Pandemic Grandparenting, Beyond the Dreary Video Calls

As a veteran television journalist, Sally-Ann Roberts knows how to tame an unsteady landscape and will it into submission. She survived 40 years reporting and anchoring the news for WWL-TV in New Orleans, covering 10 races for mayor and in 2005, Hurricane Katrina, a storm that submerged four-fifths of the city in water and left her rebuilding her home for nearly two unforgiving years. But as far as grandparenting during the coronavirus pandemic, she says she’s met her match.

“I am not doing the job I should be doing as a grandparent,” she said.

“Before Covid, we’d have the five grandkids over for ‘Sunday Time,’ from the afternoon until after dark. I’d usually have time to take each one of them aside. Give them each undivided attention. Now, that’s ended. Now, that special time is rare. Now, when we get together, we can’t even sit at the same table.”

Ms. Roberts had a different kind of grandparenting in mind when she retired in 2018. Early on in the pandemic, she decided it would be safer for her and her family if she kept her distance. She reduced their visits from once a week, often more, to about once a month. Yet even when they do see each other, the need to wear masks and maintain physical distance has changed the quality of her interactions, she says, making conversations with her grandchildren more “transactional” and less meaningful. Conversations now with the oldest of her grandchildren, two boys, 5 and 12, center more on schedules and grades rather than deeper talks about faith and what she hopes for their future.

“They need me. Even if they don’t know it, they do,” Ms. Roberts said. “It’s important I let them know I see greatness in them,” she said.

Credit...Emily Kask for The New York Times
Credit...Emily Kask for The New York Times

Tashel Bordere, assistant professor of human development and family science at the University of Missouri and her wife, Dr. Kate Grossman, a pulmonologist, are raising their daughters, 14 and 3, in Columbia, Mo., hundreds of miles from their nearest set of parents. The last in-person visit their children had with any grandparent was in December.

“We invested heavily in plane tickets,” Dr. Bordere said of their pre-Covid-19 routine that included visiting or hosting her parents, who live in Louisiana, and her in-laws, who reside in New York. “We’d usually see one set of grandparents every other month.”

But Christmas 2019 ended up being their last face-to-face visit. Now it’s been 10 months since any part of the extended family has shared a meal, the couple canceling all vacations, including their usual spring and summer plans, because travel of any kind feels too risky. The latest AARP survey of grandparents, in 2019, suggests they’re not alone in making these kinds of decisions. More than “half of grandparents have at least one grandchild who lives more than 200 miles away,” the report found.

While some grandparents have been spending lots of time in the pandemic with their grandchildren, many of those who live at a distance are making do with video calls.

Dr. Bordere and Dr. Grossman say their daughters have replaced cuddles with their grandparents with far less satisfying virtual waves and kisses.

“We’re a diverse family. We’re a same-sex couple with children of color,” Dr. Bordere said. “Grandparents are essential for us because they give our children another set of people who reinforce their beauty and value. That’s harder to do on Zoom or FaceTime. The quality of our conversations has shifted,” she said, and although all of them have been trying, “the girls are missing out.”

Credit...Michael B. Thomas for The New York Times

Although many families are finding video calls dispiriting, child development experts urge parents and grandparents not to give up on them. Instead of stilted, office-style Zoom sessions, families can use digital connections in creative ways to foster more meaningful relationships, they say. Routine tasks, such as helping grandchildren with homework or listening to them sing or practice a musical instrument, have the capacity to build the most rewarding and enduring relationships.

“The way you get to a meaningful, deep relationship is by having a set of transactional relationships,” said Chuck Kalish, a cognitive and developmental psychologist and senior adviser for science at the Society for Research in Child Development. “The way a child will have a rich relationship with a grandparent is if that grandparent really is a resource in the child’s life.”

The key to heightening relationships right now is increasing the number of shared experiences grandparents and grandchildren have, experts say. There are a few simple ways to do this.

Grandparents have an opportunity to become part of their grandchild’s daily routine, even remotely. For older children, grandparents can be homework helpers and tutors. Dr. Arthur Lavin, a Cleveland pediatrician and chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics committee on psychosocial aspects of child and family health, has two granddaughters, one school age, who live in Hong Kong. “We see her lessons and we can comment on them. It’s actually strengthened our connection,” he said.

For younger children, AARP’s family and caregiving expert, Amy Goyer, suggests grandparents buy two copies of the same book, keeping one and mailing the other to their grandchild to read together over a video or phone call. “That could be Grandma’s job every night before the child goes to bed,” she suggested. “That establishes a routine. It’s their special thing. And it gives the parents a break.”

Grandparents can also strengthen their connections by bending to their grandchildren’s interests and allowing them to be their teachers. Remote online gaming is a perfect activity for this, Dr. Kalish said. “One of the things kids really like to do is feel super confident,” he said. “The fact they might be better at it than their grandparents, that can be super rewarding.” And the child who gets to play a game on a call with a grandparent — rather than being pulled away from a game when a grandparent calls — will probably see the call as a treat rather than a chore. “Grandparents have to be the grown-ups in this relationship,” Dr. Kalish said. “Kids are not going to come most of the way to meet the grandparents. The grandparents have to come most of the way to meet the kid.”

Credit...Michael B. Thomas for The New York Times

Grandparents may also pass along family history, culture and traditions via real-time cooking lessons, offering recipes and step-by-step instructions in their native language. “You could share your great-grandmother’s chocolate chip cookie recipe and agree to both make them and then eat them together on the phone,” offered Dr. Ken Ginsburg, director of programs at the Center for Parent and Teen Communication at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Dr. Ginsburg also suggests families ditch technology at times and fortify their bonds by sending letters. “It’s really important for children to know that adults think about them even when we’re not talking to them or present with them,” he said. Another upside of writing letters is that they can be saved, leaving open the possibility that grandchildren will reread them with new understanding and appreciation as they grow. Surprise packages also do the trick. “Everybody likes receiving packages,” Dr. Ginsburg said. “When you open it up, you’re literally reminded, someone was thinking about me.”

Parents may also encourage children to send art projects and drawings to grandparents.

These strategies may be worth keeping up even after the pandemic, because grandchildren and grandparents benefit from spending time together. In a special issue of the Journal of Contemporary Science in 2018, focusing on grandparents, researchers noted that “There is now a growing body of research that illustrates grandparent involvement is associated with improved mental health, improved resilience and pro-social behaviour in grandchildren.” Other research found that’s particularly important if their parents are divorced, separated or remarried. Likewise, the 2019 AARP survey found that grandparents who feel invested in the lives of their grandchildren enjoy better emotional and physical health.

To Ms. Roberts in New Orleans, this kind of purposeful relationship building feels urgent. “I’m losing time. I have fewer days ahead of me than I have behind me,” she said. “I need to make an impact.”

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