We live in New York and have members of our families that live in California and Beijing, so it was important for us to figure out some ways for our kids to feel they were part of their lives, despite the distance. Here were some things that we did:
1) Photos: Pictures have always been very important to me and it’s a great way to help build the memory. Very early on in both of our children’s lives, I started photo albums for them. I included photos of them with their family members and friends. We would look through the albums with them repeatedly, pointing out who everyone was.
As they got older and had more words, they were able to go through them on their own, identifying people and starting to attach them to experiences. On the same wavelength as the photo albums, my father started making a family photo calendar several years ago. We have strategically kept it in the kitchen, in full view of the children as they eat every meal. Last year, my son was so excited about the calendar that he wanted to help make it which he did. We also keep a website filled with photos of our lives that we share with our family and friends.
2) Skype: Of course, technology has helped bring our international worlds closer. We try to Skype with our families as frequently as possible. We often had to Skype at mealtimes because it meant the children were keeping still. With my brother’s family, we have had to do some Skypes right before bed, due to the time difference. This has allowed our nephew to see some of the books and toys our kids have and vice versa. The three of them read stories and sing to each other. My husband’s family often reads books to the kids during a Skype call which the kids look forward to. Recently, we have done some Skypes with them prior to dinner which allows the kids to show off newly learned skills. Not infrequently our kids want to see the rooms that their families are in. When we are unable to Skype with our families, we try to talk on the phone instead.
3) Digital recordings: When my son was an infant, my mother-in-law made some digital recordings of her reading stories. She then sent the books to us so he could look at the books while listening to her read it. This was a great way to keep him familiar with her voice (and a bonus for us: we got a break from reading). Since we still have the recordings, our daughter now listens to them as well. It sometimes serves as a goodnight book.
4) Cards and Letters: Never underestimate the power of making cards and pictures for family members. We often have the children make birthday or holiday cards for people and mail them (or, in the case of our Beijing family, we scan and email them). As a result, our children now want to send pictures and cards on their own, even when it is not a birthday. Family members also send postcards or drawings of their own back. My sister-in-law is an artist and sent a copy of one of her drawings from a class to the children. All of the grandparents frequently send postcards when they travel or even from their hometowns, telling the children about their experiences.
5) Daily Life: Keeping the family involved in daily life, even if they are far away, is critical. My children’s great-grandmother likes to knit and often makes hats and scarves for the cold New York winters. My mother-in-law sent quilts she made to both of my children as they transitioned to beds. She also sewed a Halloween costume for my son last year.
Birthdays are, of course, important. My nephew and son have birthdays approximately a week apart. During the past two years, my brother, sister-in-law, and nephew have planned trips to New York around the birthdays and we have planned for our son’s birthday party to happen while they are here. We also arranged for them to visit my son’s classroom last year. Another way that we keep our families abreast of the children’s development is through emails. As I am a writer, I started writing long emails, even prior to my son’s birth, about his growth. Since then, I try to send monthly updates about some of the more exciting things that the children have done and I include recent photos. When there are particularly big events, like the first day of school or a first step, those photos go out immediately or are sometimes just texted.
The result of these efforts has been fruitful. Our children eagerly look forward to Skype calls or to visits. They talk about their family members with other people. They think of them when they are playing with toys that were sent for birthdays or holidays. And, ultimately, they feel connected to their family even if they are far away.