Read an Excerpt
40 Clever Ways to Connect with Kids When You're Apart
By Tenessa Gemelke, Anitra Budd, Ruth Taswell
Search Institute Publication Copyright © 2005 Search Institute
All rights reserved.
A Knock at the Door
Whether you are just making your first effort at a long-distance relationship or are attempting to strengthen an existing bond between you and a young person, it can be difficult to decide how to reach out. Building a close friendship with someone is tricky even when you see each other all the time; growing closer across geographic distance introduces additional challenges.
The key to getting the ball rolling is to make an effort that is out of the ordinary. A unique or concentrated approach will get the young person's attention and show how interested you truly are. You don't have to spend a lot of time and money to demonstrate this commitment; just paying attention and making a thoughtful gesture is enough.
If you like the idea of growing close to a young person but aren't sure where to begin, this section will offer you a variety of creative options that allow you to reach out even when you don't spend time together in person.
Learn Their Latest Loves
It's a birthday nightmare: You've just spent four weeks scouring the earth for the most popular, thrilling, perfect Nintendo® game, only to discover that your nephew has a PlayStation® system. Although age 10 seems a few years shy of adulthood, he explains to you that he hasn't had a Nintendo® system "since I was a kid."
Kids' bodies and minds change at a stunning rate, and so do their tastes. Their opinions about everything from friends to fashion may leave you feeling a bit lost. It might seem easier to avoid all of this hassle and resort to gift certificates or cold hard cash. Don't be discouraged, though. Learning what's "cool" to your stepdaughter can be easy when you take an intentional interest in her likes and dislikes.
Emily O'Connor lives in Colorado, and it is important to her to stay close to her friend's children in the state of Washington. She makes a point of keeping up with their current interests by asking lots of questions when she talks to the kids and their parents. If she knows that her friend's son has recently become a dinosaur fanatic, she'll try to find a toy or an article of clothing with a prehistoric theme.
Paying attention to a young person's preferences isn't just about winning the favorite gift contest, though. Think back to what really mattered to you as a young child, or in high school. Did you have a favorite stuffed animal? Were you obsessed with a celebrity? What did it feel like when you fought with a friend or asked someone on a date? These daily likes and dislikes, trials and triumphs, are the details that mean everything to a young person.
So take some time to investigate. Why is your granddaughter so crazy about Bratz dolls? Who are your son's three best friends? What makes your niece like Thai food, but not Chinese food? You don't need to interrogate them with a long list of rapid-fire inquiries, but show interest by asking a few well-placed follow-up questions. I know from personal experience that it can be difficult to nod and smile during a lengthy description of the musical history of the Foo Fighters, or to remember that your best friend's daughter Arica spells her name "like Africa without the F." But I've also seen how flattered and pleased a kid can be when you remember unique interests and preferences.
You may be mystified — even offended — by the people and hobbies kids like best, but taking the time to discuss what especially matters to them will show how much you care, and help you understand what's meaningful to the young person at that point in time.
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If you want to feel more in the loop when it comes to "kid culture," look for opportunities to learn what's popular. Talk to your neighbors or the teens working in stores, read a children's magazine while you spend time in a waiting room, or browse through the children's and teens' sections of advertising circulars in your Sunday paper.
Millions of Messages
When you send a gift to a young person, fill it with several brief messages or inspiring quotations. For example, you can hide notes in the pages of a book, in the pockets of a jacket, or under each chocolate in a box of mixed chocolates.
Be creative with your messages:
Use sticky notes to point out your favorite illustrations in a comic book.
Wrap a gift in plain paper and write jokes all over it. (Don't forget the punch lines!)
Give a blank journal, but scatter your own encouraging comments, short poems, or photos of yourself as a young person throughout the pages.
Write personal liner notes to accompany a CD. If you make a mixed CD yourself, add a note about why you chose each song.
If you send a gift of clothing, use loose stitches to sew your notes all over the outfit.
Blow up a balloon and write a message on it in permanent marker. Once the ink dries, deflate the balloon and send.
There's no need to stop at these ideas. Come up with your own fun ways to add personal touches to any gift.
Your messages don't have to be profound or wildly hilarious, and your gifts don't have to be costly. The time and effort you put into such a package will demonstrate your exceptional commitment and caring.
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Check out www.lotsofjokes.com/kids.htm or yahooligans.yahoo.com/content/jokes for jokes that are appropriate for kids.
Play Games Online
One of the great advantages to modern technology is that it allows people to be "together" even if they're miles apart. Online gaming is a great example of this. Play dominoes with a grandson in Toronto! Challenge your daughter in Mexico City to a game of checkers! As long as you both have access to the Internet, the distance is not an obstacle.
