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February 18, 2009 6:00 PM   Subscribe

How do I connect with a half-sister who is only six years old? Details of our estrangement and additional background inside.

I am a 26-year-old married male living in Louisiana, while my grandmother, mother, and half-sister reside in Georgia. I have long struggled to remain connected to my mother since my parents split over a decade ago. My mom is mentally ill and has struggled since I was about one year old. She is, in a word, difficult. My sister is phenomenal considering the adversity she's had to deal with at such a young age.

Since Hurricane Katrina, the three of them have lived out of state, and so I've had limited contact with them except for phone calls and occasional mail. My mom tries her best to keep me updated on the three of them, but I frequently disappoint her. I promise to return calls, send photos, etc., but I am unreliable. Dealing with my mother is emotionally draining for me, mostly because I feel guilt and sympathy but know there is literally nothing I can do. She is not employed, but rather collects disability and other state and federal assistance. My grandmother is in the same situation, and so the two of them survive mostly due to government aid and the kindness of strangers such as churches and volunteer organizations.

Ella, my sister, is being raised by these two women. Her father is not known to her, and we would all like to keep it that way. She recently was blessed with a Big Sister from the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program, and has many people in her life who care for her and protect her. However, I don't consider myself one of those people. While my mother tells me she asks about me frequently, and can recognize my voice and face, she doesn't KNOW me. We haven't even seen each other since before Katrina, almost four years ago.

I desperately want to be a part of her life, even if it is a small part. My biggest barrier at this point, besides the distance, is not knowing how to connect with her. I don't know what six-year-old girls like, and I'm not keen on googling that for fear of the FBI arriving at my door. Are there books on this topic? Have any of you in the hive mind dealt with a similar situation? Are there support groups for this?

I want to connect with her on her level and let her know that I will always be available to her, despite the distance and our age difference. I don't even know if this is a concept six-year-old children understand. My wife's advice is to give it time, but I fear that not connecting and reaching out will just make the gap between us wider as she grows older. In other words, if I wait until she is fourteen, it might be too late.
posted by snapped to Human Relations (24 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I suggest letters. When my nieces were young, and I was at college, I would send them mail, and they thought that was the neatest thing. They'd write back, and I would get fun mail too. Start with a letter, include a picture of you and your wife, and send stamped addressed envelopes for her to send you things back. This has the added benefit of having no set timetable, and not having to deal with your mom. You can start with asking her some basic questions -- you'll get to know what she likes over time. You really can get to know people through letters. And then, when you can eventually meet up in person, it won't be so unknown.
posted by dpx.mfx at 6:13 PM on February 18, 2009 [4 favorites]

I have no experience in anything like this, but I suggest writing letters. Handwritten. Receiving mail makes people feel special, and in the case of a 6 year old she'll get to practice reading. The letters can be short--maybe buy a pack of notes with an interesting/funny/cool picture on them. If you're inclined, make the cards yourself. The card itself could be a starting point for conversation, and they have limited space so you wouldn't feel pressured to divulge your entire life history. Share stories about when you were 6, your dog, the crazy thing your neighbor did, the last vacation you took, etc. Generally I think we connect with others by sharing ourselves with them; just make sure what you share is appropriate and interesting for a kid. End your letters with a question that would prompt her to share something too.
posted by kochenta at 6:13 PM on February 18, 2009

Great minds.
posted by kochenta at 6:14 PM on February 18, 2009

Send your sister snail mail: postcards, letters, photos of yourself and your wife and your surroundings. The letters don't have to be long or profound, just aim to put something in your sister's hands at least a few times a month. Set yourself reminders, buy the cards and stamps in advance and keep a stack of them on your desk to dash off any time you have a spare moment. Think of them as snail-tweets.

You don't have to be a first-grader pop culture expert here, just send her little slices about your life: what you ate, something your dog did, the funny thing you saw today: that's what she's going to be interested in, not your ability to discuss the finer points of Disney Princesses.

