In these days of COVID-19 travel restrictions, quarantines and lockdowns, many of us have found it difficult or impossible to travel and visit family members like we used to. Remember when we used to spend summer holidays and Christmas break with our families back home? My children were able to enjoy visits with grandparents fairly frequently in the Pre-COVID days. I also appreciated the chance for them to connect with their cultural roots and minority language. However, due to the recent lack of travel, and face-to-face relationships with extended family members, it has been challenging to keep kids connected. Any parent who has attempted to get children to spend time on long Skype or Zoom calls with grandparents will know is trickier than it sounds! Oftentimes there are also technological barriers for grandparents who aren't used to the online tools that we have become accustomed to using to communicate. The unfortunate consequence of all of this is a loss of connection.
How to Stay Connected
Here are a few tips that can help maintain and nurture the connection between your children and extended family overseas (or even in the same city if you can't see family due to lockdown!)
Talk about Extended Family Members with your Kids
Even when its not possible to speak with family members in person or over the internet, do your best to talk about them as much as you can. Tell stories, especially memorable ones that contain a bit of humor or cultural tidbits from your childhood. Talk about traveling to see family members in the past, cook some of your favourite dishes from your culture and of course, make some future (non-date specific plans) to visit when we can travel easily once again.
Make Video Calls a Routine
Make video calls a part of your weekly schedule and try to keep to the schedule. Every family is different, so you'll have to choose a frequency and timeframe that works for you. For instance, you could schedule a call with family members in Europe on Saturday afternoons (when Europeans are just waking up), and make a regular time to connect with Australian grandparents on a weekday just before dinner. Once it has become an established part of your routine, it's much easier to ensure that all family members are home to participate.
Split Parent Time and Kid Time
It's easiest to have dedicated times for you to speak with your parents or other extended families and other, separate times for your kids to talk to them. This allows you to have meaningful adult conversation without little ones climbing all over you, and interrupting. If your kids are older, having their own time to talk to their extended family can help them have a sense of freedom and allow them to build deeper relationships with grandparents by discussing topics which they choose.
Prepare Some Conversation Topics and/or Activities
If improvised conversation is challenging for your kids, then you may need to spend some time preparing in advance. A bit of planning can help you avoid long, awkward silences or kids acting out to attract attention. Include your kids in the planning, ask them what they would like to talk about, or do while talking with family members. Kids love action and structure, so having them work on a craft project or make pizza together, may be a good way to maintain closeness even through the distance. It's important to agree in advance about exactly what they will be doing so things don't get too out of hand.
Think outside the box for ways that your kids can connect with extended family. Perhaps you could purchase a copy of a favourite board game and have it mailed to grandma and grandpa. Then, your children could play their favourite game with grandma and grandpa over Zoom. Alternatively, you could schedule weekly calls with grandparents right before bedtime so they can help with bedtime stories. If the time zone difference makes this implausible, perhaps you could ask grandparents to record themselves reading some bedtime stories and send it to you as a WhatsApp message so that your kids can enjoy listening to grandma or grandpa read their bedtime stories. In my family, we now have a whole audio library with various Russian books read by grandparents. This helps my kids build connections with their grandparents and also gives valuable reinforcement to their minority language!