How to Be a Great Virtual Grandparent
By Liz Seegert for Next Avenue
Nothing is “normal” these days. While we don’t yet know how bad COVID-19 will ultimately be, we do know that people over 60 are at particular risk for complications, should they become ill. That has many grandparents sheltering in place and unable to be physically with their grandchildren.
However, many are making extra efforts to maintain a regular presence in their grandkids’ lives during the pandemic, albeit in a different form. As a grandparent myself, I understand how difficult it is to be apart. So I reached out to friends and colleagues to see how they were coping.
Here are some ideas they shared which you can use or adapt to strengthen connections with your family:
1. Create New Bedtime Rituals
Each night as he’s being tucked into bed, 4-year-old Teddy (with his dad’s help) calls grandma. Teddy recaps his day, and grandma Elizabeth tells him a story, helping to settle him down for sleep. Although they live just a few miles apart in Ottawa, Canada, Elizabeth hasn’t seen Teddy or his siblings (ages 8 and 18 months) since their city’s shelter in place mandate started in mid-March. This new evening ritual helps keep them connected.
How You Can Do This
- Arrange a time with mom or dad to call just before bedtime, bath time or another quiet time in the evening.
- Ask the child some open-ended questions, for example “What did you do today?” which promotes conversation, rather than “How was your day?,” which can often generate monosyllabic answers, says Elizabeth, a retired teacher.
- Have a “Once upon a time…” story from your child’s life ready to tell — most kids love hearing tales of when their parents were about the same age; it helps strengthen the bond to know they’re just like mom or dad. Elizabeth also sends old photos to Teddy and his older sister, which creates prompts for further storytelling.
- If you’re not adept at impromptu storytelling, you could substitute a beloved book or two to read, perhaps one that mom or dad loved as a child.
- The New York Public Library’s list of classic children’s stories (most libraries let you borrow digital books for several weeks)
- This online compilation of short stories for children
- The Library of Congress list of classic books online
2. Get Cooking
Eight year-old Nykka, Teddy’s sister, loves to cook with her grandmother. These days, that means grandma Elizabeth channels her inner Jamie Oliver while they create an elaborate pretend cooking show via FaceTime. It’s a way to simultaneously bond and to learn.
How You Can Do This
- Choose a simple recipe that uses common ingredients on hand. Factor the child’s skill and age into the mix — if they’ve not yet mastered fractions or need help with the oven, you’ll likely need mom or dad to supervise.
- Prop your phone or tablet on a stand and have the child do the same; you may want to adjust the picture to show the workspace while you narrate the process.
- Reinforce proper preparation and safety rules, such as hand washing, avoiding cross-contamination, proper use of knives, using oven mitts and taking precautions when using the stovetop.
- Easy Recipes Kids Can Make, from The Food Network
- 30 Recipes Kids Can Make on Their Own – from Taste of Home
- Kids Cooking Recipes from BBC GoodFood
3. Read a Classic Book Together
Thirteen year-old Kincaid, who lives near Minneapolis, FaceTimes grandma Cathy in San Francisco nearly every day, after he’s completed his schoolwork. He hangs out in his attic for some privacy, while they discuss To Kill A Mockingbird. They’re reading it together, while apart.
Kincaid’s dad, a sixth-grade teacher, suggested the classic novel; it was a book Cathy was also interested in rereading. Even better, Kincaid is starting to open up to his grandma about other things in his life, too.
How You Can Do This
- Make sure the book is age-appropriate. Check with mom or dad first! You can also ask them to contact the grandchild’s teacher for suggestions. And, make sure it’s something you both will like. Otherwise, the effort is bound to fail.
- Read the same edition in the same format, whether it’s a hard copy or e-reader version. It will make it easier to reference specific pages. If it’s not on your bookshelf, major retailers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble will deliver; some local bookstores may also offer delivery.
- Almost all public libraries allow you to electronically “borrow” books for several weeks. It may require setting up an account or virtual library card; make sure to keep parents in the loop.
- Many classic books are also available for free download through several reputable websites.
However you approach it, you can’t push it, Cathy says. “If he says he can’t really do it today, I don’t insist or make him pick a time, I just wait,” she adds.
- Scholastic.com — recommended book lists by age; another list for advanced readers
- Children’s Book Review: lists and reviews of books for ages 0-teen
- IndieBound — search for independent bookstores by location
4. Learn a Language
Sophie, age 8, has been curious about learning Hebrew, a language her grandparents speak fluently. She had asked grandma Wendy to teach her, but busy lives meant only sporadic lessons until the pandemic hit. With Wendy sheltering in Utah with one of her sons and Sophie at home in northern New Jersey, they now hold weekly FaceTime sessions, practicing about 10 words at a time. They are up to lesson four, and Sophie is already speaking simple sentences. She loves that she and grandma have a “secret” language.
How You Can Do This
Wendy, a grandmother of five, says if you already speak another language fluently, start with words that a child can easily grasp, like greetings, objects and people.
