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Virtual Grandparenting 101

“Virtual grandparenting” has gone from an occasional option to a necessity, if we want to maintain regular contact and feel like a presence in our family’s lives. What is the best way to do this?

Few grandparents are lucky enough to live in the same region as their children. Even outside of Corona time, we live in Connecticut, in the US, or in Orvieto, Italy, while our son lives in Slovenia. It’s either a 7-hour flight or a 7-hour drive to visit our granddaughters, aged 5 and 7, and their parents. But during the pandemic, this sense of isolation for an indefinite period of time made us look for alternative ways to connect with our grandchildren.

This means that “virtual grandparenting” has gone from an occasional option to a necessity, if we want to maintain regular contact and feel like a presence in our family’s lives. So what is the best way to do this?

Long-Distance Lessons

One way to look at it is that this can be a good time for grandparents to share their passions and talents. In the case of my husband and myself who began our own relationship fifty years ago over four-hand piano duets, long-distance music lessons for our granddaughters via Facetime have been rewarding. When we were all together we gave them a brief start at playing piano in the way we learned it. Now they’re progressing on their own via computer. Having planted the seed, we are delighted to watch their progress. And maybe the distance protects everyone from being too pushy about approaching the instrument “our way.”

This extended at-home period has been an extra incentive for us grandparents to be on the lookout for possible activities to do together, and to get more comfortable with the technology that will bring us together safely. For example, despite being computer challenged, I discovered a special button on YouTubes that allowed me to pause or slow down a fantastic drawing video to a speed where my old-timer self could follow along with it and match the kids’ superior dexterity. 

Using YouTube as a Medium

I want to say a bit more about this particular activity that was such a hit with all of us—a 5-year-old, a 7-year-old, and two 73-year-olds. It’s called “How to draw animals with your hand.” 

Another one that uses a similar concept is “24 Drawing Tricks for Kids.”

Of course, we had to do them all, and here’s how we went about it. My husband, who understands technology more than I, volunteered to control the YouTube while we three “girls” were the wannabe-artists who, following the brilliant artist on the screen, traced our own hand and miraculously turned it into an animal. So what if they were 4148 miles away in Slovenia while I was in New Haven, Connecticut? Among the many features that made this so engaging was that the three of us were doing it together in “real time,” after which we could compare and comment on each other’s “masterpieces.”

What made a difference for my slowpoke self was that in addition to the button I mentioned earlier that allows you to slow down the speed of any video, I also found it very useful to be able to stop the tape and advance it in short intervals at will. (We old timers may not be as quick as our granddaughters, so the extra time to set up the hand in the proper position really helped me.)

This activity leant itself to many variations. It occurred to me that we could do it as a version of charades, which appealed more to younger granddaughter “B,” for whom the quick drawing was difficult.

My idea was to stop the video before the animal being drawn was revealed. Everyone could try to guess what it was going to be, and we were usually surprised, which was part of the excitement. Another variation would be to imagine what other things could be drawn from a particular hand position, which was part of the creative brilliance of this concept. If we liked the idea of an alternative animal that might emerge from the same hand position, then we could try on our own to draw it.

After completing each animal drawing, we enjoyed praising each other’s work, but we especially liked the idea of taking photos of all of our efforts of the day—usually four or five different drawings. My son has written a parenting book (Superpower Your Kids: A Professor’s Guide to Teaching Your Kids Everything in Just 15 Minutes a Day, which is available for pre-order on Kickstarter) in which he recommends “lessonlets,” miniature lessons taught in the form of games, that are best limited to 15 minutes maximum. With this in mind, trying to keep activities short and fun, we agreed that each of us would photograph our animal drawings and email them to each other to form our own picture gallery. This would then be a chance to document and compare our work. I’m keeping these as a record of the good times we had creating our own menagerie.

Adjusting for Various Ages and Interests

That one of our granddaughters is five and the other seven brings me to the topic of sibling issues and how this time with our grandchildren can offer a chance to deal creatively with sibling differences in age, style, talents, interests, and personality via individual activities as well as those aimed at a mixed group.

Here, I’m thinking of how when we are all together it’s a bit like the multi-levels of the old one-room schoolhouse. When that works well, there can be a sense of leadership and mastery for some, and learning opportunities for others. But if there are enough adults to go around, there can be different paired combinations of a grandparent and grandchild that allow an interaction to be tailored to the moment and interest of each child. 

Coloring Together as a Point of Departure for More

We’ve been able to capitalize on the local resource of the Yale British Art Center which offers child-centered activities to anyone who accesses its free site. One day I got a mailing from them that offered a template of a painting from their collection to download and color.

I was thinking that that might be a relaxing, non-competitive activity to try—either just with young B or with everybody.

The idea would be for each of us to color the painting after which we could photograph or hold up and compare our masterpieces. In this case, it was an 1818 Turner painting of a sailing vessel on the water.

I realized that the activity could be done in a number of different ways. First, without the girls seeing what the original looked like so they wouldn’t be tempted to copy it.

Then there are imaginative questions that could be asked in relation to the painting: “If you were on a ship like that, where would you like to travel to?”

“What would it feel like to be on that ship? Do you think you would like it?”

