Keeping in Touch Long Distance

by Rachel Pieh Jones on March 4, 2015

Like pretty much all Life Overseas readers, my kids are growing up 12,290 miles from both sets of grandparents. Their aunts, uncles, and cousins are equally far away. Sometimes my youngest spends a month away from me in order to visit her grandparents. My oldest two attend boarding school. And yet, I think my kids have a pretty close relationship with their immediate and extended family. We’ve worked at it and with a lot of help from innovative and loving grandparents, have discovered creative ways to stay in touch beyond Skype and emails.

Photo Books

My mom and my mother-in-law are masters at designing gorgeous photo books and calendars that depict the times we do spend together. My kids spend hours pouring over these photo book and remembering. Those are the memories that stick, the ones they can continually revisit.

Daily Journals

When my youngest went to Minnesota for a month and I stayed in Djibouti, her grandmother had her keep a daily journal. Nothing fancy, but each night before going to bed, Lucy jotted down brief notes about what they did that day. Went to McDonald’s, caught three fish and threw them back, wrestled with Grandpa. When she came home, Lucy read through the entire journal with me so I wouldn’t miss a day.


Making Silly Bets

One grandpa sends out a group email to all the cousins and aunts and uncles and says, “What color shirt will Grandma wear on Friday? $2.00 to the person with the right answer.” Or, “Who will win the Vikings game and by how much? $3.00 for the closest guess.” “When will the Nerf dart finally fall off the window?” (answer: six years later) Emails flurry back and forth with bets, smack talk, and eventually, congratulations.

Intentional Visits

When we are in physical proximity, we make every attempt to see our family and to enjoy being together. My brother-in-law was recently in Nairobi and caught lunch with my son. In Minnesota, simple things like sleepovers and lazy afternoons at the lake. Fancier things like a marathon/half-marathon/5k race weekend together or paint ball battles. As possible, when significant life events occur like marriages and deaths and births, we make every attempt to be there or to send a family representative.

Interactive Experiences

One year my father instituted a Family Olympics, which was featured in Family Fun magazine. Each family had to walk a mile in their neighborhood and take note of everything they saw. We had watermelon seed spitting contests and timed how long we could collectively balance spoons on our noses. We emailed the larger group our results and kept score. Another year we had a Lego-building competition in which photos flew around the globe via email of creations using certain numbers of Legos. We spent months ahead of a scheduled in-person visit planning a talent show, videotaped it, and still watch our oh-so-talented family perform.

talent show

The most significant way our kids have kept in touch is experientially. All of the above suggestions move beyond talking over Skype into the realm of shared experience and that is where memories are built and treasured. That is where the family tie holds strong and, I hope, will continue to hold strong over the miles and the years.

How do you keep in touch with people far away? Especially kids?

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About Rachel Pieh Jones

Rachel was raised in the Christian west and said, ‘you betcha’ and ate Jell-O salads, she now lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Family Fun, Running Times, and more, and she blogs for Brain Child and Babble.
  • Kristi Lonheim

    Love the Olympics idea. I think intentionality is the key, whatever form it takes. I know that it is so much easier now than 20 years ago and for my daughter’s sake I am thankful for that!

  • Kim

    Love these ideas! Our grandkids are babies now, but as they get older we will definitely do some of these things as a way to keep in touch. Although in our case, it’s the grandparents who live overseas 🙂

  • Melinda Todd

    Wow, these are fantastic ideas. What a fun family you’ve been blessed with! Sharing this!

  • When we lived in SE Asia with our four young children, my Dad in rural North Carolina began writing a story with silly illustrations and mailed it to us. Then various of the older kids would write more of the story and send it back. This would go on for a year or so with snail mail, finally resulting in a completed story! Now my husband who is a very imaginative story teller, does this with our grandkids who live far away.
    Because we did not have Skype and phone calls were very expensive, we did a lot of audio tapes back and forth which are now very precious.

    I also had my kids write one of the grandparent couples every week, or the younger ones drew a picture. The grandparents then got something twice a month at least, with stuff to put on the fridge and everything.

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