- Ask your grandchild to practice the words even when not doing lessons, but don’t make it feel too much like “homework.” Use repetition, songs, games and visuals to reinforce words already learned while slowing adding new ones.
- Start early; kids are like sponges, and experts say the younger they are, the easier it is to pick up a second language.
- You can also learn a new language together. Language learning sites like Babbel and DuoLingo, offer beginner level-lessons; you can practice together by phone, FaceTime, or Zoom.
- Find additional opportunities to practice. A random phone call offers the chance to incorporate the chosen language.
- Be patient, and praise frequently!
- Grandparents Club — Wendy moderates this group on Vitality Society, a website for adults 60+
- Bilingual language apps just for kids can be installed on both of your phones; you can go through each lesson together or use the app to reinforce pronunciation or writing
- Bilingual cartoons and videos can be fun to watch together over Zoom and used as a jumping off point for discussion
5. Encourage Curiosity Daily
First grader Maddy, who lives in Minnesota, logs on to her computer every weekday morning at 10:30. Grandpa Jon, a retired high school teacher in a small northern Wisconsin town, is waiting for her, ready to discuss whatever has piqued her interest from her homework assignments or her imagination. They’ve talked about everything from climate and geography, to animals, art and science topics. The sessions last anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour and a half, depending on the topic and the tangents they go off on.
A discussion about George Washington and how his spies used codes to pass on information about British activities led to a rousing discussion of codes . . . including Morse Code. Before long, they had worked out a system of hand gestures for dots and dashes and began sending coded messages back and forth. On National Tell a Story Day, they studied the Statue of Liberty and had a good time making up stories of how people came to the United States.
How You Can Do This
- Ask the grandchild to make a list of topics they want to talk/study about. In Maddy’s case, she listed everything from magic to dogs to pottery to how milk is made.
- Remember, the main goal of the experience is being face to face and sharing, and listening to each other. Jon says his role is to listen and perhaps ask questions that stimulate her interests.
- Be flexible. Come in with a plan but realize that kids will go off on tangents. Sometimes, the planned lesson should be set aside to tackle other issues or questions. The goal is to enjoy being together; you can always come back to the topic at hand another time.
- Ducksters Education Site — a kid-friendly place to learn and explore; it will help grandparents explain topics and answer questions in elementary school friendly language
- National Geographic Kids has tons of cool information, photos, and videos about the amazing animals that inhabit our planet, all in kid-friendly format
- PBS Learning Media offers videos, interactive lessons, documents and more for kids in PreK to High School; teachers can sign up to access lesson plans and additional materials on the site
- Open Culture — a collection of free educational resources for K-12 students and their parents and teachers
6. Play Classic Games
Henry, 7, and Anna, 10, from Long Island, love the impromptu FaceTime sessions with grandma Frances. Although they live about 30 minutes apart, they play classic games together, like Charades, which are a lot of fun for everyone. Many party games translate well to a virtual space — Simon Says, Scattergories, 20 Questions and Pictionary also work well over Zoom or FaceTime. These activities can be easily adapted to the children’s ages and interests.
How You Can Do This
- Each “team” writes topics on small slips of paper and places them a bowl. One person on each side then chooses. Rotate play between the grandparents and the grandkids.
- Make sure everyone has paper and pencils/pens for games like Pictionary or Scattegories.
- Games like this one: a list of Pictionary-like games; many can be adapted for virtual play
- Our Pastimes lists several Charade-like games, suitable for group play
7. Help Reach a Milestone
Every Tuesday at 4 pm, Ruby, 12, studies with her tutor and grandma Jane Isay. They’re preparing for Ruby’s Bat Mitzvah, a coming of age ceremony for Jewish girls. While the lessons are serious, they also have a lot of fun, says Jane, a grandparenting expert and author of Unconditional Love, a Guide toNavigating the Joysand Challenges of Being a Grandparent Today.
Since their in-person lessons moved online — with Ruby temporarily sheltering in upstate New York, Jane in Manhattan, and the tutor in the Bronx, Ruby finds them “less boring.” Jane helps keep the mood light — she encourages and praises her granddaughter’s progress by interspersing emojis and gifs throughout the sessions. This approach can work for many religious and life events, like confirmations, Scouting or extracurricular activities, such as debate team.
How You Can Do This
- Set up a regular day and time to review materials with the tutor or adviser.
- Keep sessions short, from 40 minutes to an hour, depending on the lesson and child’s age.
- Offer plenty of praise and encouragement.
“Kids are adept at online interactions, but remember they’re also under stress during these uncertain times,” Jane says. “It helps to laugh together.”
New York-based journalist Liz Seegert has spent more than 30 years reporting and writing about health and general news topics for print, digital and broadcast media. Her primary beats currently include aging, boomers, social determinants of health and health policy. She is topic editor on aging for the Association of Health Care Journalists. Her work has appeared in numerous media outlets, including Consumer Reports, AARP.com, Medical Economics, The Los Angeles Times and The Hartford Courant.
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