There’s the history of different types of boats that could brought up: clipper ships, schooners, packet boats, Man-Of-War ships, and more.

And, of course, the history of artist Turner and what else was going on in the art world then.

The second template to become available was of a 1600 painting of Queen Elizabeth I in full costume of the period.

Next came an 1846 painting of an animal tamer in a cage with his beasts.

A George Stubbs 1763 painting of a zebra could not only be colored, but also turned into a cutout paper sculpture that could move. The instructions were accompanied by a short history of how zebras got to England from South Africa, and explained that most people then thought zebras were just horses with stripes!

I hope that someday our granddaughters will visit this museum and see some of the paintings they colored.

Exploring the Natural World from Home

Among the surprises that have come our way as unwittingly sexist grandparents has been finding out that our girls are even more excited about dinosaurs than their father was. Our online visits have offered a chance to broaden their interests and ours—to branch out from dinosaurs to bird calls via brilliant apps that let them click on a bird to hear its song. We found three sites that we all liked. The first was a homey-looking YouTube, clearly a labor of love, that featured mini-videos of 18 different birds.

Another had drawings of 50 birds presented in squares that little fingers could not resist clicking on.

But perhaps best of all was the interactive site, “Discover River Birds” from Barcelona’s Museu del Ter. It features beautifully colored drawings of 30 birds in their natural habitat. No need to even click on anything. As the cursor passes over each bird, it bursts into song. I decided which were my favorites, and we liked comparing our choices.

Give a Tour of Whatever is Happening Near You

I wanted to describe just these few activities that are designed by professionals, but you can also make the most of what may be happening at the moment at grandma and grandpa’s. For example, we made use of a dramatic home repair event occurring just outside our window. While Grandpa Jim was reading to the kids, workers happened to be shoring up our fire escape stairs for the building. I grabbed my phone to make a video because I thought it might be intriguing for our granddaughters to see the smoke and sparks flying and then try to figure out what might be going on out there. It was a real-life version of the charades that our younger granddaughter adores. They were fascinated and enjoyed figuring out what those sparks were all about.

Similarly, we love seeing what’s going on outside their window. Everyone’s experience is different and not everyone has Slovene grandkids whose other grandma and great-grandparents live on farmland that feels exotic to us city slickers. We watched fascinated as they picked cherries, yellow raspberries, and ate red currants over ice cream. Last week we saw them watching rented baby goats being unloaded onto the property to serve as living lawnmowers. Then there were the baby chicks and newborn kittens. Each change of scene stimulates questions and conversation.

Grandparents Can “Babysit” Even from Afar

Although it’s tempting for even the best-intentioned working parents to let the kids “go with the flow,” as retirees we feel good about giving our son and daughter-in-law some welcome time off that can feel like a break—a chance for them to get some work done or just have some private time. Structure and routine can be good even when there are large blocks of time to fill. Our elder 7-year-old granddaughter had morning homework to complete, but she and her sister looked forward to spending some “Grandparent time” with us, which felt like a reward. Like the 15-minute “lessonlets” of Superpower Your Kids, to have these short, lively visits on the agenda has been energizing for all of us.

Let the Kids Be the Stars that They Are

A key takeaway from our Grandparent Time has been a reminder that kids enjoy being a star. I was reminded of how important it is to be a good audience and to encourage them to photograph their own creations. If we watch an activity in progress, we say how eager we are to see the final or next step. If they’re cooking, I say I wish I were there to lick the bowl (and I’m not kidding!). When I saw 5-year-old “B” having a bit of trouble getting her thick, yummy batter that looked like chocolate pudding into the cupcake cups, I asked if the MasterChef junior knew the trick of using a second, separate spoon or spatula to help get stuff off the first spoon. I loved watching her sing along as she worked. Our own singing baker! And a pretty neat one at that! 

Cooking Long-Distance

And while we’re on the topic of food, I must confess to our being pretty obsessed “foodies.” An idea was floated that we grandparents could make an archive of short videos of family recipes with the grandkids. This struck me as a great way to cover more than one agenda. I’m thinking that an activity like this would appeal to grandparents in general who are looking for a way to remain part of their grandkids’ lives. Our first attempt, however, now affectionately known as the “Messy Macaroon Massacre,” was far from a success. Even though we had never had problems with this recipe before, major and very (different!) things went wrong on both sides of the Atlantic. But we all had a great time anyway, comparing fiascos and our respective fixes for them.

Fortunately, there’s more than one recipe in our repertoire, and many family traditions and keepsakes that we’d like to transmit as part of our legacy. Of course, to be a grandparent brings many joys along with increased awareness of the life cycle. But we love the idea of superpowering our grandkids and especially the motto that accompanies the book: “Don’t count the days, make the days count.”   

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Dr. Diane Joy Charney is a professor of French, recently retired from Yale University. She is working on a book, Letters to Men of Letters, in which she writes to famous authors about their work and influence on her life. This article is an excerpt from a chapter in the forthcoming Superpower Your Kids: A Professor’s Guide to Teaching Your Kids Everything in Just 15 Minutes a Day, which is available for pre-order on Kickstarter, and is written by her son, Noah Charney.

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