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Quality time, The National, 09.06.2009

Summer gives many expatriate children the opportunity to live with their extended families for a few weeks. Jo Wadham on how parents can help kids – and grandparents – with the transition

The job opportunities and lifestyle in the UAE continue to attract expatriates, but for many, being separated from family and friends poses a major challenge. Now that summer has arrived, some lucky families will be returning to their homeland to sit out the season (or at least part of it) in the relative cool of grandma and grandad’s place. This two-centre lifestyle gives rise to an unusual relationship between children and their grandparents. It is certainly more intense, if more sporadic. But is it better?

Unless the grandparents have cunningly exploited their family’s absence to downsize the family home to a metropolitan pied-à-terre, the door is usually wide open for extended stays. This is quite different to the regular, weekly contact most children would have with their grandparents under normal circumstances. They are together from the moment they wake up to the moment they go to bed. For weeks on end. In good moods and bad.

The benefits of children having a close relationship with their grandparents have been highlighted in recent research. This year, the Journal of Family Psychology published a study carried out among 1,500 schoolchildren in England and Wales which showed that greater grandparent involvement in the lives of children, particularly in single-parent families or step-families, was associated with fewer emotional problems and more pro-social behaviour. Previous studies have also shown that grandparents provide one of the most stable relationships in an adolescent’s changing world into adulthood.

Lorna Voogd feels her parents appreciate the difference in the quality of the time they spend with her children, Yasmina, three years old, and Aimee, nearly two. Originally from the UK, Voogd has lived in Abu Dhabi for almost three years. She spends four to six weeks in the summer plus a couple of weeks in December living in Nottingham with her parents. Her mother will come and visit them in Abu Dhabi in between times.

Voogd acknowledges that if they were living in the same country permanently, they would be unlikely to spend so much time together. “If we were back in London, we would only be up there for a day, even at the weekend, having to leave time for the traffic on the motorway. I don’t think it would be the same.” For Sam Logan, also from the UK and married to an Australian, moving to the UAE has meant her three-year-old twins, Joshua and Maia, have more opportunities to see their grandparents. “We moved here from Australia two years ago, and one of the reasons was to spend more time with our family.” Now living halfway between both sets of grandparents, visits are much easier.

One of the benefits Logan has noticed with living abroad is that she now gets along with her parents better. “I find that my relationship with my parents, and my mother especially, has improved. We are a lot closer. When we are together it is an intense time and we make a real effort to catch up. We have good, quality time. But if you are in the same town or country, you can become a bit complacent. You don’t talk properly, you are distracted by the ironing or the TV.”

Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall is the author of several books on grandparenting, most recently The Good Granny Companion (Short Books, 2008). She also runs the website, www.goodgranny.com. She says it’s important to be aware that when children, parents and grandchildren spend intense chunks of time together, tensions can rise. “If the grandparents are only spending a relatively short time with the children, they want to spoil them and this may not go down well with the parents.” To avoid this, she recommends setting down the ground rules at the start of the holiday for certain key areas.

Different approaches to food can lead to conflict, too. “Grandparents tend to give their grandchildren unsuitable food at unsuitable times, like chocolate cake and sweets, so they don’t eat their supper,” says Fearnley-Whittingstall. She adds that a discussion should take place as to what foods the children can and can’t have, and when. Rules need to be set about how much television time is allowed. If the grandparents have sole charge of the children, “it can be terribly exhausting. There is a huge temptation to sit them in front of the TV for an hour at a time”.

She says bedtimes can be another area for disagreement and parents and grandparents need to show a unified front. As much as grandparents love to see their grandchildren, the disruption of their settled routines by the arrival of the family can prove stressful. Logan’s parents are both retired and the sudden arrival of her and the twins can be quite a shock. “They forget what it is like to have children around. I think they feel quite whirl-winded when we arrive.” This summer they are going to the UK for six weeks with a two-week holiday in the middle to give her parents some respite. “Dad’s face was a picture when he thought we were staying for the whole six weeks, although he loves them dearly. They are very relaxed as far as letting the children empty toys all over the lounge goes, but it is a disruption of their routine,” Logan says.

With three siblings and other family members nearby, Voogd describes her family home in the UK as “big and bustling. We just add to the chaos”. But she, too, is aware that their presence alters her parents’ usual routine and that her father in particular suffers from this. The childrens’ bedtimes delay adult dinner times, and he is no longer the chief recipient of his wife’s attention. Voogd realises that her mother’s workload dramatically increases. “I think Mum finds it hard to split the attention between Dad and the kids. I do feel we add a bit of pressure. I do some cooking but Mum has to entertain, babysit, keep the house clean, do the cooking, do the washing and look after Dad.”

Despite this, having the family come to stay can be very exciting for the grandparents, and eagerly anticipated for the months prior. Fearnley-Whittingstall cautions against expectations that the children will feel the same. “For expat families, the gaps of time between visits can be so big that everyone starts out being rather shy of each other. Children may feel a little strange seeing their grandparents again.

“Grandparents should remember this and make allowances and not get upset when their grandchildren don’t leap into their arms and cover them with hugs and kisses,” she counsels. Parents can help by planning some ice-breaking trips out or family activities, she says. “Make sure you have lots of things to do together. The shyness or strangeness will disappear if you are involved in a game of snakes and ladders or cooking together.”

In between visits, it is important to maintain contact with grandparents to ensure that the close relationship that has built up over a summer is not lost. Fearnley-Whittingstall recommends keeping in touch by “e-mail, phone calls, texting, sending postcards and little presents that reflect their or your special interests”. Logan agrees: “You have to make a real effort while you are away from home to keep in contact and continually mention the grandparents to your children. For example: ‘Are you going to wear the T-shirt your granny gave you?’ We try to talk a lot on the phone so we don’t waste two weeks of them getting to know their grandparents again.” Mailing or e-mailing photos can also help the older generation keep track of the almost weekly developmental changes in younger children.

It is possible that we idealise how often we would see our parents if we were living in the same country and the reality is that with busy jobs and bad traffic, it might not be that often. There is much to be said for the benefits of children not just seeing but actually living for some period with their grandparents, but the key is then managing that important and unique relationship when they are apart.

As Voogd says: “My parents miss us and feel it’s a shame we are living abroad, but they feel lucky they get the time solidly with the kids. They are still really part of it all.”


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