When I left for Chile, I thought I’d be gone for a short time.
That short time has turned into five years, during which my niece has aged from a tot of three to a kid of eight, and a new nephew has joined the fray. I’ve developed some great ways to keep the kids in the loop, and to make me into less of a stranger than I might be when we get back together.
1. Give the gift of you.
Print photos of you (or better yet, you and the child) and put them in an album, or order a photo book from a service such as Qoop.
Children are visual and tactile. Giving them this item before you leave helps them have a frame of reference for who you are.
2. Give them a map of where you’re going.
You can go fancy or old-school on this one; an 8.5 X 11 black and white map printed off the Internet is just as good as a real map. Even if they don’t quite get the map/geography connection, kids like to see where you are now and where you’re going.
For older kids, you might want to call and update them with your coordinates and have them follow along on paper.
3. Get them excited about your trip.
Tell them you’ll see kids like them on your trip, you’ll eat weird food, and it will be the opposite season or the opposite time of day. Bend their brains a little, but keep it in line with their age and interests.
Going to southwestern Argentina and talking to an eight-year-old? Be sure to mention the Giganotosaurus cardinii (far larger than the Tyrannosaurus Rex) skeleton near Neuquén.
While you’re away:
Make sure you set up a time to catch them on Skype, with video if you can. Children love an audience, and if it’s a long-distance audience, that’s okay, too.
2. Send postcards.
Even if it seems laboriously slow in comparison to email, kids love getting mail, and they love seeing your pictures, handwriting, and stamps from other countries.
Postcards make great souvenirs and are fun to hang next to the map they’ve got taped on the wall. Over time, you can re-wallpaper their room if you’re prolific enough.
3. Remember Birthdays
Don’t miss birthdays and other special occasions. Kids will not be enamored of the “lost in the mail” version of their birthday goodies, and you should ensure that they get greetings from you on their important days.
Set up a way for someone else in your family to be sure they get a little gift from you on their birthday. You can also write cards before you leave and make sure they get them on their special day.
When you come back:
1. Give Presents
Bring presents that are qualitatively cool. Big winners with the kids in my family have been tiny knitted finger puppets and a carved wooden recorder that my niece brought into school to show her music teacher.
Stuff kids can touch and enjoy now work best. A special food that you liked while you were there can be interesting, too, but don’t forget that even on their own, kids play a wicked game of show and tell.
2. Break out the map
If they’ve gotten the cartography bug, show them on the map where you were, and ask them where they went while you were away.
3. Listen to them.
Chances are, they think their life has been much more interesting than yours.
They’ve started playing soccer or developed a new magic trick. Watch in amazement and give them a big hug. To them, aurorea borealis be darned, the best part of your trip is that you’ve come back.