How to best raise a child far away from family?
March 23, 2017 9:58 AM   Subscribe

Recently pregnant, and living a 6+ hour plane flight away from both our families. What tips and tricks do you have to help our future child(ren) build and maintain close family ties with distance keeping us apart for the forseeable future?

My husband and I are ecstatic to finally be expecting our first child after several years of trying. We're finally mid-second trimester and starting to realize that this is actually happening, and suddenly I've moved on from worrying about the practicalities of raising a kid itself.

We've always lived some distance from our families, but it recently increased from a 30 minute flight to a 6+ hour flight. I'm pretty close with my family, speaking on the phone to my mom/dad 2-3 times a week and texting daily with my siblings. My husband is slightly less close with his family, but they are still important to us both.

I'm starting to wonder how we can foster a strong relationship between our future child(ren) and our families given this distance. We're likely settled this distance away for at least the next few years, if not longer. It probably isn't reasonable to expect we'll be able to fly out to visit them more than ~2x a year, and while I expect we'll get visits in return (especially from retired new grandparents), I know our kid will have a very different experience with extended family than I did growing up. What can I do to make sure they have the best chance possible to form bonds? What worked or is working for your families that live far away? Is this as simple as frequent facetime and Skype calls, or is there more we should prioritize to help foster strong family relationships*?

Potentially relevant details: This will be the first grandchild on both sides of the family. We both have siblings (there are 7 total between both families) who will likely eventually have children though maybe not starting for 2-3+ years. We want to have more kids, but don't take anything for granted.

(*By the way, to be clear: if the kid, as they grow up, indicates they don't want these relationships we won't force them or anything, but I want to give the best chance for them to develop in the first place. I loved my grandparents and cousins and aunts/uncles and had the great privilege of being able to see them all at least once a month if not more frequently growing up, and still consider some of my cousins my best friends.)
posted by CharlieSue to Human Relations (18 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Weekly video chat calls. The grandparents can just watch the baby in the beginning, and then can graduate to interacting a bit more, and later, the grandparents can read stories over video chat. My own family and sibling has done some combination of these all successfully.
posted by yearly at 10:00 AM on March 23, 2017 [9 favorites]

I have children in my family who have developed a real sense of comfort and familiarity around family members whom they've only met once or twice in person through regular Facetime chats. It's really a godsend for that kind of thing. It has meant that when Grandma/Grandpa/Uncle/Aunty have come for their infrequent visits, the children have felt much more comfortable around them and willing to interact.
posted by Ziggy500 at 10:03 AM on March 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

I grew up 200 miles from one side of the family (another location in the Midwest) and more than 1,000 miles from the other side of the family (New England). I'm actually closest to my family in New England because of the extended visits I had out there as a kid. Between the ages of 6 and 12, I spent at least a month in New England most summers. In the later years I would fly out with my sister as unaccompanied minors and then have my parents join us for the last week or so.
posted by Alluring Mouthbreather at 10:08 AM on March 23, 2017 [2 favorites]

Definitely skype, but it'll be 1-2 years before kiddo gets it. My daughter is 19 months and we live similarly far from family. Something that seems to be helping her remember people between visits is that I made her a book with pictures of all her family members in it, including pics of them interacting with her. We look at it together ALL the time, and sometimes when someone comes to visit who we haven't seen in a while, we get out the book while they're there to reinforce that this is the same person. This is a very cheap and easy project, by the way. I used a template on Vistaprint, pictures from my phone and Facebook and got 2 (backup copy!) for under $20.
posted by juliapangolin at 10:17 AM on March 23, 2017 [9 favorites]

My kids lived 3000 miles away from my husband's family for the first 12 years of my oldest's life. Yet they were able to forge a very close relationship with my mother-in-law. We visited about once a year, and she would come to visit and stay with us for 1-2 weeks 2 or 3 times a year. In between, they had long phone calls, and later FaceTime sessions, during which they would play and describe their play, while she joined in from afar. She's a talented artist and writer, so she would often take the stories they'd told her and turn them into little books and illustrations they would look at frequently. Later they'd even build Lego and play chess together over FaceTime!

A few years ago, we moved closer to that side of the family, and now my kids keep in touch with my parents in much the same way, plus they have had the kids stay with them for several weeks in the summer, flying as unaccompanied minors.

Video chat really is an amazing thing for keeping close contact going for kids. Love it.
posted by gateau at 10:20 AM on March 23, 2017

I’m in this boat too. We’re across the country from a big family that’s important to us and very present in our kid’s life, even though we only see them 1-2 times a year. A small thing we did that’s been quite helpful: Keep a box of family snapshots handy. They don’t have to be precious or in an album*--just a shoebox of snapshots, ratty holiday cards, color prints of digital pictures, outtakes, etc. Our kid likes looking at pictures anyway, and going through them with her when she was a toddler got us into the habit of talking all the time about far-flung cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc. (Similarly, if there start to be younger cousins at a distance, get pictures of them, & send pictures of your own kid.)

