When my daughter was 3, she would point at the screen of my laptop every time I had it open and demand to talk to “-ita!” (her abuelita). Used to Skyping with our relatives in Mexico, she thought “–ita” was always there, waiting to talk to her. Lucky for us, technology makes the world seem smaller and helps families create loving bonds with their long distance relatives, even when we can’t be together in person.
When I was growing up, we moved around the country with my family. Despite living far away from my relatives, I felt close to my grandparents, aunts and uncles, and my cousins were some of my best friends. How did we cultivate our relationships across the country? Though we didn’t have the internet, we visited to celebrate holidays, got presents and cards on birthdays, and talked on the phone once in a while. Today there are endless ways to form lifetime attachments between abuelitos y nietos, tios y sobrinos, and all the primos.
Video chats: most everyone has heard of Skype and Facetime is becoming more popular as well. While nothing can replace hugs and kisses, these video calls allow families to tell stories, play games, read books, and in our house, show off. My daughters play new violin songs, my sons show their new kung-fu moves, they all dance, sing, show awards, new toys or artwork — we’ve even taken it outside to show how they learned to ride a bike or swim freestyle. Though little kids aren’t great at conversations on the phone yet, seeing their relatives on the screen (making funny faces, or giving a tour of their house) draws them into the conversation and helps them interact more easily.
Blogs, facebook, email, on-line photos: tech-savvy parents can find endless ways to share pictures online. From writing a blog to share funny stories and cute pictures to email updates to sharing online photo albums: relatives around the world can watch your children grow up and get instant updates about our daily lives. One of our friends sends monthly slideshows using Smilebox to give updates of her boys to her relatives. If you are worried about security, use passwords on blogs, watch your settings on facebook and set your YouTube videos to unlisted. On Facebook, it’s possible to set up a secret group for your family that is non-existent to other users, so that family members can converse privately.
Snail mail and packages: What kids don’t love to get mail? Our aunt sends postcards and treats from New York, our cousin pen-pal sends little packages of stickers and crafts, and grandma and grandpa send holiday bundles with candy and presents. Not only do we receive, we also send drawings, photos (especially to our bisabuelita who doesn’t use a computer!), art projects, and letters to all of our relatives. The kids practice their reading and writing in Spanish, learn about the post office, and anticipate the return letters. We write about our daily routines, and ask questions to our pen-pals.
Visits and vacations: once a year, we plan a vacation and invite any of our relatives to come with us. Though relatively short periods of physical contact, these intense and fun trips create lasting memories and strong bonds. When planning a trip, we try to incorporate memorable activities that everyone can enjoy, taking into account the schedules of the different ages. The added benefit of traveling together is that we have extra eyes and hands to help us with our kids! We try to let each child spend time by themselves with their grandparents (even just running to the store) so they can bond even more.
The benefits of cultivating long-distance relationships are everlasting. Unconditional love and support from our abuelitos is present in person, in letters, or through our computer screens — and shows our children that they are part of a loving family that will always be there for them whether in person or in spirit.
How do you stay in touch with your relatives across the country or abroad? What has worked best with your family?