It is the American story: people come here with ambitions and plans, ready to work and struggle for a better life. They start families, build lives, put down roots, but live a split kind of existence, with a part of their heart with the land and the people they left behind. Once they have kids, they wonder how they will keep the family together even though they are thousands of miles apart.

I was a child of such a family. It was always just my parents and I here in the U.S., isolated from the extended family they left behind in Argentina. As often as they could scrape together the money, they loved to call back home. Inevitably, attention turned to me.

 

“Here, talk to Abuela,” my mom would say, thrusting the phone in my hand. It is 35 years later, but I still remember the dread in my little heart. Abuela was a voice on the phone that I’d never met, along with more tíos and tías than I could keep straight. I knew I was supposed to care about them, but I didn’t know how. I had never met them in person.

I am a mom now. My children also have faraway family of their own, on their dad’s side, so I’ve seen the struggle from both sides, both as the child who can’t connect to family she doesn’t know, and as the parent trying to keep culture and family ties alive.  Here’s what I’ve found works:

E-albums: One great thing about being far away from home these days is that there are more and more ways to connect across the miles. When I was a kid, I remember my mom sending pictures of me wrapped in letters carefully handwritten on onionskin paper (it was lighter, so it was cheaper). Then she waited months for her family’s reply. Today, you can press upload and in an instant, your family back home can be admiring your latest photos. It keeps families more involved in each other’s day to day lives.

Make memory books for baby: Kids grow up loving the things they learn about, so make back home as interesting as The Very Hungry Caterpillar by making a little album of pictures of your old town, your relatives, and things you loved as a kid in your homeland. It doesn’t need to be anything fancy, just pictures glued to colorful construction paper is enough to keep her interested.

Buy treats from Abuela: When you decide to give in to your kid's whines for candy at check-out or when you buy her the book she’s been asking for, make it a bonding experience with family far away. Say, “You know what? Abuelita told me to get you this.”  It will foster a feeling that your family far away is relevant to her day-to-day life.

Make talking to relatives a great treat, not a chore: Too often, because we love someone, we assume our children must too. Instead, make the conversation relevant to the child’s life. Encourage them to tell tío about their new bike, or to tell Abuelo about the movie they watched last night.

Tell happy memories: Kids love to hear stories about how things were when you were a young. This is a great opportunity to recount everything that was wonderful about your país. Describe it in detail, make it sound fun, and talk about the people. Remember funny stories. Kids can pick up on sadness, so tell the good things but don’t make it sound that you’re sorry you’re here. Remember, whether your plans are to return to your country or to make your life here, you can be a powerful role model to your child by showing them that you make the best out of every situation.

Raising kids far away from your family can be hard, but you can keep your heritage alive while you do it. You can remember the reason you’re here and still teach your kids to love the people you left behind.

How do you keep your kids connected to family back home?