Digital grandparenting is a growing trend as over half of U.S. grandparents (52 percent) have grandchildren living 200+ miles away, and a third over 50 miles away. And COVID has increased separation even when family members live in the same city. According to one report, since the pandemic began, “70 million U.S. grandparents faced the emotionally wrenching part of stopping the spread by maintaining physical distance from their grandkids.”
My story is a little different, but I’m still part of this trend. My daughter took a job in Salt Lake City, Utah, moving away with her family, including my grandson, Little Arthur. This was a dramatic shift as she’s an Australian, and I live in Melbourne.
She left a year ago, and there were tears at the airport but also reassurances. “You love to travel,” she said. “ We’ll have a spare bedroom. You can come and stay.”
COVID hit and borders closed. Now family cohesion relies on virtual hugs. So as a grandparent, I have embraced technology to grandparent from afar. Here are some tips on how to do this.
1. Use Facebook Messenger
As well as allowing us to keep up with posts on what’s happening in family's lives, Facebook has a messenger function. It’s much quicker and more immediate than emailing.
“Are you up for a chat?”
“Ring you in five.”
Messenger’s audio and visual capacities allow for video calling.
Editor’s Note: Depending on where you are and what apps you use, other good options are Google Hangouts, Instagram (which also has a private messaging and 1:1 video function), WeChat, and “old-fashioned” text messaging.
2. Try Messenger Kids
Some parents put Messenger Kids onto kids’ devices. Features include funny filters, games, and stickers. When a grandchild wants to talk to Grandma or vice versa, the Messenger Kids app provides direct access. For safety reasons, a parent or caregiver sets up the child’s contact list.
A mother explains one use of this app. “My son loves the drawing game as a way to connect with his grandparents in the UK. Every day, he logs in and is prompted to draw one of three simple pictures. He sends this to his grandparents, and when they wake up, they see if they can guess what the picture is. It's cute and a way for them to talk each day without needing to say much.”
3. Adopt Zoom Or Google Meet
If you remember the opening credits to The Brady Bunch, the Zoom concept will already be familiar. The video conferencing app has risen to prominence during the pandemic. It allows people to meet online for their staff meetings, book groups, and even yoga classes.
Best to get the most techie person in your family (and that might well be you) to set up the first meeting. Then simply follow the prompts.
My first Zoom session was a comedy sketch. “I can see you! Can you see me?” and “Mom, we can’t lip read. Turn on your audio.”
But it’s worth persevering as Zoom can bring scattered family members together.
Google Meet is a similar but easier-to-use option without the restriction of the 40-minute time limit of Zoom’s free version. My daughter chose this platform for Arthur’s third birthday. Australian friends and relatives joined them in singing him “Happy Birthday” and watching him blow out his candles.
While it worked, we have some tips to pass on. When people don’t know each other, introduce them. And keep groups to a manageable size.
My daughter is presently organizing a virtual baby shower for the birth of her second son. Gifts are organized virtually through Amazon Baby Registry. This time she will break attendees into smaller groups such as her local mothers’ group and workmates, then the Australian mob of friends and family including grandparents.
Editor’s Note: MyRegistry is another fantastic virtual registry option that allows for the curation of lists featuring products and services listed on any website, including but not limited to Amazon.
4. Vary Your Options
It’s best to use the option your children choose. No good sticking with old standbys like Skype when they have moved on to new terrain.
It also pays to have access to a couple of platforms. The other night, I had a video call with another branch of my family. It was set for 7 p.m. so we could sit down to dinner virtually even though we live on different sides of town. We started on Messenger using propped-up iPads, but the sound was terrible. I raced upstairs for my laptop, thinking it might be clearer. By the time I returned, my daughter-in-law had emailed me a Zoom link. This platform worked better, and we had a great catch up.
5. Navigate A Virtual Relationship
Most of my friends find their grandkids are happy to say hello but anxious to get back to playing or more exciting screens -- ones that don’t ask annoying questions like “What did you do today?”
My daughter hands Arthur the phone expecting us to spend quality time together. Arthur shoves the phone into one of his toy trucks, parks it in a wardrobe, and shuts the door where I’m completely in the dark. When my daughter returns, she asks, “Where’s Nan?” and rescues me.
