By Ellen Tomson
Knight Ridder Newspapers
Don Schmitz, 58, is one of a majority of grandparents in this country who has had grandchildren living far away.
In fact, about 66 percent of grandparents have at least one grandchild who lives farther than a day's drive away, according to AARP.
Several social and economic changes have resulted in new challenges for grandparents who want to establish and maintain close relationships with their grandchildren, Schmitz says in his book, "The New Face of Grandparenting" (Grandkidsandme, November 2003).
First, the industrial revolution pulled fathers and grandfathers away from the family farm, where generations of young and old had worked and lived together. Later, Social Security provided financial support that enabled grandparents to live independently - and move away to areas more appealing for retirement, such as those with warm climates. More recently, the women's movement changed work and child-raising roles and attitudes, leaving some grandparents confused and uncertain about their own roles.
Today, grandparents generally come in three varieties, says Schmitz, a former teacher who holds graduate degrees in education and human development.
The Been There, Done That Grandparents are finished raising children and have "had enough," Schmitz says. They often come from large families and raised their own large families. In their view, their job is over, and they want a rest.
The Help When Asked Grandparents are willing to help out with grandchildren - if parents request it. These grandparents generally enjoy their lives without grandchildren and doubt they can relate to children growing up in the world today. They raised their children differently from what parents do now, and they are uncertain about their roles in their grandchildren's lives. They don't want to interfere, so they choose to remain mostly uninvolved.
The Parents Forever Grandparents actively participate in the lives of their grandchildren. They are highly motivated to nurture, support and share their expertise and life experiences with their grandchildren. They want to remain connected to their adult children and believe all the adults in the family share the responsibility of raising the youngest generation.
The Parents Forever Grandparents are the ones most challenged by geographic distances and other factors that separate them from their grandchildren.
Schmitz, of St. Paul, Minn., knows about this firsthand. He has four granddaughters ages 1 to 9. The oldest three lived with their parents in Sweden for seven years until last August, when they moved to Stillwater, Minn.
Schmitz's son, Jeff, met Swedish-born Torun when he studied in southern Sweden. The two married in Sweden and lived only briefly in the United States before moving to Sweden before the birth of their third daughter.
The expense of traveling to Sweden meant Schmitz and his granddaughters saw one another about once a year.
In addition, they were separated by time zones, culture and language. Telephone calls had to be well planned since there is a seven-hour time difference.
Even grandparents with grandchildren living in the United States face a similar problem, Schmitz notes. "With the time differences between East and West coasts, you're arriving home and they're sleeping," he says.
Schmitz's son and daughter-in-law speak English at home so their daughters understand English. But only the oldest, Hanna, 9, who was born in the United States, speaks it much.
"The younger two could understand some English but couldn't respond to anything I said, so I could get very little back," Schmitz says. "That was very hard."
Before e-mail was commonly available, Schmitz regularly sent letters to Sweden. It was an indirect means of communicating, though, since his son and daughter-in-law had to read the letters aloud, and the lag time between letters sent and answered was frustrating and awkward.
E-mail led to more instant communication in recent years. In addition, Schmitz could send material and receive drawings from his granddaughters via fax machines. Most recently, both Schmitz and his son bought digital cameras, allowing them to exchange photo images almost instantly. Birthdays and other celebrations were shared visually.
It was sometimes necessary to bridge cultural differences, such as different customs and holidays.
"There are allegiances," Schmitz notes. "My little girls are definitely little Swedes - and when they learn English, they speak it with very proper British accents."
When Schmitz visited his granddaughters in Sweden, he usually spent a week with them. During that time, he accompanied them to school, ate lunch in the cafeteria and met their friends. Every other Wednesday, Schmitz baby-sits his fourth and youngest granddaughter, Isabella. She lives in St. Paul with Schmitz's other son, Andrew, and daughter-in-law, Kari.
Schmitz encourages other grandparents to experience typical days with their grandchildren so they get to know them better.
About 33 percent of all grandparents are Parents Forever Grandparents, according to Schmitz. But when baby boomers are considered alone as a group, about 50 percent fall into that category.
Schmitz expects the percentage of such actively involved grandparents to increase because more men have become involved in child-raising. "The involvement of dads pays huge dividends when they become grandparents," he says.
Baby-boomer grandparents are generally healthier and living longer than their parents, which means many will get to know their children, as well as their grandchildren, as adults. This coincides with another trend - smaller families with fewer children to grandparent.
In Schmitz's case, for example, his grandmother had 48 grandchildren and his mother had 23. He has four.
"There are going to be fewer children, and we are going to have the opportunity to step forward and be assertive to help children," Schmitz says. "I'm talking about everyone in the community having a responsibility to be parents and grandparents to each other's children. If we are going to improve as a society, we all need to help."
OVER THE MILES
How can long-distance grandparents and grandchildren build or maintain a close relationship? Don Schmitz suggests:
Establish a time each week to call your grandchildren. Calling cards can help keep costs to a minimum - and make wonderful gifts. When you call, ask to speak with each grandchild, or one for each call.
Make use of a fax machine or scanner to receive just-completed artwork.
Record your voice reading or telling a story.
Send postcards from places you visit.
See the same movie or read the same book and then talk or write about your opinions.
Exchange e-mail messages regularly.
When you do visit, make a point of visiting your grandchildren's schools, attending their activities and meeting their friends.
If you own a digital camera, download pictures immediately following a special event, and send them with e-mail to share the event visually.
_ Ellen Tomson
© 2004, Saint Paul Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.).
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.