Building bonds between kids and grandparents—wherever they are

Whether they're separated by miles or pandemic protocols, kids still need a relationship with their grandparents. Here's how to nuture one that lasts.

To stay connected with her kids’ pandemic-isolated grandparents, Lisa Mogolov and her husband host weekly video cooking calls. One family chooses the ingredients, and everyone uses them to prepare a meal in their Boston and Kansas City homes. It’s clever, it’s loving, and … it’s not working. “Our kids get very shy and want to hide,” Mogolov says. “Usually it just winds up being me and David talking to his parents.”

Even before COVID-19 sent older adults into hiding, grandparents and great-grandparents could often seem like strangers to kids. Contact might involve gifts of toys meant for someone a tad younger, forced piano performances by parents, really bad jokes, and even worse fashion choices. So figuring out what to say to those out-of-touch people through a camera can be hard. “I think it can be a lot of pressure for kids,” Mogolov says.

Yet keeping up with older relatives has mental and physical health benefits for everyone, whether you’re checking in on someone during a pandemic or just encouraging better relationships with your kids. That’s especially critical now, so that the lessons and stories from older generations can continue to be passed down before they’re forgotten.

“I think that right now, we have a population that is anxious, and there’s so much unknown up in the air,” says Jenna Hauss, director of strategic initiatives and community-based services at ONEgeneration in Reseda, California. “This is a perfect opportunity for older adults to bring the sense that everything is going to be OK.”

The benefits

According to studies, older adults who participate in intergenerational programming show more optimism, better self-care, and even lower premature mortality rates. And a strong relationship between grandchildren and grandchildren can ease depressive tendencies in both adults and kids, according to research cited by Thomas Cudjoe, assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine division of geriatric medicine and gerontology.

Having an actual relationship with a grandparent can also help children develop qualities that make all-around great citizens, including empathy. “Children are wired to be me, me, me,” says Tina-Anne Praas of SKIP, an Ontario-based organization that brings together students and older adults. “When they see a person who’s experienced life stages, it pulls them away from that thinking. They can gain some worldly perspective.”

Being close with a grandparent can also help children develop communication and even cognitive skills, especially when they’re able to learn about and compare their experiences with a grandparent’s. And it doesn’t carry the pressure of talking to a parent. “For young people, it’s about understanding, being able to compare and learn—and feel some comfort,” Hauss says.

She adds that she’s seen that firsthand through ONEgeneration’s Sages and Seekers program, which connects high school seniors to older adults. She describes students who were worried about life after graduation eagerly listening to older adults sharing their own experiences from the same phase of life, 50-plus years ago.

Good grandparent relationships might even help to steer a kid’s life path. “My interactions with my grandparents inspired me to become a physician,” Cudjoe says. “They inspired my work on why social connections are so important.”

Making it happen

Getting started—whether on or off the screen—can be the hardest part. “If you aren't as familiar with each other, then the yes-or-no questions can be deadly,” says Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that works on intergenerational programs and public policy issues. Even before stay-at-home orders were in place, program directors like her realized that putting people in a room together and waiting for magic to happen wasn't enough. “Activity is what brings generations together,” she says. “They bond more quickly around a project, something that both can create or solve and do together.” Here are some ideas to get started.

Take a hike. Getting on a video call outside is an ideal choice for a kid who won’t sit still or gets camera shy. “People are taking walks or hikes and [video chatting] at the same time,” Butts says. “They're describing what they're seeing, what they're experiencing; the technology moves with you to help mix that up.”

Send instructions. Butts knows one grandparent who’s a master gardener and sent materials and how-to info to her grandchild in advance of their call. That way they could plant together during their meetings. (As the relationship blossoms, so will the garden.) “Or a grandparent can teach a child a family recipe,” Butts suggests. By having the recipe arrive ahead of time, you can gather ingredients and prepare questions in advance: Why is this recipe important to the family? How did Grandma learn to make this? What did ingredients cost back then?

Grow roots. Starting a family tree is a great opportunity to learn history and get to know grandparents better. Create as many branches as possible in advance, then leave question marks for the grandparents to help fill in blanks. Your kids can feel like detectives as they ask about their great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. They might find out their artistic talent came from Great-Grandpa Max the sign painter, or that their sports skills sound just like football star Cousin Ray’s. And if your kids have a theatrical bent, how about dressing up to recreate an old family photo? Praas suggests sending the pic to the grandparents along with a funny note.

Get gossipy. Sharing “infamous” family stories is another good conversation starter. Get started by asking your parents or in-laws to help you retell a story you remember—say, that dinner when a six-year-old you cracked your first crab claw and accidentally lobbed it at your dad. If the story involves you, your kids will likely be extra-interested. (Get ready for a few guffaws at your expense!) Think about other questions kids can ask that might lead to good gossip, like what a grandparent’s most embarrassing moment was.

Give back. Both sides can feel fulfillment through home-based volunteer projects. Grandparents can troubleshoot tricky pleats or hems while sewing non-medical masks to donate, or help younger kids (or those without a sewing machine) with a no-sew mask. Even kids too young to fold masks can give back. When ONEgeneration volunteers deliver meals to older adults, they include drawings from preschoolers. Your kids can follow suit by mailing (or texting!) their masterpieces.

Speak their language. Teaching a language is a special skill many grandparents can offer, especially if your family comes from a rich immigrant culture. And you can discover more than just spoken languages. Butts remembers a story from one of her staff members. “Her grandfather was deaf, so the whole family knew sign language,” she says. “So now her father is teaching her son sign language once a week on a video chat. That will stay with him all his life.”