How to maintain a long distance relationship . . . with my nephews and niece
March 21, 2012 7:48 PM   Subscribe

How do I maintain a relationship with my nephews and niece when I live far away from them?

I have two nephews and a niece (6, 4, and 2). I used to live a few hours away from them, so I'd see them about 5-6 times a year. Not every weekend, but enough to develop a relationship with them. But last year I moved across the country, so now I only see them one or two times a year. When I lived near them and visited I would spend lots of time playing with them and just being around them.

But now because of the distance, I'm not sure how to maintain and keep developing a relationship with each of them, which I really want to do. Right now I send them cards about once every month or two for random holidays and the occasional little present from the dollar store. But I don't want to just be Aunt McPuppington who only sends presents, plus it doesn't really help them to know me or me to know them. They're too young to write letters or emails or anything, talking on the phone is very challenging, and skyping is hard to do very often because of the time change.

Any suggestions on how I can get to know them besides just gifts and cards and skype? I love them so much and really want to have a relationship with them in spite of the distance.
posted by McPuppington the Third to Human Relations (17 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
I'm you. My niece and nephew are halfway around the world, as is the rest of my family. It's not perfect, but regular video chats are about the best you can do aside from being physically present.
posted by zardoz at 8:02 PM on March 21, 2012

Is there a way that you could do Skype while at work on a lunch break? I am currently going through the same thing, but I would actually see my nieces and nephew about once a month, so it's been a hard adjustment. While they're not always keen on jumping on the phone to talk, they love it when I can Skype or Facetime for even like, five minutes during the middle of the day. I typically try around when they are getting home from school (around 3-4PM) which typically coincides with my lunch break.

Additionally, a great way that I've found to develop a relationship with them is to make sure I know what is going on in their lives - I talk to my mom to find out if they made a part in the school play and then I'll ask them about how practice is going, so rather than having to find out all the details, I'm already filled in and can get to the good stuff. I've also had a huge huge huge amount of success with "challenging" my nieces and nephews to things - like, "draw me the most realistic picture of a badger EVER" and "make a pop-up card" and "come up with ten knock-knock jokes" so that they have the "assignments" to work on and then they either mail me the results or happily show them to me via Skype.

Good luck, long-distance aunting is hard work.
posted by banannafish at 8:03 PM on March 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

I came barrelling in here to say--mail & Skype & incoherent phone calls! I am sorry that these don't seem to be working for you. I would really focus on sending mail. I do this all of the time with my 4 year old niece and I think getting mail (and how cool is real mail?) sort of reinforces my presence in her life. I definitely don't spend a lot of money & I don't send cards or big gifts. I send a short note adorned with stickers with large lettering that says "Hi, (NIECE)! How are you? I love you very much. Aunt (MY NAME)." I send postcards with really terrible jokes on them. I send goofy photos of me & my partner & dog. I slip a small sheet of stickers or play tattoos into an envelope with a note. I buy colorful Japanese stationery so that it is obvious when a letter is for her. I spend very little money on her, and I'm not sure that these things really register as gifts--but she gets so excited to get something from her aunt, and it doesn't seem to matter if there's a present involved or not. I also try infrequent phone chats and skype, but those are a little harder. I still make the effort, though, even if it is five minutes of incoherent babbling... I think of it as making a habit out of communicating with her & that we're sort of setting the stage for a relationship in the future when she's a little easier to understand when talking & she's big enough to write me.
posted by studioaudience at 8:08 PM on March 21, 2012 [5 favorites]

Exchange videos rather than Skype. I LOVE banannafish's idea of giving them little assignments! "Show me around your bedroom!" "Show me how you play $FavoriteGame!" "Show me how you help mom cook dinner!"

Maybe you could have someone record you while you go shopping for those little presents, so they can feel like they were there with you when you picked them out. Make a big deal about how THIS stuffed puppy out of the entire selection of stuffed puppies was just the PERFECT one for little Suzy!

Send them recordings of you reading kids books, along with the book itself, so they can follow along by themselves.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 8:09 PM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm facing this myself. But apparently, postcards go over really well (the postcard I sent my niece from London last year apparently was extremely well received).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:13 PM on March 21, 2012

We live far away from all of our family, and the big ticket items from our relatives are postcards and pictures, reading picture books over Skype (the library has them or you could buy and maybe send a paperback after you read?), and singing together. The 6-year-old might be reading little books by now, that one could read to you!

My kids aren't really into assignments, we've tried, but our family is really great about knowing things like teacher and friend names, favorite playing activities, etc, to ask about.
posted by mamabear at 8:23 PM on March 21, 2012

I have a similar issue with both of my godsons. They're so far away and I miss both boys terribly! So, I send them cards for every holiday (bonus points for weird cards for Arbor Day or something), postcards when I go somewhere cool, and presents in the mail when I can. For my older godson, I bought special stationary and I write him actual letters every now and then. I try to reference something that his mom told me he was doing in school or whatever. They're both quite young (the older one is five, the younger, two) and they love getting mail. If I send a card for the whole family (like for Christmas), I make sure my godson gets a card just for him. Both of their moms help me out by talking about me to them and I do talk to them on the phone, though talking to toddlers on the phone is challenging at best.