*I’d suggest physical prints rather than pictures on your computer or phone, though.

posted by miles per flower at 10:25 AM on March 23, 2017

Skype is HUGE. Also having photos around and pointing out/asking them "do you know who that is?" It helps to remind them that the relatives aren't really strangers
posted by raccoon409 at 10:26 AM on March 23, 2017

Congratulations on your pregnancy! It's really kind of you to think about this.

My sister lives on the direct opposite side of the world from me, and my brother lives a three hour flight away, andthey each have two kids. My family sounds about as close as yours. Here's how I've made a relationship with each of the children...

- Skype. A lot, and on whatever schedule that works for my siblings. I'd rather have a ten minute call per week than a forty minute call per month, and it's easier for them.
- I send note cards to my older nephews about once a month, and let my siblings know I don't expect a response. (I asked this question about crafts and gifts I could include in my notes, and that's worked a treat.)
- I make little snapchat videos for the kids, starring Ronald, a stuffed wombat.
- My siblings send me snapchats and videos of their kids doing dumb/cute/hilarious things. Also videos of them saying "Hi Aunt Punch!" which I treasure beyond words.
- My siblings include scribbles from their kids if they're sending me anything by mail. These are all on my refrigerator.
- My sister bought extra copies of some of her kids' favorite books and sent them to me; I read the books to them over Skype. We all love this one.
- My nephew's preschool has an online photo-sharing diary thing, and my sister invited me to that, so I get to see what my nephew is up to from day to day. This is really nice - it means that when we're skyping, I can ask him about what he's doing at school.
- My siblings encourage me to visit, and make me feel welcome and wanted. As a childless person it's easy for me to think that my presence would just be a burden, I'd interrupt things, etc., etc. My siblings have made it clear that I am almost always wanted, and they would speak up if I weren't. So, we're about even on them inviting me and me inviting myself.
- My brother subsidized the travel cost for some of our other siblings. This wasn't necessary to me but it really did say a lot.
- My siblings both thank me a lot for making an effort, and I thank them for the same. It would be less trouble to not do all of this, but it's so much fun and as a result we have a happy, connected family.
- Oh man: set expectations. One sibling doesn't want us to give the kids any presents, and the other feels it's an important way to stay involved. One sibling has said "we're coming for this time, and we're going to take this time for ourselves." Another said "we're not traveling for X holiday; everyone's welcome to come here, but you'll need to stay at a hotel."

Sorry for the long list, but I hope this helps!
posted by punchtothehead at 11:11 AM on March 23, 2017 [5 favorites]

This is us. Toddler Peeps is 20 months and talks about his extended family all the time. Here is what we do:
Weekly Skype at least, sometimes 2x.
When grandparents visit, they babysit for several hours. This gives us a break and gives them a chance to build their relationship.
Pictures in his room of family members. Big pictures with faces clearly visible, faces taking up the majority of the picture.
Have a good time when together. Toddler Peeps is in lurve with his cousin, I suspect because they had a hysterical giggling good time over the holidays.
Have reference activity. Grandma taught him to sing tap tap when walking down the stairs, so now we sing tap tap.
We talk about family often, in a way that makes them a living part of our lives, not just "somebody over there."
posted by St. Peepsburg at 11:29 AM on March 23, 2017

For my 3-year-old, having the grandparents send regular cards made them much more "real" in his mind than did video chats. Now at 3, the video chats seem more useful/productive in the sense that he actually recognizes the people on the other end and connects them with someone he's met before, but before age 3 it was almost like watching television for him - he seemed to only somewhat understand who those people were and why they were talking to him.

Even at a really young age, though, he loved to keep holiday cards with pictures of extended family in his room, and we'd pull them out and talk about them ("that's grandma who lives in the mountains, with her big dog! and that's your poppy who lives next to the ocean and visited us for Thanksgiving!") as a way to keep those people active in his memory. It seems to have worked really well, in the sense that he sees those people and doesn't act shy or hesitant like he does with strangers or people he met a similarly-long time ago but who we haven't made an effort to talk about frequently.
posted by iminurmefi at 11:32 AM on March 23, 2017

I've got a one year old and our parents live in different states, and we just do fairly frequent face time calls.

Keep in mind, though, it's not for your kid, its for your parents. Your child won't even notice they're on a call for at least a year.
posted by empath at 11:52 AM on March 23, 2017

We printed photos of everyone at kinko's and stuck them in this soft photo book - super cheap, can drool all over it, really hard to destroy, and you can swap out pictures as you make new memories / take new pics. It's my 3yo's prized possession now, he brought it to school to show his friends, takes it out to show guests when they come over etc.
posted by sestaaak at 12:34 PM on March 23, 2017 [3 favorites]

Keep in mind that while the relationship between your parents (and your PILs) and your kids will feel weird to you, because it's not what you're used to, it will be totally normal for the kids. Because that's the relationship they will grow up with.

