x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Long-distance grandparenting

Being a grandparent to a child thousands of miles away can be emotionally wrenching, but there are some ways to make it satisfying for all concerned.

Raymond Beauchemin is exploring ways to maintain contact with his grandson Remy, above,  who lives a 15-hour flight away in Quebec.
Raymond Beauchemin is exploring ways to maintain contact with his grandson Remy, above, who lives a 15-hour flight away in Quebec.

My grandson wasn't a week old yet and I'd already made two grandparenting faux-pas. How tough can being a grandparent be? As one friend of mine wrote: "You just wind them up and let them go. Like those $2 airplanes powered by propellers and rubber bands. When they crash, you go home."

Or, more kindly: You send presents, you make loving sounds, you fawn, you have opinions.

But apparently I may have to keep those to myself.

My stepdaughter and her husband told us they'd decided against having their son circumcised after nurses said Health Canada discourages the practice unless for religious purposes.

"But," I started, and my wife, Denise, shot me a warning look. I continued nonetheless, citing reports and stories I had read in the past couple of years about the health reasons for having it done.

Ariel and Pierre were clear. Health Canada said no and so would they.

I backed down. "Maybe the reports are out of date."

This grandparenting thing was going to be harder than I thought. And not made easier by the fact that we were a 15-hour flight away from home.

Next was the child's name. There were two ways that I knew of to spell my grandson's name. It either ends with an "i" or with a "y". Both are used. In the crackling long-distance phone calls after his birth, it was hard to understand which one it was. I spelt it aloud and thought I heard confirmation from the other end.

I now know there are three ways to spell Remy. The third has no acute accent on the "e".

"But he's going to be in educated in Quebec; they'll mispronounce it without the accent. He's gonna have to explain this over and over again. Why not spare the kid the hassle?" This, I said to my wife.

"You're still upset that they didn't tell us the name before he was born," Denise responded.

Well, yes, it did kind of hurt to feel left out of that. Others knew some of the names Ariel and Pierre were kicking around. Was it because we were so far away?

Probably not. The parents probably just didn't want to deal with opinions.

The ache, however, isn't going to go away. My family is growing and I'm not there to fully participate in its growth, with or without opinions. Our first glimpse of Remy was via a videoconference call. Pierre generously angled the camera in such a way that he was out of the frame and our focus was entirely on Remy, asleep in his father's arms. What a cutie! We mostly stared for the first minute. When the conversation slowed to a stop, it was only because our attention was glued to the boy in the grey flannel sleeper. "He's going to think his grandparents are in a box," Denise said.

There wasn't any way to reply to that to anyone's satisfaction.

But there is plenty for my wife and I, and our daughter, Remy's aunt, to do to remain vital in Remy's life, to narrow the space between us.

We begin at an advantage: long-distance parenting advice is as deep as the internet is broad. Many websites and books offer ideas ranging from the simple telephone call or e-mail, to planning special summer visits and celebrating birthdays when you're not around.

Selma Wassermann, in Grandparenting at Long Distance, advises starting early with the phone calls. A child can distinguish voices on the telephone by the time he's one. If the telephone is your primary source of communication with your grandchild, have her parents print out and blow up a photograph of you and paste it on poster board so the child has an image of you while you're talking, Sharon Lovejoy writes in Toad Cottages and Shooting Stars.

Wasserman says to be prepared with topics and specific, non-stressful questions and to assume responsibility for keeping the conversation going. "Don't worry about repetition. Children love it. Using some of the same phrases each time you call will make your calls more comfortable for the child."

This part shouldn't be too hard: "And don't be afraid to express your love over the phone."

Both Wasserman and Lovejoy emphasise non-digital, non-computer ways to communicate. This is important for several reasons, not the least of which is that technology is changing at such a pace whatever advice they give is rapidly outdated. More importantly, to my mind, is that using the old-fashioned ways to communicate fosters educational and creative skills in both the grandparent and the grandchild, including writing letters, designing and sending postcards and creating scrapbooks of memorabilia and captioned photos of the family.

Lovejoy's advice, in her book, is to address blank postcards to yourself, stamp them and send them to your grandkids, asking the parents to encourage them to write or draw something for you every couple of weeks.

Wasserman says the age of two is the right age to start sending letters and postcards. She also suggests sending odd or whimsical gifts that lead to a creative activity, cards for a card trick, a magnifying glass for searching out things to examine. My favourite of Wasserman's tips, one I have done previously with godchildren, is to write little stories, fictional or not, with the child as the central character. These stories should be written in age-appropriate language with simple illustrations - or even cut-out copies of family photographs.

Combining Wasserman's earlier advice about conditioning your grandchild to recognise your voice and the storytelling, you might consider creating podcasts or recordings on CDs. Illustrated versions could be done on DVD.

In an article by Micah Rubin on grandparents.com, Carl Arinoldo, a psychologist and the co-author of Essentials of Smart Parenting, said: "The grandparent's voice gives the child a sense of affection, love, security, a feeling of warmth."

Kids notice when grandparents go out of their way for them, Arinoldo told Rubin, and this strengthens their sense of belonging to the family.

That's his opinion, of course. Though one I am inclined to agree with. And, I would imagine, Remy's parents will, too.