For much of June, we were in the U.S., visiting family and friends. This series of articles offers observations of that trip in connection with raising bilingual children.
The main purpose of our trip to the United States was to provide an opportunity for my kids and my parents to spend time together in person. As it had been five years since our last trip—when my kids were just 4 and 1—they didn’t really have clear memories of their grandparents from that visit. With my parents getting older, and our trips abroad rare, this was a special chance to make some lasting memories.
I’m happy to report that this mission was accomplished—Lulu and Roy had a wonderful time with their grandparents. (My father lives in Quincy, Illinois, my hometown, and my mother lives in Memphis, Tennessee.) But it was also bittersweet, in a way, because Japan and the United States are on opposite sides of the earth and the sad reality is that the defining nature of the bond between my children and my parents will probably always be distance. This fact was continually on my mind while we were there and I often reminded myself to take in these moments of togetherness as fully as I could because I knew how fleeting they would finally be.
Although I wish the situation was different—I wish my kids could grow up with my parents as a more active presence in their lives—these are the circumstances we must work with and make the most of while we can. Toward that end, I thought I would share the three main ways that I try to bridge this distance and facilitate a connection between my children and my parents, a connection that not only nurtures the loving bond between them, it gives a regular boost to my children’s language ability.
1. Strengthen ties through photos and video clips
Today, technology offers an easy and inexpensive way to share photos and video clips with grateful grandparents. I’ve used Google’s Picasa for several years, posting a new batch of photos and video online every month or so. By giving my parents this regular peek into their grandchildren’s lives, I’ve been able to bring the two generations closer, at least emotionally.
Of course, there are a range of options for sharing photos and video these days, but I’ve been very satisfied with Picasa for these reasons…
- Picasa can be downloaded freely.
- It’s a solid, user-friendly program for organizing digital photos and video clips, and enhancing the appearance of your photos (through lighting adjustments, sharpening, etc.) before you share them.
- You can quickly upload your photos from Picasa to Picasa Web Albums, a photo-sharing web site. (Space on Picasa Web Albums is free, too.) Visitors to your web albums can view each album as a full-screen slideshow, as well as download their favorite photos to their own computer.
- There are several levels of privacy for sharing, depending on your needs.
- Because Google owns YouTube (it won’t be long before Google buys up our kids, too!), you can upload video clips directly to YouTube by simply clicking a button in Picasa. Once these clips are uploaded, try tinkering with the quality and privacy settings in your “Video Manager,” then share the links via email. (A YouTube account is free, too.)
If you’re not regularly sharing photos and video clips of your kids with their grandparents, I highly recommend giving Picasa and YouTube a go. It doesn’t get much easier (or cheaper) than this, and once the pieces are in place and you’re familiar with the process, maintaining the routine is almost effortless. For a minimal investment of time and expense, the payoff is priceless!
2. Create communication via Skype video chats
A regular routine of video chats via Skype can create wonderful opportunities for face-to-face communication between grandparents and grandchildren.
To this point, we’ve been using Skype maybe twice a month, mainly to catch up with my mother—though I hope to get a similar connection going with my father, too. Although the image quality of our chats could be better (I think that’s largely a function of the quality of the computers and webcams involved), Skype has been a valuable way of strengthening ties while providing my kids with a chance to exercise their spoken ability in the minority language. And the fact that photos and video clips are being shared regularly through Picasa and YouTube makes it easier to engage in conversation, since the grandparents then have a vivid idea of what their grandchildren have been doing of late.
Skype, too, is easy to use and setting up an account, and video chats with others, is generally straightforward. Both the Skype software and the chats themselves are free.
3. Establish an exchange of handwritten letters
Handwritten letters between grandparents and grandchildren not only deepen the emotional bond here in the present, the letters themselves can become cherished mementos of this bond for the future. Meanwhile, the children are receiving a regular workout in both reading and writing.
Because Lulu and Roy can both write reasonably well for their age (9 and 6 as of this post), I’ve been helping them exchange letters with their grandparents for over a year. Though email has been used, too, from time to time, I’m far more eager to facilitate the exchange of letters for these reasons…
- Letter-writing is a lost art and I’d like my kids to have some experience of this—writing letters by hand—during their childhood. (Letter-writing to friends and family was a big part of my own youth!)
- Email print-outs simply aren’t the same special keepsakes as “real letters” delivered by post.
- Letters have more “emotional weight” than email, and I believe the words written by my parents to my children will have a more meaningful and lasting impact in letter form. (Along with news of the day, I plan to encourage my parents to write more about their own lives, including childhood experiences, and the lessons they’ve learned over the years.)
- Letters provide children with the opportunity to read, and become accustomed to, different types of handwriting. (My mother writes in flowing cursive, while my father’s writing has a distinctive quiver due to a tremor in his hand. For this reason, he has begun typing out his letters, too.)
- At the moment, my kids are far better at writing by hand than they are at typing. The rare times I let them sit at my desk and type an email reply are an exercise in perseverance for us both! (Lulu writes the first draft herself on scratch paper, which we edit together, then she produces a clean final draft on stationery. Roy is nearly capable of this, too, but for the time being I’ll still have him dictate to me what he wants to say, then copy the letter over on lined paper.)
Exchanging letters takes some diligence, it’s true—and parents must be actively engaged in helping their children produce timely replies—but the gains to the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren, now and to posterity, as well as the meaningful language use it encourages, make this well worth the effort for all involved.
Want to read more on bilingual children making stronger connections to their grandparents? See this guest post by Annie Dye, a lovely piece titled Extraordinary Grandparents—Extraordinary Moments.