Maybe you can spring for a trip your sister to come stay with you a little while in summertime. No need to mention it to her now, for a six year old, next summer might as well be next decade.
posted by jamaro at 6:17 PM on February 18, 2009

Does she have access to a computer with internet? Maybe at the library or through her mentorship program? Buy her a webcam so you can talk and actually see each other. Set aside time every week to just chat with her about what's going on in your lives. Ask her about school, or tv, or what she like to eat. Save up funny stories to tell her. Maybe even read books to her (it would probably help if you both have a copy). The internet makes it easy to be in touch with people who are far away.
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 6:19 PM on February 18, 2009

Six-year-old girls like letters on cool-looking paper or cards, like the first two posters said. In addition to photos of you and your wife (and pets if you have any), maybe include some cool stickers for her to use on letters to you or notes to her friends. You don't have to tell her that you want to be in her life now, just be in her life via contact and you can talk to her more about that when she's old enough to understand. She may even come to you for advice as she gets older since you were raised by the same mom (I'm assuming), and you can be there for her in that way, too.
posted by fructose at 6:19 PM on February 18, 2009

I'll bet she likes to color, and if you sent her some blank cards with stamped envelopes and some art supplies, she can become even more invested in corresponding with you.
posted by jgirl at 6:20 PM on February 18, 2009

I have a six year old daughter and can maybe give you a little insight into what their interests are in hopes that it helps you, especially if you're stumped for what to write about if you take the above advice.

They're kind of over the princess thing (but the new Fairy thing is totally cool), not quite into tween Disney Channel things like Hannah Montana but getting there, as their awareness of pop culture expands with school attendance.

They're into finding out how the world works--on our trips to the library we invariably come home with age-appropriate biology, zoology and earth science books, kids' cookbooks, short biographies, etc. My six year old fights with her four year old sister over whether they watch Discovery Channel or Nickelodeon; the recent Planet Earth documentaries are still in heavy rotation in our house.

Animals are a huge thing. That thing about girls and horses is true, although it can be almost any or every animal. My first grader has a new favorite animal every other week--dolphins, koalas, tigers, what have you. She fell head over heels for a friend of ours who is a wildlife photographer when he took the time to show her his work, especially when, after showing her his amazing photos of owls, he pulled an owl pellet out of his jacket pocket and asked her if she wanted to dissect it with him.

Arts and crafts are major. If you send her stickers she will go nuts.

My daughter reads quite a bit--she still loves picture books for the visuals and probably because she can read them so fast, but also chapter books. Magic Tree House and Junie B. Jones are two popular newer series with that age group, but she is also into the "classics" like Little House On The Prairie, and she is currently working her way through Judy Blume's "Fudge" books. When we travel she likes to stock her daybag with issues of National Geographic Kids and Ladybug or Cricket magazines.
posted by padraigin at 6:24 PM on February 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think you're right on track with wanting to connect with her ASAP and keep that connection going. It is extremely important to establish contact and build a relationship with your sister. She will benefit from all of the love she can get, especially from family. Do not underestimate the importance of family and your relationship with her. One more stable, committed, responsible, person in her life will be a godsend and mean the world to her.

I would start by sending her a handwritten letter, tell her about yourself, where you're living, your wife, your hobbies, pets, your job, etc. Enclose a recent photo of you and your wife. Send along some stickers or other small present. Six-year-old girls might like animals (horses, puppies, cats), Hello Kitty, Hannah Montana (?), glittery butterflies and such. She's probably not too hard to please. She knows you are her brother and will probably be more receptive than you would imagine. Keep those letters going. Send them to her monthly. Send her books. Do not forget her birthday and holidays. Make a point to call her monthly as well. If there is internet, send emails that your mother can share with her. The emails should be on top of the handwritten letters and phone calls.

Make a point to see her in person. Don't put it off. Plan to drive down and visit. Stay a few days. Take her to lunch and the park. Ride bikes with her. Take her for ice cream. Read to her. On your next visit take her to a theme park or some other special all day outing. After that, arrange to see her every summer. Have her spend a week or two with you and your wife if you can swing it. Going away for a week or two every summer will allow you to connect even further. She can learn and experience different things with you and your wife. She will have a blast and those visits will build memories and bonds.

Good luck to you and your family.
posted by Fairchild at 6:26 PM on February 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

I met my much older half-siblings when I was eight.

Letters are good. MartinX suggested reading books to her - I'd send her a book every once in a while with a tape or cd of you reading it out loud. This way, you'd create a special ritual between the two of you.

I hope it works out for you. I ended up cutting off ties with my brother because he kept putting me in the middle of his resentment toward our father. I was nineteen. So, in the future, I'd advise not talking about your relationship with your mother unless she brings up some complaint first, and even then, proceed with caution. That said, this is a good thing you're doing.
posted by Ruki at 6:30 PM on February 18, 2009

Oh, God, yes, Hello Kitty!!
posted by jgirl at 6:38 PM on February 18, 2009

Nthing the snail mail idea. She'll love getting letters and cards from you, even if they're short. Pictures, stickers, and cool stationery are always good.

padraigin also mentioned the awesome magazines Ladybug and Cricket...maybe get her a subscription to one or the other? Or if you were really stuck for things to talk about, you could get yourself a subscription as well and talk about the stories when you write/call.