Honestly, this really does work. They remember me when I see them, though it's only a few times a year. One of them brought a picture of me to his show-and-tell at school because the theme of the day was the first letter of my name. (I cried when his mom told me that.) While it's not as good as being able to hang out with them on a regular basis, letters and phone calls do keep you as a presence in their lives. And when you do see them? Be ready and willing to play and read to them and be a giant goof and they will LOVE you. (Kids love when you embarrass yourself as much as possible for their amusement.)
posted by Aquifer at 8:41 PM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Skype works. One of my sisters lives in Japan, and the other lives in a different city (and we regularly return to Japan for extended stays).

Skype has really worked, although the time change can be a pain in the ass. But it works so much better than the phone - it's incredible, really.

The other thing is to develop a similar interests. My wife's husband, who is in Aus is able to bond with our eldest via hockey.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:46 PM on March 21, 2012

My parents read poems once a week to my kids, via FaceTime on iPads. It helps to have a scheduled time (6:30 our time, which is 9:30 their time) and, more importantly, a scheduled activity.

The 3 year old gets a poem (or three) read to her, while the 6-year-old has to do some of the poem reading, and then they discuss the meaning of the poem.

And there's other conversation too, but there doesn't have to be a lot.
posted by leahwrenn at 9:23 PM on March 21, 2012

I was the niece in this situation growing up! I only saw my aunt a small handful of times a year, and this was before skype or email were things people did. And I don't actually remember talking on the phone with her much or getting many letters.

I think I would have to say that the thing that made me continue to bond with my aunt despite living so far from her was that she really made the time we did spend together worthwhile. When we were in town, she was around and did things with ME, not just with my family and I was the kid tagging along. She took a direct interest in the things I had to say. It sounds like you've got this going on already with the time you spend with them now, so keep that in mind when you do see them. (I feel like this will get more important as they get older)

If skype-ing is hard because of the time change, is there any way you guys could make short videos to send back and forth? I'm not sure how to go about doing that, but it might be a fun way to get some facetime even if it isn't in real-time.
posted by sherber at 9:26 PM on March 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

Any suggestions on how I can get to know them besides just gifts and cards and skype?

You've got to be patient. At their ages, they are really too young for you to get to know them (and vice versa) without a more regular physical presence, but what the cards and gifts and Skype does is keep you in their mind as "A Person Who Loves Me" as they grow and mature, and then once they are old enough for a more meaningful long-distance relationship with you, you already have that deep emotional connection with them that will make your bond that much stronger. My daughter just turned 11, and she is only just now starting to have a really close and rewarding relationship with aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents who live far away, and it is the ones who were in her life in those little ways when she was a young child whom she is closest to.
posted by Rock Steady at 6:15 AM on March 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Keep up with snail mail, increase your mail. Kids love getting mail. Mail them silly pictures of yourself in different environments. Borrow one of their favorite toys and take pictures of it in the places you regularly go, then send it back to them with a photo album. Send them small treats.

They are too young to really get to know you. At this age, all they know is if they like you or not. Talk to their mom often to keep up with who they are.

It will be years before you will have a full on relationship, where they care about your day and you know what's going on with them.

Right now, have fun with creative postal ideas. Consistency builds trust, even if it is only a letter that comes in often enough for them to count on.
posted by myselfasme at 6:35 AM on March 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

Seconding the postcards. You can get so many different ones even just for your own city. I like to embellish the picture on the front with drawings, like inserting myself as a stick figure where I was in the picture. And then you tell them a story about your time there, or interesting info, whatever you like. Also send pictures of yourself doing things whenever you can, and write on the back about it. Then the kids get a sort of picture book experience about you. Sending them an album with transparent pockets to hold the cards/pictures would help them keep it all in one place. Even if it's not the second-mom relationship I think you crave, being associated with fun stories sounds like a great aunt to me.
posted by lizbunny at 7:51 AM on March 22, 2012

I have a similar problem though my niece and nephew are half a world away. It's hard for me as while their parents love me they are super busy in their lives and not letter writers or computer literate so most of my communication with the kids is one way.

How I keep in touch I send them postcards, they love it when I just send them something randomly that I just saw when I was out and thought they'd like, it lets them know I am thinking of them. When I do get to talk to them, if they are at Grandmas they can ring me, I always remind them of things we have done together in RL so they can reconnect that I am a real person. So I will go "hey remember when we went to the zoo and they fed that hippo a pumpkin" or some such and then let them start telling me what they remember. I figure that way I am renewing the memories of me even if I'm not there now.

