Lately, my 7-year-old daughter has been on the phone with my 77-year-old mom, learning to count to 10 in Finnish. I'm amazed at the power of this simple project, how it has drawn the two of them closer, even though we live three hours apart. The counting has led to other discussions: What was it like growing up in a mining camp in Canada? Was it hard to learn English? What did you do for fun with no television? And every time my daughter shows off her new counting skill, she's thinking about Grandma Ellen.
Most of us no longer live down the street from our folks, and our kids don't have daily contact with grandparents, cousins and other relatives. But building these ties can be very valuable. "Your extended family defines a great deal of your identity," says Susan Newman, Ph.D., a social psychologist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., and author of "Little Things Mean A Lot: Creating Happy Memories With Your Grandchildren" (Crown Publishing, 1996). "A solid sense of who you are and where you came from is an important building block for self-esteem." And, of course, it's comforting for children to know that there are people outside the immediate family who care about them.Ways to help your kids create these connections:
Dish up the storiesFood links us to people (I can't taste seafood chowder without thinking of my grandmother's version). Charlotte Luer, a mom of four in Naples, Fla., frequently reaches for the cookbook her Aunt Martha in Kentucky compiled from family members' recipes from pretzel salad to cinnamon chili. "My kids love to help choose what to make. Over dinner, we discuss the relative who submitted the recipe," she says. "They don't get to see Aunt Martha too often, but they figure she must be pretty cool if she puts pretzels in her salad."
Send boomerang artThe Crytzer kids, Justin, 7, and Kirsten, 4, of Pittsburgh, mail coloring pages and artwork of their own to their grandparents. The catch? They leave parts unfinished, and Grandma and Grandpa have to complete them and send them back. "The kids love receiving mail, and they get a real kick out of doing something with their grandparents," says their mom, Chris. "They've had fun mailing quizzes back and forth, too."
Get snap happyPhotos around the house can be a tangible reminder for kids who don't get to see their relatives very often. Instead of letting big albums languish on a shelf of the bookcase, Rhonda Fitzwater of Indianapolis created a special album of select photos just for her 4-year-old daughter, Abby. It's loaded with pictures of her relatives, and it's always out for her to look at. "It helps her connect faces with names and stories," Fitzwater says.
Go high tech
A great thing about e-mail is that it's so immediate. "My kids talk almost daily to their grandparents through instant messaging," says Tammy Coder, a mom of seven in Marlow, Okla. She also posts photos of her kids on her family's Web site. A number of sites can help you set up your own family Web page for free, such as tripod.lycos.com or AOL Hometown.When Holly and Butch Angelucci moved to Fredericksburg, Va., from their western Pennsylvania home, they wondered how to keep their 3-year-old twins and 6-month-old son linked to their many relatives. They invested in Web cams for themselves and faraway family; these small video cameras (about $100 each) allow you to see the person you're talking to on your computer screen. "It fascinates the kids," says Holly Angelucci, "and it's much more fun than a regular phone call."
Bring traditions to lifeJo-Ellen Gasior of Canton, Conn., says that her kids, Jessie, 15, and Gina, 13, have loved taking part in long-standing family traditions since they were toddlers. "When we carve our pumpkins in the fall, we talk about how my father was the family expert at pumpkin carving. When I bring out my mother's 1945 Singer sewing machine to make Christmas decorations, we discuss the things she used to sew for my sisters and me." Such details give her daughters a vivid glimpse into her parents' lives, she says. "When they talk to my mom in Phoenix, they feel closer because they're always learning new things about her."
Plan family vacations"Making family visits a priority sets the tone that you care about being close and connected," says Arthur Kornhaber, M.D., an Ojai, Calif., psychiatrist, author of "The Grandparent Guide" (McGraw-Hill/Contemporary Books, 2002), and president of the Foundation for Grandparenting. Denise Mussman of St. Louis takes frequent out-of-state trips to see family with her daughters, Phoebe, 5, and Camille, 1, even when her husband can't break away from work to go with them. "This way, the relatives who live far away get to spend one-on-one time with our kids instead of seeing them only at holidays among large groups," she says.
Hold an absentee birthday partyCharlotte Luer and her kids don't just call the grandparents and send cards for their birthdays they throw a party. "We bake a birthday cake, blow out the candles, and eat it in their honor," says Luer. "Even though they're physically far away and can't be here for the occasion, it reinforces to the kids that they're part of our lives."
Write onOne of the ways Courtney Edwards of Kittery Point, Maine, helps her kids, 12-year-old Tyler, 9-year-old Lucas, and 7-year-old Jeremy, remain close to their six cousins in Ohio: "Every few weeks they send Maine postcards or just regular 4-by-6 snapshots addressed like postcards. It really keeps the connection going."
Share the bad stuff
It's easy to send grandparents only the good news getting a great report card, scoring a goal. A better idea: Involve them in other aspects of your child's life as well, says Michele Borba, author of "Building Moral Intelligence: The Seven Essential Virtues That Teach Kids to Do the Right Thing" (Jossey-Bass, 2002). "Being able to share the bad as well as the good keeps the communication open and honest, and in the end, that's what forms a tight, caring relationship," she says.Edie Schulter of Niles, Ill., mom of 7-year-old Annalise, encourages her daughter to talk about whatever's on her mind with her grandparents. "They know when she has a bad day at school, when she's not feeling well, when she's worried about a loose tooth." It pays off, says Schulter: "Annalise is very close to her grandparents. She knows she can turn to them for advice on anything."
Make moviesExchanging homemade videotapes and audiotapes with family members is a tangible way to stay connected. Tammy Coder's kids look forward to receiving their grandmother's homemade audiotapes. "She reads a story into a cassette tape, clinking the side of a glass when it's time to turn the page," says Coder. "Then she sends both the book and the tape to the kids."
Wrap it up
Debb Eldredge of Carrollton, Texas, sends reams of her 4-year-old daughter's artwork to grandparents, godparents, aunts, uncles and cousins all over the country. "We tuck it inside gifts and letters and even use it as wrapping paper sometimes. When we visit our relatives, Claudia loves to see her pictures hanging on their refrigerators." And now, her 3-year-old brother, Keegan, wants to get into the game. "When I pick up his latest stack of papers, he says, 'Me give this to Granny,' " says Eldredge.Of course, you needn't get supercreative to stay in touch with your far-flung relatives. Whether you produce elaborately edited family videos, plan annual reunions, or simply pick up the phone on a regular basis, the most important thing is that your children's lives will be enriched by knowing their extended family. And you never know, they might even pick up a valuable skill like learning to count to 10 in Finnish.
Charlotte Latvala wrote "8 Secrets of Happy Families" in the October issue of Parenting. © The Parenting Group