends…
Jim and Lyn Rawlingson from Paraparaumu, New Zealand, recommend purchasing "a telephone speaker so that the whole family can hear our voices"-an idea seconded by Cookie and David Bates who wrote from Spring Hill, Florida. Does your grandchild's family have a phone that can be programmed? Are you willing to have a personal 800 number? These simple devices can make it easy for a grandchild to call you without help and will add another dimension to your calls by getting your little one more involved. From our experience, it's a thrill to know that one button on the phone pad is all that stands between you and a conversation with your grandchild. We also like the convenience and versatility of many of these new inventions. If you're at all interested, we encourage you to drop by your local electronics store and take a look at what's available, including the new visual phones and electronic mail systems that include a voice message. (Now if we could just think of a device to stop little fingers from gleefully hanging up on us!)
Rewind, Fast Forward, Play: Grandma's Telling a Story
We know, we know. You're not a professional storyteller, and you never even had any illusions about attending broadcasting school. Come to think of it, even your singing voice, which was passable in the fourth-grade chorus, now sounds like a World War II bomber in heavy turbulence.
Wait. You don't have to be a professional, or even a good amateur, to make terrific audiotapes for your grandchild. Your voice, whether confident or shaky, is the only one you've got, and it couldn't be more special to your littlest family members. Read a story, sing a song, sing a story, read a song-any combination will do. You might also read (or rap!) a nursery rhyme, talk as you make a favorite recipe (you can send the recipe and a tasty sample in the same package), read off a list of "I love you because" statements, or even make a tape of sound "riddles" (see the activity "Cassette Connections," p. 52). If you simply use your imagination, you can make a wonderfully inexpensive and personal gift for your grandchild. When making an audiotape of a read-aloud book, it will be fun for your grandchild if you say why you like the book, or that "this was your Mommy's book, and she loved it when she was your age." Children love hearing about themselves and their parents as babies, because it gives them a more historical perspective-a sense of belonging. It's also a good idea to say "time to turn the page now" or to develop your own signal, such as a bell (or even your dog's bark!), for this purpose.
Grandparenting in Cyberspace
No, you don't need a driver's license to merge onto the information superhighway-just a sense of adventure and the confidence that comes with knowing that as this technology has become more popular, it's become easier for even non-technical types to use.
You also, of course, need access to a computer, and so does the part of the family with whom you'll communicate. Then it's a matter of buying some communications software and a communications service such as Compuserve or America Online.
Are you still with us? Let's just say that a knowledgeable salesperson will get you set up in no time, and if you can afford the initial costs, the continuing benefits are huge. For one thing, emails never interrupt. Imagine being able to send a quick message to your far-away family members and have it almost instantly received, but not have to wonder whether you've contacted them at a bad time. At their convenience, they log on and reply to your message-or print it out for the grandchildren to keep. Email messages are also wonderful because they encourage a casual writing style that can help build a closer relationship than a letter. Speed is the reason for this, we think. It's just so easy to type up a message, and so gratifying to have it delivered immediately, that you will find yourself writing more frequently and about more everyday events. You might find, as we have, that email provides the perfect balance between a warm and personable call and an unintrusive, but more formal, letter.
Just the Fax, Bumpa!
If you want to be really hip, you can invest in a fax machine or fax modem that allows you to send whole images over the phone lines and into either another fax or your extended family's computer to be printed, colored on, or simply displayed. In our family, pictures "drawn" by grandchildren are passed to the computer memories of the grandparents, and little "slide shows" of scanned-in photographs become computer screen savers and backdrops on the computer screen. If you're a family of more savvy computer users with sound cards in your computers, you can even send your voices back and forth (Nick's toddler giggle is now the "error alert" on our computer). If you don't have a fax, try sending and receiving through your local copy shop or other fax support store. The possibilities are endless, and they can make a long-distance relationship seem at times as close as next door.
