A recent query about the importance of grandparents in a child's life has left me thinking about my own children's relationship with their extended family. I do believe that strong healthy relationships with their grandparents is an asset to a child and as such it is something that we have strove to foster since the birth of our first child.
Distance, unfortunately, has limited our ability to visit family as often as we would like, though we do what we can in that regard. Even so, there are many other things we have been doing to build those relationships despite the miles that separate us.
From the time he was a baby, our son has been surrounded by pictures of his extended family. Grandparents, great-grandparents, and aunties, all captured on camera, printed, framed, and hung around the house. Wherever possible, the boy himself is in these pictures - snuggled in his Grandma's arms, grinning from his Opa's shoulders, or staring up oh-so-seriously at the camera from an auntie's lap. As we walked by the photos, we would often stop and point out these loved ones, helping him to "know" these people despite the rarity of our visits.
Photo albums are a classic gift for grandparents. We do one every year to include with Christmas gifts. But a photo album of the grandparents and other relatives can be just as special for the child. Nothing fancy, just an album with some printed photos of their loved ones, a picture book that is all theirs to look through at their leisure.
Of course, phone calls are an ideal way to keep in contact. Now that the boy has decided he likes the phone, I often have a hard time wrestling it away from him so I can talk to our relatives myself! Webcams are wonderful as well.
A big one for us has been simply including talk of our relatives in our daily conversations. It helps to keep the memories of past visits alive (remember when Oma took us on that train?), to place special importance on gifted items (Grandma gave you that lion for Christmas last year; Oma made that sweater for you), and to relay a grandparent's love to the child (I talked to Grandpa today and he said he misses you lots...he sure loves you). Of course, that backfires if your daily conversations are filled with critical comments about said relatives, so keep those ones private so as not to taint a child's opinion of their loved ones.
At the same time, there is much to be said for healthy boundaries, and I more than understand that there are times when a strong relationship is not to be encouraged with a dangerous relative. We have one such situation and I can fully empathize with those who are unable to allow contact between a child and an extended family member.
While we do not indiscriminately encourage relationship building, we do recognize that a certain amount of give and take is necessary in any relationship. We can overlook certain things, compromise on others, and voice concerns so that they can be dealt with appropriately. I can bite my tongue as my dear mother indoctrinates my child into all that is Disney, despite having no love for the company myself. I can nod my assent when my grandma asks to treat my child to chocolate milk, even though I'd normally present only white milk or water as options. I can grin and bear it when he watches too much TV with a relative he rarely gets to visit. And I can politely step in when said TV starts playing an inappropriate show. Boundaries tempered by understanding; compromise in line with our values.
If grandparents aren't a reality in a child's life (passed away, too toxic to allow contact with, etc), grandparent "substitutes" can be a blessing to a child as well - someone within the church who doesn't have grandchildren around, an elderly neighbour, or an "adopt a grandparent" through a local nursing home. I really believe that children benefit greatly from those sorts of relationships, whether with their own grandparent or an "adopted" one.
There is so much to be gained by engendering strong (and healthy) relationships with extended family. The love and the family memories created are enough reason all on their own. Traditions and family history can be passed on through the generations, along with wisdom, knowledge, and skills. An even greater sense of community and security is formed for the child surrounded by these loving relationships - and not only for the child, but for the parents as well. In our increasingly isolated and individualistic society, where the generational family is less and less valued, a strong support system can make such a difference as we begin to build our own families. There is also the hope that our children will follow in our footsteps, allowing us to enjoy the same close relationship with our own grandchildren one day.
Oh yes, and we can't overlook the special "I'm a Grandma and it's my job to spoil you" treats - like that rare glass of chocolate milk.