You may be more comfortable if you practice in advance by playing a classic game by yourself. Choose a familiar favorite, such as chess, cribbage, mah-jongg, or Scrabble®. MSN Games and Yahoo! Games have a wide selection of free games, and they answer "Frequently Asked Questions" that are helpful for a new player. If you feel particularly nervous about approaching this activity, try asking a local tech-savvy teenager for advice.
When you are ready to invite a young person to join you, schedule a specific time and "place." You can usually start a virtual game room or enter an existing room. Your invitation may sound like a secret code: "Meet me in the Green Grotto at 9:12." By this time, you will have chosen login names to identify yourselves, and you'll use these names to find each other and play at the same table.
Most game sites allow you to chat with each other using instant messaging, and some even allow you to talk out loud if you have a microphone attached to your computer. Be sure to bring beverages to toast across the wires!
If you and your young friend do not have access to computers and the Internet, take heart. It is possible to adapt some games and play by mail. For example, print out the letters from a game of Boggle or Scrabble®, and see who can come up with the most words. Or use graph paper to play chess, making one move apiece every week. Even simple crossword puzzles or hangman games can be fun for a kid, and you don't have to be in an immediate, heated competition. Simply spending the time "together" is enough of a win.
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To get started playing online games, visit www.zone.msn.com or games.yahoo.com. Many games are only open to teenagers and adults. You can check the suggested age limits for numerous video and computer games at www.mediafamily.org, the Web site for the National Institute on Media and the Family. Don't forget to set a time limit before you begin playing online, as games can often go on indefinitely without prior guidelines.
Lunch Box Love
Mary Ackerman, Search Institute's Director of External Relations, is committed to staying close to her grandchildren. When she wants to send an extra personal touch, she mails tokens their parents can pack in lunch boxes.
Lots of fun items can fit in a lunch box if you use your imagination. Try one of these possibilities:
Granola bars with notes taped around them;
Scented stickers with images of food on them;
A picture of yourself eating lunch with notes about your favorite foods;
Special napkins with holiday images or favorite cartoon characters;
Breath mints or dental floss to be used after lunch;
Homemade fortune cookies; or
Pages from a 365-day desk calendar. The calendar could be food-related or include daily jokes, cartoons, or vocabulary words.
If you know a young person who doesn't bring boxed lunch to school or who seems to have outgrown this type of treat, try something different. For example, you could send a special wallet or small purse just for carrying lunch money. If a teenager is allowed to leave school grounds for lunch, send a gift certificate for her or his favorite lunch spot.
This type of special gesture shows that even if you are at your office 1,000 miles away, you took the time to brighten a young person's day. It may not be as satisfying as a lunch date in person, but it gives you a chance to stay present on an everyday basis.
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Another option is to send a new lunch box at the beginning of each school year. Kids' tastes may change dramatically from year to year, so it is a good idea to check in and find out what they would prefer before investing in a new one.
Get Well Package
The National Long Distance Relationship Building Institute suggests this great idea for long-distance moms, dads, and grandparents: At the beginning of cold and flu season, prepare a care package that contains everything your young friend will need if he or she gets sick. Attach a fun note; for example, "Open this emergency comfort kit when sickness attacks."
As you choose the contents of your kit, consider traditional cold remedies as well as fun items to make the time fly. Here are a few possibilities:
Packaged or canned chicken soup (of course!); there are also meatless versions of this classic dish for vegetarians;
Throat lozenges (make sure to check first for any flavor preferences);
Saltines or other mild snack foods;
Juice boxes or bottles of clear, caffeine-free soda;
Videos or DVDs of favorite movies;
A special glass for water and other fluids;
A stuffed animal;
Age-appropriate novels, comics, picture books, joke books, or puzzle books; or
A small bell for ringing for help from the couch or bed.
Of course you'll want to send along a personal message with your care package. In addition to your empathy, offer a story about the time that you felt the sickest as a child, or tell about the best doctor or nurse who ever cared for you.
Sympathy and laughter can work wonders. When you can't be there with hugs and jokes, your package of love will deliver plenty of comfort to a kid convalescing on the couch!
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For additional activities or information about The National Long Distance Relationship Building Institute, visit www.fambooks.com.
A standard greeting card is still a lovely way to show you care, but you needn't be limited by the selection at the local drugstore. Try one of these variations for something new:
Send an e-card — Several Web sites offer free e-cards, and many of them include fun music and animations. You can customize these to give them a more personal feel. Try www.freevibe.com for e-cards advocating a drug-free lifestyle, www.moma.org for artistic e-cards from the Museum of Modern Art, or www.hallmark.com for a variety of different e-cards.
