Staying Connected with Far Away Family

The following post is by contributor Catherine Way.

I live in Darwin in North Australia.  My in-laws live around the corner from us.  My parents live in Canberra, in the south of Australia. My sister lives in Singapore.  My sister- and brother-in-law live in California, USA.  In today”s society, this is a common arrangement. Many people live far away from their extended family.

How can you stay in touch when your family is spread around the country or around the world?  Does this mean that your children miss out on important connections with family?

There are plenty of ways to stay connected with far away family.  And as an added bonus, while you connect with family around the world, your children have an authentic reason to learn about geography and cultural differences.

Sign up for Skype

Skype is a free service that lets you message and video chat with other people on Skype.  Even my most tech-phobic relatives love Skype once they have it set up and working on their computer.  And these days you can also have Skype on your mobile phone.  Skype also allows you make cheaper international phone calls to non-Skype users.

With Skype you can video chat and instantly show off your child”s new haircut or their latest artwork.  It lets relatives be nearly “in the room” for birthday or holiday celebrations.  My family love to call relatives on their birthday and sing “Happy Birthday” on Skype.

Try other types of social media

Video calling through Skype is a fantastic way to chat with relatives, but I am also in the habit of using Facebook on my phone to keep up to date with my sister and sister-in-law.  By checking Facebook regularly, I can have almost real-time updates about the bits and pieces that are important in their lives right now.

Through Facebook I hear that my sister has gone to Vietnam for a couple of days for work, or that my sister-in-law is in the middle of a long power outage.  And I can see photos of some of these events very quickly too.

Start a blog

I first started blogging as a way to share family photos and stories with family and friends without having to send ten different emails.  It also lets you show lots of different photos without having to worry about attachments and file sizes.  Through my personal blog, family and friends know what we are interested in at the moment and can leave comments.

Send gifts that promote connection

If my niece and nephew lived around the corner, I would probably give them the usual toys for their birthdays and other occasions. But since my niece and nephew are on the other side of the world, I have the chance to send some unique gifts that represent atoledo the Australian environment and culture.  

For example, I give books by Australian authors, Australian music or Australian animal figurines.  There are lots more possibilities – a boomerang, maybe – as my niece and nephew get older. These gifts are sure to make my niece and nephew think of me and my family when they use them and they help my niece and nephew to learn about our family and life in Australia.

And now that my children are old enough to participate in gift giving, we often hand-make unique gifts for family, like the embroidered children”s handprints for my mum or artwork painted by the children on canvas.  This brings a little bit of us into relative”s homes.  At the moment, we are writing and illustrating a book of our family”s favourite songs and nursery rhymes to send to my niece and nephew.

Find ways to bring far away relatives into your home

You could invite them to come and stay, but that is not always financially possible.  However, you can have their photographs on your bookshelves or in an accessible photo album.

You can tell your children about these relatives by sharing your memories often.  When you make biscuits, talk about how you always used to bake biscuits with your mum when you were growing up.  When your children fight, tell them about the time you tricked your sister.

Put up a map in your home and mark where important family and friends live.  Have theme dinners or collect mementos from those places to help your children understand what it is like where their relatives live.

Keep up with the interests of your far flung relations. For example, my brother-in-law follows baseball.  He gave my sons baseball gloves, a bat and a ball.  And even though baseball is not a popular sport in Australia, they love to play baseball and sometimes we try and watch a game on TV.

When my son”s are old enough I hope they will want to go on an adventure and stay with their overseas aunties.  The effort that I put into connecting with family now enriches my life and my children”s lives now and into the future.

How do you connect with distant family?

About Catherine

Catherine Way is mum to two boys living in North Australia. They read lots, run lots, love to learn new things and are good at finding fun and mischief. Catherine blogs about her family adventures and passion for lifelong learning at Indirect Observations.

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  1. Somewhere In NSW says:

    Lovely to see an article from an Australian contributor.

  2. I really enjoyed reading today’s post. I live in NYC with my husband and 18 mos old son but our family is scattered across the country – with immediate relatives (grandparents, aunts, uncles etc.) in the rocky mountain west. The long distance is hard enough as it is, I can’t imagine making it work in an age where we couldn’t Skype, blog, text and instant message. The fact that I can take a picture on the playground and immediately send it to my little guy’s grandparents is a life-saver.
    TheActorsWife´s latest post: a child’s love for whole food

  3. Does anyone else hate video-chatting with relatives? We live overseas, and the rest of our family lives in the US. We have only been over here about a month, but in that short amount of time, I have come to hate skyping. It seems awkward, and the conversations seem forced. (I think the slight voice/video delay contributes to this.) Our two little ones are constantly trying to punch buttons on the computer, or mess with the webcam. Calls are stressful and rarely include actual conversations. Maybe the grandparents like to see the grandkids (which is good!), but I would much rather just talk on the phone. Any tips to improve our time on skype?

    • Here’s what I’ve come around to with Skype: It is EXCELLENT for building bonds and starting communication patterns with little ones and their relatives. We live in Texas, everyone else in our family lives in Indiana, but because of Skype I believe our kids (they are 4 and 1) have a great relationship with their cousins, aunts and uncles, and grandparents. They are not strangers whenever we see them in person and I think that’s great. I also get to see all of my little nieces and nephews and I LOVE being able to see them grow.

