10 Tips for Helping Your Kids Stay Connected with Family who don’t live close to you.
It is hard when you have family that lives far away.
Believe me, I know- as much as I wish it different, I haven’t lived close to my family in a long time. It is a seven hour drive to get to where my parents and brother and his family live. Unless they are visiting, they miss the day-to-day stuff that fosters connection with my kids. They don’t get to come to soccer games or pick the kids up from school or drop by for dinner on the weekend “just because.”
On the other hand, when we are together, its like a big vacation. Instead of seeing each other occasionally for a couple hours crammed in here or there like we would if we lived in the same city, it ends up feeling like a vacation when we are together. We block off that time and its just for family, which ends up being really fun!
To ensure that my kids grow up feeling close and connected with my parents, brother, and his amazing family, we’ve had to be intentional… Fortunately, we’ve found lots of ways to make sure the distance doesn’t have as much of a negative impact on our family as it might otherwise.
Here are ten ways our family helps our kids stay connected with family who lives far away, and I hope they will help your family as well:
#1: Be intentional about including your family-
Think about the things you want your family to be involved in- consider what you’d do if they lived closer and plan to involve them in those things using text, phone, or FaceTime. Sometimes I put a note in my planner or a reminder on my phone justto be sure I don’t get so busy that I forget!
#2: Communicate often-
The more often you interact with family, the more connected and familiar your child will feel. Just like with family who lives close to you, if you don’t interact with them, they won’t get to know your kids (and your kids won’t get to know them). When distance is an issue, remember that frequent communication can really help your family maintain close bonds. In our family, my kids know they can contact our far away family any time they want (just as long as they aren’t supposed to be doing something else!)
- call: teach your child to dial, and how to use the phone. Kids need to be taught how to say hello and introduce themselves, how to leave a message, and how to carry on a phone conversation. Practicing with family is a great way to work on these skills! It seems some people are better equipped to chat with kids than others, so, take this into account before having your child talk with family on the phone. If needed, give your child some prompts ahead of time. With my kids, I give them prompts to answer the question “how are you?” and “what have you been up to?” I also help my kids come up with three things they can tell family. This helps the conversation go more smoothly and fosters a good relationship.
- text or email: if your child is old enough, allow him/her to actually type the text messages, or use the voice texting feature. If they are too little, let him/her to dictate and type exactly what they say. Believe me, it will make grandma or their favorite uncle laugh lots!
So technically this could go along with with my “Communicate Often” point above, but its such a big deal I had to make it its own point! Seriously this is *almost* as good as being there in person because you get to see facial expressions and body language and even a bit of the background. Sometimes my kids will FaceTime my parents and talk for a really long time. The will walk around the house, “showing” grandma and papa all the things they’d show them if they were actually here. They “go” outside and see the big pumpkin growing in our garden, and “watch” the kids play the piano and guitar… its definitely not the same as being here in person, but its a close second and these times chatting though FaceTime really help my kids and parents feel connected.
#4: Utilize Mail-
Letters & packages fun to send, fun to receive. When my dad was having shoulder surgery and we couldn’t be there, we made him a big long poster and sent it in a round mailing tube. It made my kids feel connected and really meant a lot to my dad as well. This is a great activity for a day when you need something to keep the kids busy- roll out a bunch of easel paper or set out some large paper and let the kids go to town decorating them. Then take a trip to the Post Office or UPS store to mail them off. You can also send schoolwork or Sunday school activities from church for your family to “ooh and ahh” over- not only does this foster connection, but it also helps you manage all that work that comes home 😉
#5: Have some fun-
So to be clear, I don’t think its “fun” to have my parents, brother, and his family far away from my family, but when it comes to finding creative ways to stay connected, I do think there is fun to be had! Think about the things you enjoy doing with your family and feel free to be a little creative about how you can stay connected in ways that are fun. Here are some examples, but feel free to make this unique for your own family:
- Write a story together: help your child start a story, then email or mail it to your family and have them add to it. Once they do, they send it back and you and your child add a bit more. You can even add illustrations a you go!
- Read a story together– At some point when you are with your family, pick a family book you can all read. Come up with a reading plan so everyone is reading the same chapter at the same time, and then set a time to call or FaceTime to chat about it. Or, pick a book and then FaceTime and actually have your family read a little to your child on a regular basis.
- Find a fun thing to be “your thing” and embrace it: for example you might pick elephants so every time you are out and see an elephant (I’m thinking not in real life, but hey, maybe you do live where elephants roam!) on a t-shirt or notebook, snap a picture and let your child text it to your family with a little “Thinking of you note” Or maybe you spot an inexpensive elephant key chain, sticker, or pencil so you buy it and mail it. The point isn’t to spend much (if any) money. The point is to set up something little to have fun with that brings you both smiles.
