The last few years have been rough for extended family bonding. While we worked hard to keep our elderly and medically fragile family members safe, both kids and their grandparents struggled to communicate. Yearly get-togethers over holiday meals were replaced with Zoom calls and FaceTime, masked visits, and awkward distancing without familiar hugs and smiles.
For young children, the bonding has been even more difficult. One milestone for babies is responding to facial cues. To do that, they study different facial expressions to mimic, and it’s how they practice reacting. Limited interaction is a barrier to learning that skill.
Regardless of medical circumstances or personal choice in response to the virus, one thing is sure: we need to help kids engage with grandparents again and build upon what we have been doing these last few years.
As we advance, how can we encourage meaningful interaction?
Only you know your family situation and whether in-person meetups are suitable. Grandparent connections do not need to be in person. They may be virtual, texting, or even writing letters.
Here are ideas for different scenarios:
First, we need to face reality. Many children have heard that they are a risk, potentially spreading a germ to a grandparent that could kill them. Think about that. How scary! Keep an open mind and listen to both the children’s and the grandparent’s fears.
Second, allow your children to voice concerns about being uncomfortable visiting. Perhaps it has been a while since they have seen a grandparent or Aunt Lucy, and they do not know what to say. Instead of brushing off their concerns with the lecture, “Your grandma loves you, and you need to talk to them.” Or “Be nice.” Open up communicationwithout guilt to get to the crux of issues and settle them.
The years of being distant intensified more than isolation issues. In normal years, we have STUFF to talk about: the trips, the neighbors, even other family gatherings. As someone in the third chapter generation, having welcomed my first grandson, I know that if we don’t have new experiences to share, we may repeat “old” stories, leading to the eye roll. And trust if a grandparent sees that gesture, they will become quiet.
It’s essential to explain to our youth that it’s not so much the storyteller forgot that they told the story. But for anyone stuck at home for an extended time, there are fewer tales to tell.
We need to give kids and grandparents new ideas on ways to interact positively. And as with all communication, a few ground rules are essential to remember: Polite communication principles must apply to both the grandparents and children.
What does that mean?
Follow the basic courtesies to encourage open discussion. For example, we ask kids to communicate, and then when they do, we sometimes interrupt to correct them.
A good idea? No.
When you correct a person mid-story, be it to adjust their grammar or question context, it makes the speaker uncomfortable. This behavior stops the exchanges of ideas. Both kids and grandparents will grow quiet. Please understand there is nothing helpful to be gained by stopping a child or adult mid-story to correct them. People should be able to communicate without fear.
What if what they say is really wrong?
Decide first if your feedback truly is more important than the conversation taking place. Unless the information shared is dangerous, please correct them later and in private.
Now. Even if we do our best to guide a conversation, there may still be awkward silence. Expect it.
Consider having an old story ready to go. Since you know both the grandparent and child, you have an advantage. Before the grandparent’s arrival, come up with two or three connections that you can mention for conversation starters. For example, “Hey Mike, did you know that Grandpa Hank used to make model cars?” Knowing fully well that Mike also loves cars.
What happens when kids hide behind their phones?
Sometimes the older generation is not as comfortable with technology, and they feel awkward in a room with a teen who only engages with their phone. Talk to the kids in advance about putting down the phone for a specific time frame. Maybe during dinner or while dinner is being set, perhaps for even thirty minutes, in which they agree to engage in current time and place. Those social media friend requests and likes will still be there tomorrow.
Or perhaps it is the grandparents with the technology addiction. They may glue themselves to the television for regularly scheduled programs all day long. Set aside off times for everyone. You may not stop the learned behavior, but you can curb it.
What if the visit is virtual?
Same rules apply. Prepare for the visit.
What if the parents and kids barely know each other? They hardly talked even before the separation. Or perhaps other issues are holding them apart.
Sometimes we need more than a discussion and topic hints to get the conversation started. In those cases, several books and movies offer advice to connect the generations, or at the least provide empathy:
Consider a family night to watch a movie. I love the movie UP! What a great story: The plot follows a lonely elderly widower who turns his house into a balloon airship and the young wilderness explorer boy who stows away on his final flight. Themes of loneliness, grief, and family play a vital role. Add in some popcorn, and talk to the kids about how it must feel to live in a house alone. Ask kids about ways they think might help Grandma or Grandpa not feel alone. The exercise not only helps build empathy, but kids are very clever. They come up with the best ideas. And when the opinions are theirs, they are more likely to follow through.
Share a story. In the middle-grade book Curious World of Dandy-Lion, Meredith is lucky to have a grandparent who lives with her. But she has two elderly neighbors who live alone and are lonely. Part of her journey is developing a relationship with them. The story touches upon techniques to help build a bond. If you have kids ages 8-12, check out the book. For younger kids, you can read the book during storytime.
Sometimes, additional issues make bonding difficult, like dealing with multi-generations, divorce, or health issues. There is a 2019 Newberry Award middle-grade book called Merci Suarez Changes Gears. A story about a 6th-grade girl named Merci, who is close to her grandfather, but he has been acting strangely lately. Forgetting important things. Falling. Getting angry over nothing. The theme includes Alzheimer’s.
Books like these are great conversation starters with kids about any issue a grandparent is dealing with.
Books bridge a connection. For younger kids, set out picture books for the grandparent to read to the child when they first arrive. Or read over a Zoom call. Maybe ask the grandparent what their favorite picture book was at your child’s age and keep that special one on hand.
Kids can also practice their reading skills with a grandparent. To increase a youth’s comprehension skills, host a grandparent/child book club where they all read and discuss the same book. This activity can be virtual or in-person.
What if my kid’s talent is them being tech-savvy?
Then it’s time to consider whether technology has an advantage.
Start an online interactive game like Scrabble to play with the grandchild. Find one that does not require a lot of monitoring and can be done during free time when grandparents are at home alone. Kids can add their words after or before school.
If you have outgoing grandparents, Grandma and Grandpa might like to star on your TikTok. Of course, always ask permission. But together, you might come up with a fun family video post.
If the grandparents are not on social media, they might not know how to set up an account. A teen can assist the grandparents in finding old friends or family and help them reconnect. If the grandparents are interested, they can set up an account after the search.
Let me be clear. Many grandparents are tech-savvy, and they might be the ones teaching the youth a thing or two! That works just as well for finding common ground.
Side note: Online safety is important! Always talk about social media safety. With so many scams changing daily, share with both kids and grandparents how to research the latest cons. Most can be found on the FBI site. Comparitech (.com) also has a great resource, posting seventy of the top recent scams.
As a final thought, if your family falls into the second category with a grandparent who is not tech-savvy. Please write what was discussed down for them and help them create shortcuts to log on to accounts. Grandparents may not want to call you and admit they don’t remember something you taught, and they might instead give up.
Be creative and be patient. For so many, it has been a scary and lonely few years. Reconnecting takes time, and it may look different from before. But with open communication and adding in a few unique activities, these visits will soon be just as memorable.
Lorraine Hawley is the middle-grade fantasy author of Curious World of Dandy-Lion
Connect with the author at www.lorrainehawley.com