What can you do to help your child maintain the connection?
When my son’s father moved from Montreal, Canada to the U.S. Midwest, our weekly visitation arrangements wouldn’t work—dad was now two plane rides away. Having to take care of my son full-time meant that I had to make changes to my life—no more free time every second weekend and no backup plan if I couldn’t pick him up from daycare. Along with all the changes to my life, I was concerned about how my 4-year-old son was going to maintain a long-distance relationship with his dad when he couldn’t even dial his phone number.
Fortunately, my ex and I agreed that our son was the priority and we had to find ways to help him adjust to Dad not being there anymore. Over the years, through trial and error we came up with a number of ways that both long-distance and full-time parents can try to help keep the parent-child connection alive and well.
For the younger child:
Put favorite moments on display
Place a framed photo of the child and long-distance parent in the child’s room as a reminder of a happy moment like a visit to the zoo or making pancakes together. Be sure to update the photo as time goes by. Make a photo collage or keep a small album of photos for the child to browse before bedtime. Get photo mugs for both and use it to have milk and cookies “together.”
Keep the cards and care packages coming
Send cards—real paper snail-mail type cards—to mark special occasions. Buy and write them ahead of time for easy mailing when the time comes. Send birthday gifts and plan for them to arrive on time as much as possible. Send special just-because-I-love-you gifts or cards on a monthly basis. A magazine subscription that arrives once a month can also trigger “Dad is thinking of me” thoughts. Use a recordable storybook (I’m Not Afraid of Anything! is one good title) to record yourself reading a story and send it to the child so you can be part of the book-before-bedtime routine.
Be smart about phone and video calls
Although phone calls seem like an obvious way to stay in touch, the reality is little kids don’t like talking on the phone much. It’s just not a kid thing to do. I realized this soon enough as I watched my son squirm and stretch while on the phone with dad more than a few minutes. The anticipated phone call would create tension as I reminded him it wasn’t polite not to want to talk to his dad. Sometimes he would even ask me to make up a reason why he couldn’t talk on the phone. This prompted me to shift from making it his duty to helping him find ideas of what they could talk about ahead of time like a project he worked on at school or how many goals he scored in soccer.
Video chatting through Skype or FaceTime bridges the long-distance gap like few other modes of communication. Seeing the parent makes it more real for the child but doesn’t magically increase a child’s attention span. Playing a game like hangman makes the conversation more interactive and keeps the child’s eyes on the screen longer.
Instead of random calls, choose one night a week so you have enough new things to talk about. Make it before bedtime and replace the night routine with the phone call so bedtime is not delayed.
For the older child:
As the child becomes a tween and teen, he should take on more of an active role in maintaining the relationship. When my son turned 12, the responsibility to keep up with Dad shifted away from me to him. It also gave my son added ammunition to convince me of the reasons I needed to buy him a cell phone.
Make sure your child can communicate his way
E-communication like sending emails or text messages facilitated the father-son connection but I learned soon enough that not all modes of communication are equal in a teenager’s eye. When I asked my son if he’d sent email messages to his dad, he said emails take too long. Just like young kids don’t do phone calls, teenagers don’t do emails. Text messages are quicker and more convenient for the teenagers—just make sure to get a messaging plan, especially if the parent doesn’t live in the same country.
Create a regular schedule that works for everyone
When my son went from crack-of-dawn cartoon addict to sleep-deprived teenager, the 10 am video calls didn’t work so well. And when his father relocated from the U.S. to Dubai, we had to deal with an eight-hour time difference and a working week from Sunday to Thursday. The only day father and son could communicate outside of school and work was Saturday—teenager-sleep-fest day. Scheduling is a must even if when you’re not dealing with time change or different work schedules because it reduces missed calls and disappointments. Making it part of the schedule helps make it more routine just like soccer practice or guitar lessons.
While some parents relocate temporarily or don’t live thousands of miles away, my son’s father ended up living away permanently and so wasn’t there for most of his growing years. It wasn’t always easy to manage but the long-distance connection plan helped him feel closer to his dad. Thanks to my efforts and those of my ex, we created bonding moments and memories that my son holds dear, like the video call when his dad surprised him with a candle-lit birthday cake. My son listened to his father sing and watched him blow out the candles. That personal touch and sense of connection meant more to him than being able to actually eat the cake.
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