Video chats with our kids and grandkids can be great fun, but my neighbor Susan tells me that her chats are not much fun. With a little effort you can turn boring video chats into a great bonding experience that children will enjoy. I’m going to tell you how.
Millions of families are benefitting from video chats to stay connected. I discovered video chat in 2010, Skype was 7 years old, and Facetime was just being released. Today we have many other video chat apps, including Zoom, Google Duo, and Facebook. Video chat is an extraordinary tool for parents and grandparents who are separated from their kids or grandkids.
Research has shown interactive chats are the most effective for building family bonds. An interactive chat consists of both action and communication. The action is what makes it different from a telephone call. When you interact with children, they become motivated to listen, watch what you are doing, and participate. For example, playing peek-a-boo is an interactive game that young children are enthusiastic about playing during a video chat.
After a decade of using video chat, I learned what makes chats with children fun and effective. I suggest the following:
- Check with parents to select the best time to chat with infants and young children. New parents are often tired, and kids at any age when tired, hungry, or frustrated will not enjoy chatting. Talk with the child’s parents about the call length that is comfortable for both the parent and the child. Call at their convenience and do not overstay your visit. Prior to a chat, consider sending a simple text or making a phone call to ask when the best time to chat would be.
- Know what children enjoy at different ages and stages of development. Ask about the child’s skills, preferred activities, and favorite toys. In addition, learn about age-appropriate activities at your local library or by using Internet resources like the CDC website. We know that infants respond to sound and touch. If the touch cannot be yours, a parent can hold the baby or stroke an arm while you are talking. A baby can learn to recognize your voice, even if you are not with the baby frequently. Toddlers like action, puppets, games, and demonstrating their new skills such as using pull toys or combing their hair. School age children have many interests that can be enjoyed during a video chat. Share jokes and riddles, read a chapter book together, play hangman, share a collection, sing songs, or play musical instruments.
- Remember the attention span of young children is short. A two-year-old will be attentive for about 4 to 6 minutes. A four-year-old, 8-12 minutes. By six years children can enjoy chatting 12-18 minutes. You can often extend attention with interactions. Playing with puppets and props like dinosaurs, action figures, or stuffed animals promotes interaction and interest. Activities will draw a child’s attention to the screen. Positive responsiveness such as smiling, clapping, and praising extends attention span.
- When toddlers stop engaging in a chat you can enjoy observing. Younger children sometimes leave the chat to play with toys on their own. Do not take this personally, instead ask the parent to adjust the position of the webcam so you can observe the child playing in the room. If you continue chatting with the parent, it is likely that the child will return to the screen to share a favorite toy with you or to rejoin the conversation.
- Children love repetition. Once a child moves from one age to another, do not hesitate to go back to activities that they enjoyed when younger. Kids love returning to favorite songs, games, jokes, and books. My school age grandkids still enjoy showing me their favorite stuffed animals and action figures, and I share familiar toys that I collected for their virtual visits.
- Teens prefer technology. Email, text, and video chat are the ways teens communicate today. Parents and grandparents who are separated from teens need to learn to use this technology. Being a good listener, without feeling like you must suggest solutions, works best with teens. Discussing books, movies, and the environment are all topics of interest to teens. Teaching skills like knit, or crochet, playing musical instruments together, or talking about investing and selecting a stock to follow might be a good connection with your teen. Video chat with each other while hiking, walking on the beach, or fishing, to share what each is doing.
- Ask good questions. The secret to great conversations with children and teens is to ask questions that will produce more than a yes or no answer. Some examples include: Who made you smile today? What do you like most about school? Did you catch someone doing something funny today? I see that you lost your tooth…tell me about it? I feel sad about that; how do you feel? What can I do to help you?
Video chat has given me the opportunity to see and communicate frequently with my grandchildren who live a long distance away. Being able to watch those children grow motivated me to help other parents and grandparents to learn about the magic of video chat.
Lillian Tibbles, PhD is a grandmother, a retired family therapist and the author of three books about video chat with kids. Her latest book is How to Have Fun with Kids and Grandkids Using Video Chat.