According to the 2015 Pew Research Center’s Teens, Social Media & Technology Report, over 88% of US teens have access to a mobile phone, sending an average of 30 texts a day. So if you are wondering why your grandchildren never call you once they move abroad, it’s probably because they are far more used to texting; it’s cheaper, it’s quicker and used with a data messaging service like WhatsApp or Snapchat over wifi – it’s free.
So the only question left is – why not try it yourself?
Why is it important to stay in touch when kids move abroad?
If you think that your role in your grandchildren’s lives is less important once they move, think again. For them, everything is changing – the location, the culture, the people, the schools, the rules – so family is one of the few constants that they can rely on.
Now, more than ever, children need the connection with the familiar, and extended family provide a vital sense of security and a valuable sounding board for sharing their experiences and feelings. And as Julia Simens points out in Emotional Resilience and the Expat Child, the opportunity to use emotional language to express and explain feelings is a fundamental building block in successful transitions for both children and adolescent and emerging adults. In a world that is constantly shifting, grandparents need to seize every the opportunity to build and maintain a close, trusting relationship, despite the practical and geographical barriers.
It’s too complicated / difficult…
Be mindful of the example you are setting. At times, the constantly changing technologies makes staying connected seem overwhelming, but if you are thinking that it’s not something that you want to learn, just pause a moment. Remember that your grandchildren are constantly facing enormous amounts of change and learning, – and they will be looking closely at the behavior modeled by the adults around them.
By choosing to learn the skills that you need to maintain and nurture your relationship with them you are sending two vitally important messages – firstly, that learning new skills is part and parcel of every life, and secondly, that they are worth your effort. I may be wrong, but most grandparents I know want their grandchildren to embrace every opportunity to learn, and would walk over hot coals to make them feel loved – and what better way to show them than by being available at some of the most difficult times of their lives.
Why can’t I just write to them?
You can – but remember that that’s your world, not theirs. Your grandchildren communicate in ever new and different ways, and while communicating via technologies can feel awkward and unfamiliar, once learned, they are uniquely suited to cross border communication. Feel free to write letters (but don’t necessarily expect written replies) and use Skype/ Google Hangouts / Facetime to make calls, but for a true sense of what they are up to right now, meet them where they are at. Which means text, picture and even video messaging.
As a final note before we get into the details, please know that all the previous reasons aside – I promise your effort is worth it. My own children take huge delight in texts from their grandmother, partly because she puts her own particular style into it. Don’t feel pressured into getting it ‘right’ – believe me, they will find those moments when you get it wrong highly entertaining, and love you for trying. Which is a something precious that they probably learned from you.
If you don’t already own a mobile device, I would suggest getting a smartphone or tablet. They give you access to a huge range of free apps which will make your life easier and much, much more portable (imagine being able to take your entire photo album around with you in a device the size of an old cassette case…) – and honestly, when your grandkids start sending you photos, you’ll want to be able to see them.
Most tablets now also include a camera and microphone, so you can also make use of the umpteen brilliant-and-free video calling apps out there, so you can join in on family meals, nighttime story-telling and craft projects – without moving from your own living room.
If you already own a basic cellphone, don’t worry. Texting works too – you just have to be more careful of the cost of both sending and receiving texts. You can even send texts from a computer using services like MySMS.
For those of you who want to invest, there are a ton of mobile devices out there – my personal favorites are Apple iPhones and iPads, but Samsung and Amazon also offer good options. Just make sure that your device has a microphone, camera and is compatible with the following apps:
- Texting (i.e. Google Messenger, Hangouts, Messages, iMessage etc)*
Most mobile and tablets come with a default messaging app preinstalled – if you are not sure, simply search ‘message’ on your device and it should appear. Apple devices all have iMessage, Android devices (Samsung, HTC etc.) often have two or three installed. If one isn’t already installed, head to the App store on your device and download one – my favorites are MySMS and Google Messenger.
Now that you’ve found your message app, it’s as simple as entering their phone number, typing a message and clicking send. If you are looking to extend your skill set, consider adding emojis (those little cartoon type smiley faces and characters that can be found by clicking the little smiley face button at the bottom left of your phone keyboard), photos and voice messages. Be warned, photos and voice messages may be more expensive, so check in with whoever pays the bill first. (I’m channelling my inner Blue Peter presenter there).
Texting always reminds me of those real life, day to day interactions that families have – the ‘hello, how are you?” check ins. They are perfect for keeping in touch in a way that is stress free – letting your grandchildren know that you are there, that you care and that you can be reached easily. Many grandparents get frustrated by the seeming lack of information in texts – but it’s not the words that are important, but the consistent connection. Take time to understand what their ‘normal’ sounds like, so that when the tone changes, you know. And for the record, ‘fine’ never is…
WhatsApp is a data version of texting (i.e. it needs an internet connection to work), but if you want to send photos or have group messages (imagine, all your grandchildren in one ‘virtual’ room), WhatsApp is brilliant. It’s also widely used by kids, so chances are they will already be using it.
You need a smartphone and phone number to set it up, but once you’ve done that, you can set it up easily on tablets and computers. To learn how to set it up without a mobile phone number click here (you will still need a smartphone, so borrow one if necessary). It’s already available for computers and Android tablets, with an official iPad WhatsApp app in the works, so there are no excuses.
Ooooh, Snapchat. Beloved by teens, twenty somethings and celebrities the world over, it’s a strange concept. Basically, you send a picture or message that (in theory at least) disappears once it has been viewed. It takes a while to get used to the idea of disposable communication, but once you have embraced it, it’s huge fun. Think of it as the modern form of slapstick comedy – making faces, wearing silly hats, being tickled – all the things we love to laugh at in one app.
Here’s the thing – don’t expect sensible conversations about college plans or career aspirations on this one. Instead, you’ll get pictures of silly faces, their latest meals or their toes on a beach. But if you want candid shots of their prom dress, best friend or favorite hobbies, being one of their Snapchat friends will make it easy for them to include you. And as you will be the coolest grandparent ever (and one of the very few Snapchat seniors) you’ll have massive novelty value.
For your starter guide to Snapchat, click here.
Messaging Rules of Engagement
Before I send you off into the internet superhighway, here are a few final pointers…
Check the cost: Most phones come with a text and data package, but check with parents on the limits, because standard rules vary across the globe. In the UK, you pay to send calls and texts – in the US, you pay to both send and receive. International text and data costs vary massively, so check which services are included in the packages, and work around them. Rest assured, there will be a, inexpensive way to stay in touch, and the options that we’ll be focusing on will help you along.
Check the timing. Kids often keep their mobile devices with them 24/7, so Grandma sending hilarious Snapchats at 3am is going to be very unpopular. Have a conversation with their parents to establish what ground rules are already in place, and work with them.
Be clear on confidentiality. You might be clear on the timing rules, but what happens if you are getting communications from your grandkids at 3am their time? Should you tell their parents or stay quiet? What about inappropriate content? Or cries for help? While the beauty of direct messaging means that the vast majority of your conversations stay private, with Snapchat, they may be sharing ‘stories’ publicly – and you may be one of the few family members to see them.
Now it’s over to you… If you have any other favorites (or hilarious stories), share them in the comments section below!