At the moment, when many people are trying to find ways to connect with family and friends when households are separated, we have something to learn from missionaries and the creative ways they’ve found to maintain meaningful connections with family and friends back home.
In my role supporting over 60 families serving with OMF (UK), I’m privileged to hear about some of these creative connections. So here are 8 tips from them that can help us all keep connected at this time:
1. You can use Zoom, Skype or Facetime for more than general meetings!
Perhaps you are used to using Skype, Zoom or Facetime for work or general connection, but as Christian families overseas have discovered, they can be used for much, much more.
2. Connect online to share literature
Two pre-schoolers recently arrived in Thailand have been enjoying bedtime stories from Grandma over Skype. Hearing a familiar voice read a bible story or a story book has been very reassuring. 12 noon BST is 19.00 in Thailand so this works well. Of course, It can be even more straightforward if you are in the same time zone.
Recently I read a story over skype to a family in their 6th month of settling into life in a city in E Asia. The clear bright pictures of Mr Forgetful were enjoyed as I held up the pages for 2 young children to follow. Hopes of their 4 year old making local friends through Kindergarten are on hold. She and her brother are home every day with mum and dad and the days are long. Something many in the UK can now identify with.
Two girls under nine years eagerly anticipate recordings of Grandad reading poems. He tries to send one “proper” poem like The Storm, by Sarah Coleridge and one “fun” poem like Laura Richards’ Eletelephony each week. Sometimes his granddaughters choose the poems sometimes he does but both generations enjoy connecting this way.
Another Grandad writes stories for his grandchildren sometimes weaving them as characters into these stories which they love!
- Include extra expression and vary the pace especially when reading aloud to young children.
- Choose short stories. Under rather than overestimate children’s concentration span.
- Sometimes video record picture books over the reader’s shoulder so the illustrations can be enjoyed.
- Set realistic expectations on frequency of reading stories. Hesitate in making a daily commitment. Days may be even busier than usual on either or both sides and things may change.
- Read a chapter a day for older children.
- Give children opportunity to choose and read a story or poem for Grandma and Grandad!
- Record stories which can be listened to at a convenient time and also enjoyed more than once.
- Laughter can be a stress reliever. These are stressful days for all generations so look for literature which will bring a smile!
3. Share family stories about when you were younger
Every life is unique and each member in each generation contributes to a family’s heritage. When life is busy we don’t always pause to look back. Lockdown might provide you with time to capture memories in writing or on film. These could be of interest and a blessing for current and future generations of your family.
- Something funny or tricks you used to get up to at home; a time when you got lost
- Holiday destinations
- Your best birthday present
- Food you enjoyed as a treat.
- Your favourite teacher.
- What you spent pocket money on.
- The clothes you wore for Sundays , school or holidays.
- Activities you enjoyed with your brother, sister or cousins.
- How you came to know Jesus.
- Jot down memories especially any jogged by something a younger member of the family shares
- Plan when and how to share a memory. Keep it brief. Drip feed memories.
- Build anticipation
- Ask e.g. grandchild or nephew to come up with a question for “your homework” ahead of your next family chat.
- Use photos or objects in your home which link with the family story
- Consider stories only you can tell.
- If interest flags drop the idea or record for when children are older.
4. Connect to play games
There are a host of interactive games online but inexpensive low- tech games can also be enjoyed through video calls!
One family living in Japan with 3 children aged 6- 12 loved playing the dice game Yahtzee with grandparents in UK. Other paper and pencil games which could be tried are a Beetle Drive, Noughts and Crosses, Hangman, Pictionary, Battleships or Scattergories. Perhaps even The Chocolate game!
One auntie and her nephew love play hide and seek remotely. Yes, really! The nephew hides somewhere in his house or garden. Auntie overseas directs her sister in UK where to and go look using her tablet!
One Grandma hid small plastic eggs around their house. Grandad was on his tablet and the grandchildren gave him directions for where to go and look. Once found the children had to guess how many mini chocolate eggs were in the plastic egg! If they guessed right the eggs were put into a bag for the children to eat when lockdown is over. Wrong and the grandparents got to eat them!
One grandson devised a quiz for his grandparents. As quiz master he set out the rules even down to if there is a tie you need to shake hands!
- Consider age and concentration span and interests of children.
- If something is enjoyed, plan to play again rather than playing multiple times on the same day.
- Engage with family members who are keen on games and connect in different ways with those who are not so keen.
5. Post letters
When I was teaching children of missionaries at the OMF boarding school in Malaysia in the 1980s in the days before email, every child regularly received letters from parents and often family members. Most took days some more than a week to arrive from other countries in East Asia but these letters written using different coloured pens and with pictures drawn by dad or collaged from magazines were read and reread and became treasured.