Now Playing: Grandparents on Film
Videocameras are another item that more and more families find they can't live without, though purchasing and using one can be rather expensive. There's nothing like the image of your first grandson teetering to the slide on his new "walking legs" or your first granddaughter's gleeful laugh in the tub to warm your heart. The newer videocameras help even the most amateur of filmmakers produce quality home movies.
Grandparents can make the most of a videocamera in their own home by sending videos of themselves doing things that will entertain and enrich their young grandchildren. For the littlest grandbabies, grandparents can film themselves playing peek-a-boo from behind a chair or couch, saying "So Big" with arms stretched upward, and singing "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," "Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes," and other classic children's songs. Slightly older children, say ages two and three, might enjoy a video "tour" of a long-distance grandparent's home, especially before a visit. You can even prepare your grandchild for a stay at your home by showing them the park, library, and other places in the neighborhood they'll be visiting with you. Or give those nearby little ones a rainy day alternative to Disney with your own video production of a children's classic tale-they'll love it! (See "The Stars of the Show," p. 55.)
Long-distance grandparents will find other ways to make a videocamera bridge the gap. Their home and environment might have things that the grandchild's doesn't-for example, a grandparent might make and videotape a snowman and snowangel for a child who lives in the South or grandparents living near the ocean could videotape themselves building a sandcastle for a grandchild who lives inland.
Videotapes, made with either rented or owned videocameras, can be an important part of documenting the growth and development of all members of the family, and you'll find you treasure these moving images as much as your cherished family photos. Some families we know make a point of asking grandparents questions about their lives to make an interview library for all to share. (See "Memory Movies," p. 189, for some questions to ask.) Perhaps you'll like the idea of becoming immortalized in this way, too.
Special Delivery: Grandloving by Mail
Many of us are looking for easy, inexpensive, and creative ideas to stimulate conversations and play between grandparents and grandchildren-whether you live near or far away. Well, here's a selection to get you thinking. All you'll need is a nine-by-twelve-inch manila envelope (or smaller), a stamp or two, and a willingness to personalize these ideas whenever and however you can. If you're really inspired after reading this chapter, we encourage you to flip to chapter 7 for additional ideas that you can use every week of the year.
Did you know that every day someone goes to your grandchild's home, ready to deliver something that you thought to make and send? Most grandparents don't think of postal carriers as personal messengers, but they should. Our Nick and Charlie literally jump for joy when the mail arrives, and are always excited to be a part of opening envelopes-especially any addressed to them. Even your littlest grandbabies deserve a special delivery of a letter or package now and again, if only to tickle their parents. Or do like little Anna McKenzie from Hampton, New Hampshire, does with her Grandpa: when she learned he used Morse code in the war, they started corresponding like secret agents. (For more code ideas, see "Secret Club Codes of Yore," p. 54.) If you'd like to encourage a preschooler grandchild like Anna to send things to you, just enclose some self-addressed, stamped envelopes and postcards for an easy reply.
It's often not what you send that's important, but the fact that you send something regularly. From Fairfax, Virginia, Linda Hansen wrote, "Establish a routine for letters and packages-Robert even thinks delivered pizza comes from Nannu!" She also wrote, "Robert has a dog, Cassidy. Every package-no matter how small-that goes to him includes dog treats for Cass." Betty Barnes of Fairport, New York, shared a great idea: send clippings of photos from newspapers and magazines as a springboard for stories between the generations. We even know of one Grandma who sent her "junk" mail along to her toddler grandchildren. The brightly colored ads had a great appeal, and the fact that a letter came every day from Grandma was the most wonderful treat of all.
Once you really get into the habit of sending off frequent mailings to your little one, you might find, as we have, that it helps to purchase a package of address labels for your grandchild. Give half to him and keep the other half for yourself-a quick lick sure beats addressing!
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Learning to send your love by phone, email, fax, and mail is, for many of us, a bittersweet part of being a grandparent. At times, it might even seem a thankless job, with grandchildren too young to communicate their thanks and parents too busy and distracted to help your grandchild respond with frequent letters and calls of their own.