Send a "found" card — If you spot something interesting, such as a coupon, brochure, leftover wrapping paper, or shopping bag, use it to make a homemade card.
Send a photo card — Especially near the holidays in December, you can find empty cards that serve as frames for photos. Purchase several in a generic style and choose a photo to send for every occasion.
Send a fabric card — If you enjoy crafts, use fabric paint to spell out your message on a piece of fabric folded like a card. If you are really ambitious or have a high-tech sewing machine, you can even embroider the words!
If you don't think you're a very "crafty" or creative person, there are other ways to make your cards special. For example, my Aunt Ruby has adopted a signature holiday: She has appointed herself the official Easter Bunny in our family. Lots of people send birthday cards or Valentine wishes, but Ruby is one of the only people I know who sends everybody a greeting on this occasion.
Kids love to get mail, and the thrill of finding a card in the mailbox is something that few people outgrow. Adding your own flair will make the gesture even more memorable.
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Some Web sites will sell your information to advertisers, so be careful where you select your e-cards. For found cards, try asking coworkers for any old office supplies they'd be willing to donate. Outdated letterhead and colorful paperclips can add unique touches to a card.
Send an Instant Picnic
A picnic is already portable by design, so why not send one in the mail? Whether a kid lives near an urban playground, a rural lakeshore, or a national park, an outdoor meal is always a treat. Use this list to plan your package:
Some processed meats and cheeses are packed so that they do not have to be refrigerated. Peanut butter and jelly are also classic picnic fare. If you pack the bread in a sturdy box or plastic container (to avoid squishing it in transit), they'll have all the fixings for sandwiches.
Ask for a few extra condiment packets (ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, etc.) when you go out to eat. If you explain that you're sending them as part of a gift, most restaurants will gladly contribute.
Packaged goods, such as pudding or fruit cups, dried fruit, crackers, trail mix, and granola bars all travel well by mail.
Include a variety of juice boxes. The boxes are an easier shape to pack and mail than water bottles or soda cans.
Send sunglasses, sunscreen, and insect repellent as needed. Be sure to read labels to find products that are safe and age appropriate, and package these items carefully to keep them away from any food items.
A checkered tablecloth and napkins will add festivity to the event. Add plastic ants for extra silliness!
Once you've packed the basic provisions, don't forget to add some entertainment. Young children may enjoy a butterfly net, sidewalk chalk, or a story, such as Spot's First Picnic and Other Stories by Eric Hill (Grosset & Dunlap, 2001). Older kids might like a portable radio, sparklers, a sketchbook, or instructions for a game such as Capture the Flag. A responsible teenager may be ready to use outdoor tools such as a pocketknife or hiking equipment.
Remember that a picnic can be spontaneous and simple, and there are ways to make this idea inexpensive. Lighter foods (potato chips or dried fruit instead of densely packed crackers or nuts) will cut down on the cost of postage. Frisbees®, kites, and soccer balls are often lighter and less costly than other kinds of outdoor equipment. A handwritten letter allows you to send personal wishes and suggestions for activities without spending a fortune on outdoor toys or gadgets. Don't forget to write any extra instructions for younger children who require adult assistance setting up their picnic.
When you've assembled the right mix of food and fun, ship it off to your young picnicker. Be sure to include a self-addressed and stamped postcard for a report on how it went!
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If you are short on time and can afford the convenience, check with specialty stores, grocery stores, or shops at nearby orchards and farms. Many places sell and ship ready-made baskets or picnic boxes.
Photo Diary Exchange
Sending photographs may seem like an obvious way to keep in touch, but many families only send out annual studio portraits or holiday pictures. These charming images are a nice treat, but often reveal very little about the personalities of the kids featured.
If you really want to get a glimpse of life through the eyes of a young person, suggest that he or she keep a photo diary over the course of a day or a week. Send a disposable camera, and request pictures of her or his home, neighborhood, school, and friends. If possible, send money or a coupon for photo processing to have the pictures developed, and ask your young friend to supply captions on the back of each photo to describe the details of daily life.
If you like, you can declare a special theme for the project. Ask the young photographer to take as many pictures as possible of people laughing, or a series of photos showing all of the places where he or she likes to hang out.
Excerpted from Stay Close by Tenessa Gemelke, Anitra Budd, Ruth Taswell. Copyright © 2005 Search Institute. Excerpted by permission of Search Institute Publication.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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