      That said, it IS awkward to talk on Skype – I think one reason is because of the little ones. They aren’t great at sitting still, holding up their end of the conversation, or doing anything besides being silly and yelling. You’re right. It’s not a great conversation. BUT these are the same type of interactions little kids would have with relatives if they were face-to-face. There’s no way even these strange interactions would take place over the phone. Both of my kids will say ‘hi’ on the phone and until recently that would have been the end of the conversation. At least with Skype, they’ll sit and interact for a little while longer and maybe sing a song. My 4-year-old is starting to ‘get it’ now. Times on Skype with her are a lot less awkward. A lot less of me trying to coach her through a conversation, encouraging her to sit still, and apologizing to relatives for out of character and inappropriate craziness :).

      The other reason it’s awkward is that you have to sit still and do nothing. I do all my catching up on the phone so that I can do dishes, clean, whatever while talking. The Skyping is for the kids and the phone is for me.

      Keep practicing – it will probably get better!

      • We use Skype all the time. It’s great for Grands that live in Michigan and Hawaii and Aunts that are in Colorado and we are in Texas. Our son is 22 months, too young to get it. We usually just put the camera on him playing in the living room so they can watch while we talk. You do have to keep adjusting the camera but it’s worth it that they can see his first steps and how he plays the drums. My parents use Skype to read to another grandchild every week. She came to visit this week and there was no aquardness becase she knew what they looked like and knew them.

    • My family found Skype awkward at first too – and there is a lot of toying with the connection and so on. We try not to worry to much, if it’s not working we let it go.
      The phone is better than Skype for chatting. But you can use Skype for others to interact with your children by reading and singing, by letting your kids show toys or artwork they have done and to show new skills. That just can’t be done on the phone. And my kids never say much more than hello on the phone anyway.
      Catherine´s latest post: help your child learn to jump rope

    • I agree with others that video chatting on Skype may not be the best way to have a quality conversation, but it IS awesome for the kids. We live in Ukraine, and my kids interact almost weekly with their great grandpa in Hawaii. I know those times are one of the highlights of the week for my grandpa, and my kids love it too. When you go three years between visits with family, this type of interaction is invaluable. Great Grandpa is a friend and a familiar face to my kids, so when we finally see him in person this winter, I know it won’t be awkward at all.

      But there are two other another uses for Skype that no one has mentioned.

      First of all, through Skype, you can participate in important events half a world away. My husband’s grandma in Kentucky died this week, and we were able to “attend” her memorial service AND graveside service via Skype on an iPad 3G that belonged to someone who was physically present at both services.

      Secondly, you can use the conference call feature on Skype to have a mini family reunion electronically. Our family is scattered across three continents, and many of us recently connected on a Skype conference call (after all our kids were in bed, so we were actually able to carry on normal conversation) and had a wonderful time talking, reminiscing, and rehashing long-standing family jokes. It was so enjoyable that we agreed to do it again soon. And had we done it with Google+, we would have been able to video conference. We might try that sometime when the kids are awake, so that all the cousins can see each other. (Skype does not support video conference calls.)

  4. Great ideas! My brother, who lives in Colorado (we live in North Carolina), is great at keeping those connections alive with me and my daughters.
    He travels a lot around the US Southwest for work, so about once a month he sends my girls a postcard just touching base. I bought some blank artist’s postcards so that she can draw him pictures and send them back.
    A few times he has sent me homemade CDs of songs he thought I would like. He has even made them for my daughters. I love discovering his choices and I enjoy having something new to listen to in the car (we live in a rural area where I can’t get much on the radio and we don’t have satellite radio). Now that I have an Ipod (finally) I can even put his CD’s on my Ipod to carry to work.
    And of course we also keep up on Facebook, where he frequently posts photos of his work sites (he’s an archeologist) and I frequently post photos of the children. Sometimes my daughters will ask me to post a message or a joke on his wall. They love it when I read them the comments from his friends.
    wesleyjeanne´s latest post: #255

  5. I am finding that many of those wonderful art projects that come home from Kindy make lovely ‘gifts’ to send overseas. Miss 4 is delighted that the paintings are distributed to people she loves, and I assume that our overseas family is happy to get them! Plus, it reduces the number of art projects that we need to store at home – just the special ones.
    Looking forward to reading everyone else’s suggestions!

  6. We live in Kenya and all of our family is in the Southern US. I agree with the comment about how awkward skype can be – especially with our less than fast internet. However, I do think having my kids 2,3,5 SEE their grandparents is huge. It has definitely gotten easier as they have gotten a little older. I find if our family does something besides “just talk” it keeps them engaged. When it snowed last year my mom took her laptop outside and showed our kids the snow and even threw some snowballs for them. They bring out favorite toys that we left behind at their house or now that my daughter is reading she spends a lot of time reading aloud to the Grands. Our special tradition is that we celebrate each missing family member’s birthday (grands, cousins, aunts and uncles) with a movie night. This is the only time we have movie night at our house so it is really special and they feel connected to that person. Even when we move back closer we will continue that tradition.
    Megan Shirley´s latest post: Sweet home . . . South Carolina?