It's true that the payback for all your work often is intangible, but it sure feels right when it happens. The next time you see your grandchild after a long separation, you'll be rewarded with a flash of recognition, big smile, and happy shout of "Opa!" or "Bubbie!"-which will warm your heart and make all your efforts feel worthwhile. Even your stranger-shy grandtoddlers and twos will peek up from their parent's shoulder sooner than you might expect-and will be joking with you before you know it. It's for these times, and for the hope that you can be an essential part of your grandchild's life no matter how distant your homes, that we know you will continue to package the best of your love and send it in ways that delight and intrigue your youngest grandchildren.
Grandloving by Mail: Creating a Lasting Language Together
The symptoms are, happily, completely incurable. A feverish expectation, spontaneous dancing in the front hall, a compulsion to peek through the windows and shout, "It's coming!" A hand outreached, as if pleading for the last drop of water on some Saharan plain-or the last jelly bean in the jar-and then, as the envelope is found, a long, joyous "Yesss!"
Something magical happens when a grandchild receives a piece of mail addressed only to her. In these days when buzzwords like "self-esteem" and "whole language" can obscure what helps children learn and grow, a letter from grandparent to grandchild gets to the heart of the matter by making the child feel special and intrigued by words. There's simply no better way to show how much you care than to make your grandchild's mailbox a treasure chest where she can regularly find games, notes, and ticklers from you.
By the time we're old enough to be grandparents, many of us have a hunch that young children might learn best through play. Those silly rhymes and goofy jokes we shared with our friends and family when we were kids, after all, form some of our most vivid memories. As teachers of hundreds of children whose language blossomed during our time together, Julie and I can happily and wholeheartedly confirm your suspicions: all that fun actually launches "schoolbook" learning. It's beyond question now that the way children learn to talk and write is intimately tied to the ways in which they play and form loving relationships.
What does this mean for your relationship with your little bundle or busybody? Simply that you can encourage this astonishing process of learning to speak and write through your light, fun communications. Best of all, this is the kind of sharing and learning that grandparents and grandchildren can do best.
No, we're not suggesting that you work to make that grandchild of yours a superbaby. That little one is going to be the sparkle in your eye no matter what he or she accomplishes, and that's just as it should be. But by bridging the distance between you and your grandchild, you'll both benefit. Think of how fun it will be to build a collection of favorite found objects; how your magical "decoder" will draw out many of the cryptic feelings of your grandchild; and how the bits of science that you teach through mailable experiments could spark a lifelong interest in exploration and discovery. Every time you pop one of your ideas in the mailbox, you'll know that you're encouraging the best in your grandchildren and offering the best of yourself-your personalized love-to them. It's a win-win proposition that will enliven your friendship with your little ones and make you the most memorable grandparent you can be.
Happy Grandloving, everyone!
What People are Saying About This
(Arthur Kornhaber, M.D., author of Contemporary Grandparenting and Grandparent Power)
(Meg Schriever, grandmother from Marion, IA)
(Steven Trimble, author of The Geography of Childhood: Why Children Need Wild Places)
(Marie Voss, Hospital Administrator from Rochester, NY)
(Suzette Haden Elgin, author of The Grandmother Principles)
(Joan Callander, author of Second Time Around: Help for Grandparents Who Raise Their Children's Kids)
(Frances Weaver, author of The Girls with the Grandmother Faces and I'm Not as Old as I Used to Be)
(Clarice Orr, author of The Joy of Grandparenting)
(D.J. McQuade-Lancaster, Coordinator of National Grandparents' Day)
(Eda LeShan, author of Grandparents in a Changing World)
(Mary Jane Beeg, grandma and librarian from Webster, NY)
(Jean Whiting, librarian and grandma from Ramsey, NJ)
(Linda Berry-Pain, grandmother from Littleton, CO)
(Bil Keane, creator of The Family Circus)
(Dr. Lillian Carson, author of The Essential Grandparent and The Essential Grandparents' Guide to Divorce)
(Jacquie Sonkin, grandmother from Penfield, NY)
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