Can You Be a Virtual Grandparent?

I got an email today from a friend seeking advice for a fellow church-member who has grandchildren literally all over the globe, including in Europe and Africa. The man very much wants to have a good relationship with each of his grandchildren, but the distance is a daunting challenge. I told my friend that the internet has literally changed the face of long-distance grandparenting - you can see your grandchildren's faces, for example, and they can see yours, while you talk with them in real time through your computer. But while it's a powerful technology, does it really make a powerful connection across the generations?

They're Here!

Like millions of American kids, I did not live near my grandparents growing up. While they were only one state away, it still took more than five hours to drive to them. We wrote letters to each other, though, and talked on the phone every Sunday. Those things were fun for me, but they were no substitute for feeling their hugs and seeing their loving faces smiling down on me. When my grandparents came to visit, hearing "They're here!" from whoever had been posted as lookout brought me such excitement that to this day I get that same feeling whenever I hear those words. I wonder, though - if my grandparents and I had the opportunity to connect in the ways that families can through the internet today, would I have been any closer to them? Or would they have visited less?

In the past, when your first grandchild was born, the only equipment you purchased might have been a high chair and crib to prepare your house for young visitors. More recently, video cameras have been added to the list, to help document grandchildren's progress. And today, new grandparents tell us that when a new arrival comes, they upgrade their personal computers to ensure that they have built-in webcams to teleconference with the new baby.

Do all those bytes close the gap? According to AARP research, grandparents say the greatest barrier to building relationships with grandchildren is distance. Marian Robinson, the First Grandmother-elect, has reportedly made the decision many other grandmothers have made - to move out of her home, at least temporarily, and follow her daughter and granddaughters to Washington so she doesn't have to give up her time with them.

Many other long-distance grandparents don't have the option of moving near their families. Even Robinson will still have two long-distance grandchildren in Oregon. For these grandparents, maintaining relationships with kids can be extremely challenging - that's why we have an entire section devoted to the experience on Not only do long-distance grandparents tell us that they miss seeing their grandchildren grow up with their own eyes, they also miss the activities that help build lasting connections - like knitting, fishing, baking, or just playing cards. Even with regular virtual contact, when grandparents and grandchildren lack common experiences, they have a tougher time establishing a life-long bond.

Seeking Connection

It's not for lack of trying, though. Long-distance grandparents have come up with creative ways to keep in touch - from sending care packages on almost any occasion to making elaborate preparations for summer or holiday-season visits to supplying kids with the tools to become their pen pals.

And, of course, they use technology. The approach varies depending on the age of grandchildren and the skill of the grandparent, but we've found that people adapt quickly when motivated by the chance to see a grandchild live on their screen. Young children love watching a DVD of their grandparent reading a bedtime story to them while they follow along at home with their own copy of the picture book. Grade-schoolers enjoy mastering the technology to send photos back and forth to grandparents, and tweens and teens bond while maintaining family websites together, or even texting or playing video games online. No matter the medium, grandparents say, the key is finding out what the kids are into, showing an interest, and finding a way to do it together.

Reality Rules

A Thanksgiving day New York Times article tracked several grandparents as they communicated with young grandchildren via webcams. According to the Times, some of the grandparents even act as virtual babysitters, keeping kids' attention focused on the screen while parents focus their attention on work or chores. Some of the Times' subjects reported that their frequent virtual "visits" made their rare in-person visits less awkward because grandchildren had become more familiar with them. On the other hand, at least one mom noticed that her own mother visits less often now because of her frequent online time with her grandchildren.

But there's no online substitute for hugging, helping with bath time, or braiding pigtails. Nothing can replace the experience of holding preschoolers' hands and feeling their energy. There's no virtual proxy for your grandchildren seeing the world from your shoulders and, frankly, there's no substitute for them witnessing you age gracefully in person.

Technology can help give your grandchildren an idea of who you are, and vice versa. It can make infrequent visits fuller because you have had a level of regular contact. But don't allow virtual reality to replace the face-to-face. Just like vitamins are only a supplement to nourishing food, technology is only a supplement to the shared experiences that make the grandparent-grandchild relationship so special.