Grandparents of Toddlers: Learn to Use FaceTime

Now that the holidays are over and we’ve entered that festive time of year in which we all sit around and wallow in regret about how Christmas wasn’t as perfect as we wanted it to be, I thought I might offer a little helpful advice to grandparents. Because, having just returned from a very successful trip to visit my parents for the holidays, I found myself contemplating how amazing it was that my son, who sees his grandparents in person probably four times a year (and who is very wary of new people), was immediately comfortable and happy in their presence.

And it set me to thinking about all the grandparents across the country (and the world!) who opened their arms to their very young grandchildren this holiday season, assuming these tiny people would love them with as much intensity as they are loved, and were denied, in no uncertain terms, the way only a toddler can. Because the grandchildren didn’t recognize these people they see only a few times a year. And why should they? But it doesn’t make it any less devastating.

Except it doesn’t have to be this way. My son, who has just as much stranger anxiety as the next almost-two-year-old, was running off happily to play with his grandparents (without a second glance in my direction) within a few hours of our arrival. And it wasn’t a miracle. It was something we actually did. And you can do it too! So grandparents, I have only four words for you: learn to use FaceTime. (Or Skype or whatever video call app you prefer.)

I know, I know, there are so many “buts.” I can almost hear you listing them now. But they can be overcome (I’ll tell you how), and when they are, you’ll thank me.

First things first: what is FaceTime? Skip this part if you already know, but I don’t want to barrel ahead here if you’re desperately searching for a way to connect with your grandkids and have no idea what I’m talking about. FaceTime (or Skype, another version of the same idea) is a way to make a video phone call. So, instead of calling someone on the phone and just hearing their voice, you call them on the computer (or your phone if you have a smartphone) and actually see and hear them in real time.

Yes, right, sounds great but you don’t know how to use it? You barely know how to turn on your computer? You accidentally ordered a giant dog bed the last time you went on the Internet and you don’t even own a dog? Well, I can understand how all of those things would feel like big obstacles, but if you commit, and overcome them, the payoff is worth it. So ask your kids, a friend, the teenager next door, (whoever) how to do it, and get started!

The next step is to figure out when to use it. See, I’ve found that (unlike a regular phone call) it doesn’t work too well to just call someone on FaceTime out of the blue. You can try it (and maybe it’ll work for you and your kids), but chances are they won’t be available, or they’ll be around but not able to sit down at the computer or phone to really see you.

So, schedule a time. Schedule lots of times. A few times a week is good, if that works for you and your kids. Sometimes, for example, my mom calls us when my son is eating. He’s already sitting in one place, and he enjoys the distraction of talking to his Granny. She’ll ask him what he’s eating and he’ll tell her. Or he’ll peer curiously into the screen and ask, “Where Granny sitting?” and she’ll tell him she’s in her kitchen, or her office, or wherever.

Other times we talk while my son is playing. My son will say, “Hi Grandpa!” or “Hi Granny!” and wave at the screen, then wander off for a while. But he’ll be back later with a toy or a book to show his grandparents. And they’ll show him something in return. My son really likes Grandpa’s collection of Universal monster figurines. And he has lots of fun asking Granny to turn her lamp on and off.

It doesn’t matter what you do really. Make silly faces. Sing funny songs. Just be there. And if, at first, your kids don’t feel like they have the time or the energy to make this happen, explain how hard it was for you that your grandchildren didn’t seem happy to see you this Christmas. Then ask to schedule a time, once a week, to FaceTime with them.

But, let’s not get too carried away here. Checking in with your grandkids once a week isn’t going to suddenly make you the best of friends. Your grandkids probably won’t be that interested in sitting down and chatting to you (unless they’re older, in which case this whole issue is less important because they’ll remember you better). They’ll probably ignore you a lot, and wander off a lot, and bang on the computer and get reprimanded by their parents a lot. But that’s okay. You’re becoming a part of their lives. They’re hearing your voice. They’re seeing your face. And that’s important.

And then (and this really helped us a ton!) when it’s time for them to come to your home for a visit, you can take them on a tour. My mom carried her computer through her entire house, pointing out where my son would sleep, where he would take a bath, and where he would play. “Where we eat?” my son asked her. And she showed him.

And when they do see you, they might still be a little wary at first. They’re toddlers, they’re wary of most things. But if you’re patient, and you remind them of some of the songs you’ve sung together, and show them (in real life) the things you showed them on the computer, they’re much more likely to warm up to you quickly, and be comfortable in your home, than if they haven’t seen you at all since your last visit.

And no, it’s not a substitute for living around the corner. But you don’t live around the corner. So try it. What have you got to lose?