It’s best to laugh. Toddlers rarely wish to converse with adults when they could be playing.
6. Move During Sessions
The best sessions with my grandson are when I am out walking. I turn my phone screen around and we play games of spotting certain colored cars. If I am near the railway, I show him the train pulling into the station. You could do something similar indoors, taking them on a virtual house tour, introducing them to your pet dog, and showing them the family photos on the wall. Kids love seeing their parents as babies.
7. Find The Right Presents
My grandparents lived in England, so sadly, I never met them. But one Nana sent me a jigsaw map of the UK with scenes on it like Land’s End and Stonehenge. I was obsessed with that puzzle, hoping one day to travel to this country I associated with her.
That puzzle made me realize how we make connections with grandkids through thoughtful gift giving.
Even through virtual connections, we can still note their interests. Arthur has put “me” in so many trucks, I knew he would be delighted with a toy garbage truck with bins that tipped. And I’m looking out for that perfect jigsaw puzzle of Australia for when he's older.
8. Build Up An Arsenal Of Props
Bring up the old toy box from the basement. Or have finger puppets you can walk across the screen. Arthur’s grandfather uses a tissue as a pretend ghost that Arthur scares away. Or bring out a teddy bear that asks to have a chat with their teddy. Some grandparents keep a supply of funny wigs and hats so the sessions start with a laugh. Or accessorize your look virtually with backgrounds and filters.
9. Play Games
Technology enables us to play with our grandkids. Babies from around five months love to play peekaboo, and litties love action songs like “Heads, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” and “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Toddlers enjoy making pretend cups of coffee. Pretend to take and enjoy whatever they’re offering when they bring it close to the screen. Have indoor scavenger hunts. “Find me something square, something blue, and” in my grandson’s case, “something with wheels”. Or play I Spy, Rock Paper Scissors, or charades.
10. Try Virtual Storytimes
Holding up a physical book is a little clunky. On Readeo, share digital pages and your face appears on the screen as you read. On Caribu, read stories to the under sevens, and there’s a shared whiteboard space for sketching. Storybird provides pictures. You make up a story with your grandchild before printing off your coauthored book.
11. Keep Up Regular Contact
For some families this is weekly. Others prefer spontaneous chats. An Instagram friend in Sydney has teenage grandchildren aged 13 and 16 living in Hong Kong. “Apart from regular FaceTime, I connect with them via WhatsApp,” she said. “We call it Chats with Nanny, where the three of us interact. I connect with them individually as well. They’re both interested in politics and human rights as well as the occasional funny dog or cat videos. We’re in touch on a daily basis if only to say hi. Any contact keeps you close.”
12. Take The Pressure Off
“Any contact keeps you close,” has become my new mantra. Contact needn't be formal. Shoot off a random joke, riddle, or compliment. “Wow, I heard you rode your bike for the first time.” I send photos of construction sites I’m walking past because Arthur loves diggers. At three, he doesn’t reply. And later, I expect flippant replies like “Cool” from him as a teenager. But it is through digital connections we maintain and build these relationships.
13. Go With The Flow
Not every digital call results in meaningful exchanges. Grandkids may not want to talk and busy families can’t always stop to converse. So you end up watching a lot of teeth brushing or hot chocolate making as if you were actually visiting. Go with the flow. The world has changed. Back in the day when you phoned someone, it was about undivided attention. Now with virtual communications, it's about entering the portal into your family’s daily life.
14. Count Your Blessings
It’s with feelings of both heart-wrench and gratitude that I look forward to the first virtual sighting of my newborn grandchild. It may be a long time before I get to hold him, but technology ensures we won't ever be strangers.
For more inspiration, check out
- 18 Great Reads For Travel Lovers
- Edinburgh To London: How My First COVID-Era Flight Went
- Experiencing The Double Bubble: My First 2020 Vacation
Editor’s Note: The term digital grandparenting and the facts about U.S. grandparenting and grandparenting during the pandemic referenced in the first paragraph of this article come from the New York Times, AARP, and Senior Planet, respectively.