Children wrote back to parents and many a child signed a letter with XOXOXO ie kisses and hugs and some did this 0 spiral for a cuddle.
Children and adults still love to get things in the post and perhaps now especially!
- Stamps are not cheap so look to make best use of the weight allowance. E.g. Include separate letters for all the family in one envelope so everyone gets a handwritten message on the same day.
- Post a number of cards or messages in the same envelope with dates to open them.
- Devise a family code for saying how much you love someone.
6. Celebrate birthdays, other anniversaries or holidays
Families serving overseas have long known what many of us are just discovering about celebrating anniversaries remotely. There may well be the ache of separation but taking steps to mark birthdays, wedding anniversaries and graduations will mean a lot.
One missionary mum woke dismayed to realise it was her husband’s birthday and she had forgotten and there was no possibility of shopping in their remote location in Asia. Necessity is the mother of invention and in a short time, she and her children had decorated the children’s vests using fabric pens. What joy when they all appeared to wish Dad a happy birthday. This became a family tradition while children were small and extended family members loved sharing this via photos.
Two teens wrote 365 notes for their mum’s birthday. One to open each day including Bible verses. treasured memories, attributes they appreciate about her, jokes and fun facts. Why not write a month’s worth to someone you love? Post them to the family member. Suggest they find their own box or jar but provide a label for the lid or side.
One Grandma posted her granddaughters bird boxes to decorate. Another sent packets of seeds which gave children something to tend and they filmed how the plants are doing. Both sides could plant the same seeds and compare notes on growth.
- Post gifts especially any which will provide hours or days of creativity exercise or fun.
- Ask family to video the child opening the gift or wait to open the gift until you can meet on line.
- One generation could post birthday balloons and serviettes to another.
- Share birthday cake together making sure the birthday person has the first bite of cake! Even if one side does not make a cake you could tuck into some sweet treat at the same time. Two or more households could follow the same recipe and then have fun decorating it with what you have.
- Try singing happy birthday together but that may prove tricky!
- Display photos of family members who are missing from the party so they are in the group photo
- Pass the parcel could be played with one generation emailing ahead the forfeits to be done after each layer is undone!
- Father’s day is June 21. If you start thinking now you will be prepared whether or not we are in lockdown.
7. Share your gifts and talents across the generations
We often think of going to the shop or online shopping for presents but consider using your talents to create something memorable for another family member. It could be writing a poem or painting a portrait of a niece and need not be a masterpiece. You could also consider how to pass on a skill. One enterprising Grandma taught her granddaughter to use a sewing machine over Skype when they were on different continents.
These wooden friends (pictured above) were decorated for a 3 year old who was moving from UK. His mum gave family and friends a blank wooden figure to decorate for him. The boy had hours of fun playing with his family and friends.
- Share favourite family recipes. Maybe one family member could collate a favourite from everyone. A different person might compile a family recipe booklet.
Woodworking, gardening or bird spotting could also be shared.
- Blank wooden figures can be purchased on line. A creative family member could make a set for grandchildren or nephews and nieces.
- For a low cost version use sections of strong cardboard tubes. Decorate with scraps of paper or fabric.
- Older generations can teach younger and vice versa.
8. Connect spiritually
Of course, there are also great ways to connect spiritually. One family shared that from time to time everyone sends in an article or piece of music they are enjoying and they all listen or watch these and then discuss when they connect remotely. Another family said they read the same book of the Bible at the same time and talk about it. Still others all memorise the same Bible verse. What could you do?
One family created a prayer wall. They divided an A2 paper into 30 spaces and numbered them. They stuck a photo of a family member in each space and prayed for them on that date each month. Include parents, grandparents, cousins, god parents. You could add other friends if your family is small. Sometimes email or text the person to say how you prayed for them or ask them for a prayer request.
- Make a photo collage of digital photos. Print, laminate and display as your prayer wall. More than one household could have the same prayer wall and use it.
For younger children begin with a prayer wall for a week.
- Try a short worship time together over Zoom.
- The Bible App for Kids is lots of fun for younger children. Maybe the children could get the older generations into it as a basis for discussion?!
It is hard being separated from those we love and feeling uncertain when this will end. We pray your family will find ways to not simply maintain connection but to deepen ties making meaningful memories to reassure different generations of how much they are loved and in this way help each other thrive not just survive.
OMF (UK) Third Culture Kids Advisor
Janet has many years of experience teaching and working with children.
She currently supports over 60 families serving with OMF (UK), helping them make the most of the opportunities, and navigate the challenges, of cross-cultural living.