I send clothes they can wear that are distinctive of where I am, so every time they wear them they think of me over here. I made a video of my new house when I moved and gave them a guided tour. My nephew in particular loved that.

To be honest until they are older you are probably not going to get a lot of feedback directly from them, my Brother and SIL mean well but suck at keeping in touch so most of my family communication goes through Grandma, but if your family is better than mine use the adults to get the feedback on what they are doing and like and keep up the communication even if it's only one way for now. That way you remain a real person in their minds. It is so very hard if you've been a close hands on Aunt to move away and loose that feeling of closeness so I can completely sympathize.

I know it feels like you are sending things into a black hole at the moment, but it is totally worth it when you go to see them again and they remember you. Believe it or not kids are great at just picking up where you left off, I saw my niece and nephew after 2 years apart and was greeted at the airport with tears and hugs, and within minutes we where chatting about things like I'd never left.
posted by wwax at 8:00 AM on March 22, 2012

I am going through this with my niece and nephew, who are an ocean away. I've found as my nephew has gotten older, he is interested in keeping in contact with me; when he was younger, he had to be coaxed to even say hello on the phone. Technology has helped - what's great is FaceTime on the iPhone. When I am talking with their parents the kids will break in (especially the older one) and grab the iPhone and talk to me directly or carry it around the house, showing me their rooms, their latest Lego creations or what not. Or the older kid will point the iPhone at the younger kid while she dances and sings or plays with her toys. The younger kid just likes staring at me when she has the iPhone, but that's okay. FaceTime on the iPhone lets the kids be in control of the interaction and move around the house as if I were there, which I think is different from, say, Skype on a laptop or desktop computer.

Another way technology has helped is that his mother will have him pick out things on online sites such as or Amazon. Then I mail him what he has selected - there's more of a sense of interaction than if I had just sent him stuff I had picked out without his input.

Lastly, both my mother and the kids' parents mention me frequently enough in their interactions with the kids that I am not a stranger to them even if they don't get to see me in the flesh. I think it's important, that you get mentioned in routine contexts and not just when a package arrives from far away.
posted by research monkey at 10:07 AM on March 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you all so much! I'm really encouraged to make skyping more of a priority and to work with my sister (their mom) to make it a more consistent thing. I *love* the ideas of making videos of me shopping for toys for them, sending postcards, and making videos of me reading to them. And I can't wait to do the "assignment" thing--that is a brilliant idea!

And I feel really encouraged by those of you who are saying that it's possible to have them remember me and have a relationship with them even without being a constant physical presence.

(And yeah, I know that I can't really have a *relationship* with them until they're older--I think I'm more looking for ways so that when I do see them they're not thinking "Who the heck is this Aunt McPuppington??")

Seriously, thank you all so much. I'm excited to start doing some of this stuff right now (well, tomorrow, because it's way past their bedtime right now).
posted by McPuppington the Third at 7:54 PM on March 22, 2012

I have successfully managed to have a very solid relationship with my nieces ages -13, 10, 9 over the last ten plus years of living half the country away from them and only seeing them one to two times a year.

I will say that largely the reason that this worked for me is because of my sister's (their mother's) drive to make sure that I was a part of their lives. I make a huge effort to talk to her at least twice a week (sometimes it's less than that depending on what each of us has going on in our lives at the time). I ask about the kids, I show genuine interest in their daily activities. I share the details of my life with her. She shares these details with her children, she shares the things I have said about what is happening in their day to day life. She makes the events of my life real to her kids. She tells them the ups and the downs, she shares the interesting and tries to spruce up the mundane. So maybe talk to your sibling about your desire to be a part of these kids' lives.

I rarely talk to the kids on the phone, maybe three to four times a year. It just feels too forced.

I send them little packages about every two to three months. Just cheap stuff, mostly craft stuff like stickers, paint, color-by-number sets. They usually use the craft supplies to send me little notes or painting in the mail a couple of times a year. Sometimes I just send something silly like bubble wands or squirt guns or silly putty. I write a sort note to each kid. They love it. They see that I am thinking of them and it's nice to get a little surprise. Also, I make sure that I am sending stuff that is either usable or cheap enough that no ones feels bad throwing it out. This is for my sister's benefit, because no one wants a bunch of junk cluttering up their house because it has emotional value since it came from Aunt C. My sister and I have talked about this and she knows and appreciates it.

I always send birthday gifts (wrapped and labeled, don't be the relative who expects the parent to wrap it for you, they may say they don't mind, but trust me, they do) maybe not always on time, but never more than two days late.

I also send a special package once a year, at the same time each year with a little gift bag full of fun stuff for each girl. Have been doing this for 14 years now and the girls love it. They anticipate it and it is always something different from the year before.
posted by citizngkar at 8:02 PM on March 22, 2012

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