Having you as a part of her life now will definitely set the foundation for knowing that you'll be available to her later. She's a lucky girl.
posted by corey flood at 6:44 PM on February 18, 2009

My grandmother, who I saw once or twice in my life before she passed away, would always send letters with doodles in them. I LOVED them and always sent letters back with my own creations and doodles.

She would also sent some money when my birthday was around the corner, which was special too.
posted by nikkorizz at 6:48 PM on February 18, 2009

Little kids tend to be in awe of older siblings, even much older siblings. My much younger brother apparently talks about me so much at school that his teachers have asked me to come in and meet them so they can put a face to who he is talking about. The point is that you don't have to do much for her to think you are awesome. Talk to her, send her little notes and gifts, tell funny stories, and make sure that you get over there for a weekend or two every once in a while.

Don't overthink this! Just reach out to her and be her friend; you don't need to have magical 6 year old skills to connect with her.
posted by ohio at 6:56 PM on February 18, 2009

Triple nthing the "send her mail" theme here.

A couple of points:

1) Make an appointment with yourself to send her something on a very regular schedule. I'd vote for once a week, but once every other week would work and once a month would be ok. The key here is that you are very, very consistant in your communication with her. Make it a regular part of your Sunday, or whatever, but a strong part of your routine. Routine is so important to kids that age. (Were it me, I'd go out one day and buy enough notecards, postcards, and stamps to get me through the year, address them all at once, put stamps on them, and then put them on my desk.)

2) Don't stress yourself about content. At six, the consistancy of the letters are more important than the content. Speak simply to her about universal things - "The leaves are changing here, I've included one for you", "Its raining here", "The dog did a cute thing today and here's the story", "I've had a cold and have been watching my favorite movie, here's the plot", whatever it is that you do in your normal life. This is how the connection between the two of you will grow - you share the details of your regular, mundane life with her, and you do so on a steady, predictable basis.

3) Remember not only her birthday and Christmas, but other holidays too - first day of school, Valentine's day, Easter, all the small ritual dates that mark a child's life.

4) If you can, help your mother and grandmother financially with small things for your sister, but don't include this information in the letters you send your sister. Things you could do would include setting up a savings account/529 for her, sending your mother/grandmother a gift certificate for clothing (A GC to a store like The Children's Place, for example, would make sure that your sister gets clothing, because that's really the only thing you can buy there, and they have very reasonable prices.) If you're going to send her things, keep them small: stickers, inexpensive books, socks and hair ties, coloring books and crayons. Don't be the relative that sends expensive gifts but never writes.

Good for you for wanting to do it. Now, do it!
posted by anastasiav at 7:13 PM on February 18, 2009 [11 favorites]

Yes, letters and stickers and books (the Spiderwick books are still a few years too advanced for her but not by much).

I have a sister 17 years younger, who I see maybe once or twice a year. I find writing letters (soon it's going to be emails, oh god) is great--we both love getting mail. It's hard to talk on the phone--I'm not used to dealing with a kid's weird cadence and it feels awkward for both of us. She definitely sees our relationship as sisterly, but I feel more like aunt/niece (in fact, my aunt is closer to me in age than my sister is). I plan to have her out to visit me alone in NYC as a birthday gift someday (maybe for turning 13?) and know that there will be opportunities for us to get closer as she gets older.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 7:24 PM on February 18, 2009

These are all amazing suggestions. I am now trying to devise a schedule and a start thinking up some creative things to send and say. Snail mail, I'm ashamed to admit, is something I have not indulged in for several years now, but I'm more than ready to do this.

padraigin, my mom has told me on several occasions that Ella is gifted and reading at a higher grade level than her peers, and was recently put into a special program at school. I'm hoping I can learn some more about that through her, and her Big Sister, and send her some books or story collections that are appropriate for her.

Fairchild, my mother-in-law recently suggested she come to visit over the summer, and I was hesitant. Maybe if I start laying the ground work, I might be more comfortable with that idea. We actually just got back from a trip to the area a few weeks ago, but due to some unpleasantness I was unable to see her. She was disappointed, and so was I, but it showed my wife and I that it is not such a tough trip for us to make more regularly.

Thanks all for these suggestions and words of encouragement.
posted by snapped at 8:32 PM on February 18, 2009

What a great thing to be doing. Make it fun for you too. When you decide she can come visit plan it with her well in the future, something to look forward to; write about what you'll do together, the boring everyday things. That makes a connection with the things she does every day. And do call as well as write; you can talk about the letter.
posted by anadem at 9:16 PM on February 18, 2009

Everyone has great ideas here. Kids her age are interested in learning about pretty much anything and everything.