#6: Tell stories about family-
Chances are, you won’t be together very often, but make the most of those times apart by finding ways to tell stories. For example when my kids and I plant our annual vegetable garden, we often talk about how my mom grew up on a farm. My mom has been great about sharing with my kids what life was like for her being raised on a farm with 10 siblings (yeah- ten…can you even imagine!?!?). As a result, my kids have heard a lot of stories that we enjoy retelling at times. The other day, when I was picking up the kitchen after breakfast, I seriously started to put the gallon of milk in the microwave (clearly this was before my first cup of coffee had kicked in!) The kids thought it was hysterical. This prompted me to tell funny stories about funny things my parents did when I was little. Not only do the kids love hearing about what life was like when I was little, or the things that our family did when they were younger, these stories connect them and give them a broader idea of who the family member is.
#7: Notes/Simple gifts-
The idea here isn’t to spend money, but to create a stash of little notes or gifts you can use or give your child at the appropriate time, on behalf of your far away family. It really takes very little prep, but can be more involved, depending on how you want this to work.
- The easiest thing is to take a stack of ziplock baggies and a sharpie marker (use multiple colors if you want for fun) and have your family write simple notes on each one. It doesn’t have to be fancy- things like “We love you!” or “We are proud of you” are perfect, but you can also include silly jokes or draw simple pictures. You can then use these baggies for snacks or to pack lunches. I write notes on my kids baggies in their lunches every day (these notes aren’t amazing- sometimes its just a happy face or heart because let’s face it, I get tired!), but to be able to mix in a note from grandma or papa is so much fun for them.
- You can also do the same thing with a stack of index cards, and then use the index cards in their lunch box, or even hide them around the house. How fun for your child to open their pajama drawer and find a note from their family!
- Another idea is to have your family give you a few small items to give as little gifts when the time is right- nothing major, just stickers, pencils, little art supplies, bubbles, etc. You can use these as special prize after a great game or encouragement after a hard day.
- Whatever you do, just don’t use everything at once- space them out so you can use them over a period of time. and how baggie notes, index cards, etc to be given at the right time
#8: Social media/internet-
Make technology work for you! Start a family blog, photo share site, or Instagram account- keep it private for security reasons, so only your family can access it. I have a friend who had a great experience with the family blog. Everyone could post so they would give updates, pictures, etc, and were able to comment on each other’s posts. These sites won’t be used to replace your own social media, and for sure they aren’t your child’s accounts (I’m not a fan of kids having social media too soon)…rather, they are for family in order to foster connections.
Kids love looking at pictures! Have pictures of your family readily available in a variety of forms- digital, framed or on display in your home, photo albums, etc. I used to keep one of those plastic “Who Loves Baby” books in my car, filled with pictures of our family so my kids could look at them while we drove around town. The pictures spark conversations about family, and those conversations are good for connections. Even now, my kids have pictures of our family pinned to their bulletin boards in their rooms. Periodically we change the pictures with more current ones. My daughter just started high school and has pictures of them hanging in her locker. While I pick the pictures that we have up around the house, they pick the pictures for their room, and that choice makes it even more fun!
#10: Plan ahead for next time-
So one critical part of making the long distance family deal work is planning. One strategy my family uses is to talk about our next visit when we are all together. We don’t necessarily finalize details, but it really helps the goodbyes when we can tell the kids “its a bummer we have say by for now, but we will them again in the Fall” or something like that! One thing you can do is make a simple paper chain to help count down the days until your next activity. Its depressing if you start it when you have 90 days to go, but becomes fun if you start it around the 14 day mark! Once you are are together, consider doing one or more of these to help during your time apart:
- Book Recordings: Let your family read books to your kids and record them reading. You can just record the audio or you can take a video. Either way, they are fun to make, and your child will love reading along with these recordings once you are home.
- Creative Notes– Together time is the perfect time for your family to make those baggies or index cards we talked about earlier. These are perfect because they don’t take up a bunch of space when you travel back home.
- Interviews– before your trip, you and your child can come up with a bunch of fun questions to ask your family members. Its really fun to base your questions on things that reflect your child’s current interests. For example, my son was really interested in warships, and so we asked my dad a bunch of questions about his time in the Navy during the Vietnam War. Other questions that are fun are: favorites (favorite food, music, etc), childhood memories (ask about all sorts of things including what they wore, ate, did for fun, etc), and “would you rather questions?” (things like: would you rather live in an igloo or on a boat? Why?). You can write down answers, record/video answers, or have family fill out forms while they talk. If you document on paper, consider putting them in a notebook that your child has decorated.
- Special Games– we have special games we play only with my parents. These are fun games my parents have created with my kids, and they are played only when we are together. The games themselves aren’t so spectacular, but the fact that we only do them when we are with my parents makes them even more special. Recently, we spent a fair amount of time brainstorming new rules for one of the games that had become too simple as my kids got older.
- Funny videos– making silly videos together is great fun and then you get to watch the videos long after you are together. My kids and their cousins can spend hours doing this with an iPad!
Even with all these ideas, the reality is that it can be really hard to live far away from your family. But hopefully these ideas will help make that distance feel a little less far, and build stronger relationships for you, your kids, and your family! If you have ideas for other ways to help with family who live far away, post them below in the comments- that way we can all learn from each other!!!