  7. We live in London, UK, and the rest of our family is in South Africa. We find a combination of phoning and Skyping the best – especially when the quality of Skype is poor, we find it easier to mute the computer sound and talk on the phone while the video is running. That enhance the picture quality too. And when we are finished with the video part, I can continue on the phone while walking around the house doing chores.

    Our little one’s (4y and 6m) both are very comfortable with Skype because we use it so often. We try to remember they are not circus animals and not force them to perform when the video is on. In addition, I find my 4 year old will often chat away much nicer when I leave the room for a bit. My baby like’s looking at the computer to see the face’s, and if we need a smile, will laugh at a toy held above the camera – works every time!

    We also love online photo albums to be able to share high resolution pictures and videos. We use Picasa from Google which works really well for us and for our relatives with restricted internet access.

  8. I think that the internet as well as smart phones have made keeping in touch so much easier. I think of my aunt who was a missionary to the Phillipines in the early 70s. I looked forward to a postcard 2 or 3 times a year if I was lucky! Now, the internet can bring us all so much closer. I actually don’t use skype as I don’t have any CLOSE family living far away, but would if I did. I love using facebook to help me keep up with my young adult children. They are all moved out now and have their own lives. And while we do talk several times a week, facebook helps me to see daily what is going on in their lives, and the 2 families with grandchildren helps me to keep up with their antics (pictures) even though I see them several times a month.
    My youngest is 18 and recently moved 3 hours away. Texting has been a great way for us to stay in touch. We text all throughout the day. She is enjoying being on her own, but I think she likes knowing that Mom is just a text away!
    I loved the concept of just playing the skype camera, but muting and talking on the phone! As a grandparent I would like this if I didn’t get to see my grandkids very often!
    Great post!
    Living the Balanced Life´s latest post: When depression comes knocking at your door

  9. We are an Australian family living in the US. Some family is in Oz, some in the UK and some in Canada.

    These are the things we do to keep in touch:
    – time differences are difficult so for skype we set up the computer at the dinner table and eat dinner whilst talking to family in Australia. This makes it a little less awkward for the kids.
    – we give my iphone to my 5 year old with skype running on it and she takes Grandma on a tour of her room and talks about what’s going on
    – I write two blogs. One is for photos of each of our three kids, The other is for general news about what we are doing in the US (one thing is trying to visit all 50 states while we are here – we are at 27!)
    – Grandma sends postcards through the mail
    – I update facebook with urgent news (like when we were in the middle of Hurricane Irene)
    – I send random photos of the kids smiling from my phone to my dad’s cell phone in Australia just to say good morning
    – We have a hanging plastic sheet (its about 2 metres long) that fits about 100 photos in it. Every 6 months or so I update the photos of all the family so that the kids can see them. The photos hang low to the ground so the kids can get up close and touch them.
    – 90% of artwork is mailed to the grandparents
    – We send American chocolates to our friends in Australia and they send us items from home like milo, vegemite and plastic koalas. Grandma is good at finding Australian things as well as decorating the parcels with Australian flags.

    I’m loving all the ideas people are sending through. Keep them coming!

  10. A simple game to make is a Concentration game with matching relatives pictures. When you get photos of different family members, make two copies and Glue onto cardstock. The kids then flip and match and when they are older they can say the person’s name. It is fun and helps with recongition when we do get to visit.

  11. Me, my husband and our 16 month old daughter have recently moved to the US, where my husband is from, but my family lives scattered all over Europe. We skype regularly with both sets of grandparents and various other relatives of mine. I do not find it awkward at all! I think the key is to just carry on as if the other person were in the room during a relaxed visit. True, you can’t wash dishes (because of the noise), but I’ve often prepared food or walked in and out of the picture.
    A few methods work especially well for us. My favorite is to skype while me and my daughter are having lunch. Often, my family in Europe is having dinner at the same time; they put the computer on their dining room table and it’s almost as if we were eating together. And because my daughter is in her high chair, she actually stays in the picture! 😉
    Apart from that, I try to skype when my daughter is well rested and in a good mood, and I just let her play as she wants. My relatives will sometimes sing a song for her or recite nursery rhymes – that’s always a winner and my daughter loves it. When me and my daughter were on a trip in Europe and my husband was in the US, he would read our daughter some of her favorite picture books over skype (you have to hold the book still for skype to be able to focus on the pictures). She knew this, and whenever we talked, right after saying hi to “dada”, she would request “boo! boo!” (for book) and get really excited.
    My daughter knows the skype “jingle” and whenever she hears it, she asks for my little sister, her favorite skype partner. 😉
    And I agree with those who said that it really makes a difference for the children – thanks to skype, our daughter has never felt shy around my husbands parents, even though they live far away, too, and we only see them twice a year.

  12. My family and friends are scattered across the globe. I love these ideas! We use Skype, but never enough. I might start scheduling more regular catch ups so Dad can read the kids their bedtime story 😉
    Laney @ Crash Test Mummy´s latest post: {LAME} My milkshake – a tale of breastfeeding


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