I produced the first grandkid on both sides, and we're by ourselves in our city with a 3-hr flight on one side and a 7-hr flight on the other. We do weekly Skype dates with both sides, and maybe monthly with our siblings and their families. My kids weren't that interested in Skyping for the first couple years, although they could name each member of the family. But once they hit 2-3, boy they got excited when it was time to Skype with someone. They have close and loving relationships with their grandparents and aunts/uncles/cousins, just not ones where you see each other every day. And that's fine. With visits 1-2 times a year they will be able to build their own relationships, there's no reason to worry. "I'm going to hug Grandma real hard when she comes, because I don't get to see her very often."

If your preschool or kindergarten class doesn't already do it, making a family tree with photos is a great way to demonstrate the relationships. My four-year-old is still a little fuzzy on which cousin belongs with which family, but she's got the basics down.
posted by Liesl at 12:35 PM on March 23, 2017

Skype/Facetime helps, but in my experience it's best done when the kid is busy with something else: eating a meal, or playing with a toy that keeps them in more or less the same spot, etc. This lets grandparent watch kid as much they want, while kid isn't being asked to sit there and talk to a computer, which (in my experience) is totally boring for the little one. When they're old enough, they can show grandma the toy they're playing with or the picture they drew or whatever.

Facebook can also play a big role. You will want to post pics of your kid all the time, and your family can be relied upon to tell you how cute they are, well past the point where any of your friends care to do so.
posted by fingersandtoes at 12:59 PM on March 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

I had one set of local grandparents and one faraway grandma and while the relationships I had with them were, of course, different, I don't feel like I'm necessarily closer to one pair or the other - it's just that the nature of the time we spend together is different. Here are some of the things I remember us doing with her while we grew up:
- my grandma always visited for Thanksgiving, so all my Thanksgiving memories and traditions are associated with her and inherited from that side of the family. It's not Thanksgiving without her - now that I live on the same coast as her, I typically spend the holiday with her even when I can't afford to fly out to see my parents. Similarly, my uncle on the other side is an integral part of my Christmas traditions.
- when we got old enough , she took each kid on 1-on-1, out-of-state trips with her (several of them run by Elderhostel intergenerational trips which are designed for just that). It definitely deepened our relationship. I wish we'd done this more - more solo-kid time - with other faraway aunts and uncles.
- cards for every imaginable holiday. Maybe that's supplanted by digital communication now, but maybe not.
- our grandma came to us way more than we went to her (and she wasn't even retired). I think I went to her house twice before I turned 18. Because of how expensive and hard it is for families with kids to travel, I think this was fine - spending time with her was never a big ordeal for us, just an enrichment to our daily lives.
- when she could, she timed visits around occasions special to us (our birthdays, school performances, sports games we could attend together, whatever) - not things that might merit cross-country travel on their own normally but things where we were all happy that she was there.

The more I read this list, the more I realize the list is centered around us kids - if I could go back and do things differently, I would have said it would have been special if we could have found ways to involve our family in things that were important to her, as well. So that's food for thought. It's something I'll definitely work to focus on in our relationship going forward!

(also, now, that same grandma has a new grandkid even farther away, and facetime is a HUGE part of their lives. I wish we'd had the same!)
posted by R a c h e l at 2:22 PM on March 23, 2017

In addition to the points above, I find with my kids that my excitement about my parents coming to visit really feeds into theirs, so they are excited even though they don't know them as well as I knew mine growing up!
posted by freezer cake at 4:42 PM on March 23, 2017

My in-laws have made little picture albums from each visit my son has had at their house. They write a little story of everything that happened during the visit to go along with it. The result is that my son remembers every little thing he did with them and eagerly looks forward to visiting again. It was a really smart move.

And yeah, Facetime and keeping photos of relatives displayed prominently in your house.

If you can, send artwork your kid makes to the grandparents and have the grandparents send the kid packages or letters. It could be stickers, just a letter, a granola bar, whatever - everyone loves getting mail!

(My kid is also the first grandchild on both sides and the grandparents are 3.5 and 6 hours away by car.)
posted by Cygnet at 4:52 PM on March 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

My brother, sister-in-law, and nephew are a 13 hr plane trip away. My nephew is 2. Here's what we do:
- we have a group text (called Baby Time) where bro and SIL post pics and updates on the little guy and we inquire about him. I particularly like knowing what he's into at the moment so I can take videos of garbage trucks (for example) and send them to him. We find texting to be a very simple, accessible way to talk about the day to day.
- lately my mom and I have taken to sending him those cards that play music. Not sure his parents are a fan but he loved them
- they put me up for 2 weeks 3 month after he was born so I could spend some time with him & came to the US for a longer time over the summer (their school teachers) so I could spend time with him
posted by CMcG at 5:34 PM on March 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

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