And it's totally okay to go pick out a year's worth of cards, stationary, etc. right now so you have a good supply!
posted by radioamy at 9:18 PM on February 18, 2009

I was just coming back to post a little bit about what she might be learning in school, so you'd know what to ask her about. My 6 year old is in first grade and also reading ahead of the grade level, and working a lot on writing, both in a formal sense of practicing grammar and handwriting and in a creative sense. In our school district first grade is the beginning of more formal math instruction, going beyond simple counting and into more complex arithmetic, sets and groups, some basic charting and graphing. I've even seen a few story problems start showing up in her worksheets.

Another thing my kid is also really into is secret codes, simple substitutions and rebuses and that sort of thing. That might be a fun little thing to put in a letter to her. Don't hesitate to hit up Google for age-appropriate puzzles, the resources are definitely out there.

Some schools have special projects like gardening or music programs (stuff that used to be taken for granted) so if you can find out what she might be up to along those lines, you can ask her how the school garden's going, or whether she's learned any new games in PE lately.

And for what it's worth just getting mail is huge for a little kid. My kids hang on to every piece of mail they get until it's tattered.
posted by padraigin at 9:24 PM on February 18, 2009

Snail-mail tip: At the risk of stating the obvious, the envelopes w. the postage already on them can make life soooooooooo much easier. For the first go-round, perhaps worth sending her a manila envelope with some pre-paid, letter-size envelopes inside?

Mixed thoughts about making them self-addressed; when I was about 6, I was very happy and determined to address the evelopes myself, but no guess how she might think and if nothing else, it would eliminate the prospect of your address being misplaced.

Details aside, as others have said, go man, go!

At the risk of stating the obvious again, your sister's fortunate that you care and are making this effort.
posted by ambient2 at 10:16 PM on February 18, 2009

My own half sister is 5 and I'm 28. Definitely write, call regularly, and visit when you can. Exchange photos, stickers, small things. Talk about things you each enjoy. Ask her questions about things in her life or what she's interested in. For example, my sister is excited for soccer season to start. We talked about that last Sunday, along with how much we like strawberries. Importantly, always listen. Kids will sometimes ramble, but you can learn a lot from what they say.

You'll both adapt as she gets older.
posted by cmgonzalez at 12:29 AM on February 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Start saving up now to possibly fly her out to see you. Although we were fully siblings, my much older (by a generation) brother and sister pooled funds together and bought a ticket for me to fly across the country to spend two weeks with them. I was closer to the double digit age (that is, 10) but it is something I still remember with fondness and marked a quantum leap forward in my personal development (I can fly on a plane by myself!!).

It also gave me a much need break from a mom perhaps not with as many issues as your mom, but issues nevertheless. And believe me, my Mom and Dad were thrilled not to have me underfoot during those couple of weeks away. Maybe if you framed it as a "break" for your mom and her mother, it will go over well (in case she has fear or control issues about letting a young girl travel on her own).

So start with letters, with an eye on a visit. But please don't make promises unless you absolutely intend to follow through ... I had a parent who later in my early teens promised me a trip to visit him during one of his year-long exotic work postings and never followed through and only apologized too many years after the fact. It still bugs me to this day (obviously!).
posted by kuppajava at 7:45 AM on February 19, 2009

I'm a little late to this party, but no matter.

my mother-in-law recently suggested she come to visit over the summer, and I was hesitant.

Don't be. I have two much-older half-siblings; both were up and out of the out of the house by the time I was six or so. Having them come visit (or going to visit either of them) was the absolute highlight of my year, growing up. Being a semi-adult now, I usually see them in slightly different circumstances, but I still get a real kick out of it.

Based on that experience, I would lay money that Ella thinks you're great, even if she barely knows you. When you're that age, that's just the way older siblings are: totally awesome. I bet she even brags about you from time to time: "My brother has a such-and-such breed of dog." "My brother went to so-and-so University." "My brother could totally beat up your brother because he's twenty-six and is really strong."

So don't ever, ever be afraid to interact with her. Every time you write her a letter, or take her to the zoo, or buy her a hamburger, the whole experience will get transformed from something mundane into something awesome because it was with you. You truly are that special. Take advantage of your unique position in her life and see her whenever you can (and send her postcards when you can't). When she's twenty years old and still gets a kick out of seeing you, you'll both be glad you made the effort.
posted by Commander Rachek at 8:31 PM on February 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

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