Friday, July 23, 2010

Extended Family and the Multilingual Child

Questions and answers, part 1! I'll try to answer these one or two at a time over the next several days.

veronica.maria.rojasdelaparra asked in the comments to my question and answer post

“I'd like to know how do you handle K's relationship with your family in the US. Have you ever visited? How do you feel about it? I ask because we visited my family (in Mexico) last Christmas when my son had just turned 2 and it was a disaster! He couldn't get used to the new environment and the new people, and I ended up feeling quite sad that my son and my mom couldn't get along as I had hoped they would. (we live in Belgium -married to the Fleming of my dreams-, BTW, so we only get so see my family every couple of years).”

We used to visit the USA about every 18 months, but when K was born it quickly became clear that my mother would never get over it if we kept her grandchild from her for that long at a time. Now we try to make it more like once a year, with three trips since last November for various unavoidable reasons (wedding and funeral). K has been to America four times so far, I think, though under normal circumstances it would have been just two. My mother has been to see us once and a few other members of the family have been at different times.

We’ve been fortunate so far that parts of my family made the effort to come see us, and that we could make the trip across the ocean ourselves, especially now before we are tied to the school schedule and can go whenever we want. Still, though, it’s obviously not enough to maintain a relationship like when you live in the same city. So far, however, our trips have always gone well.

One thing is that K is simply an outgoing, people-oriented little kid, so she is pretty agreeable to meeting new people, sitting on their laps and giving them kisses. She is also a really good traveler and (almost always) adapts well to new surroundings without too much fuss. That sort of thing just depends a lot on personality, I would think.

Another key thing is that we try to keep the grandparents’ memory alive, so to speak, even between visits. For example, we have pictures of all the extended family on display and often talk about them, and K likes to point to the pictures and name Apo, Mama, K, Grandmama, Babka, Dedo, uncles and aunts… We also talk about what is Grandmama doing right now, what we did when we visited last, anything to encourage a feeling of attachment.

Probably the most significant element, though, is SKYPE! We usually Skype with both sides of the family at least a couple of times a week, so they get to talk and, most importantly, see each other. This means that when we step off the plane in America, it’s not a total stranger greeting us, but the friendly face from the computer who watches while K sings and dances. I also let K talk on the phone when we call that way, even before she could talk and all she did was babble. That communication and especially video calling really does seem to make a difference.

Even so, K is always a little standoffish with both sets of grandparents at first, until she gets used to them. I know both grandmothers are a little sad when she doesn’t jump straight into their arms and have sleepovers with them and all that. I actually think this may improve with age, since just-turned-2 is a difficult time: old enough to object to being loved on by just anybody, and not old enough to understand the concept of “grandparents”. I wonder if your next visit will be smoother, with an older child and plenty of preparation for travel and how fun grandparents are. I think it's probably also important not to put too much pressure on your child, parents or yourself to "force" more intimacy than the child is ready for. Our families are pretty good about holding themselves back and going at K's pace, even when all the grandmothers want to do is pick her up and smother her with kisses. And just to recognize that it might take a while (a few visits/years) to build a comfortable grandparent-grandchild relationship. That may take some managing of expectations on the grandparents' part!

The good thing about relations with my side of the family is that K is most proficient in English, so my mom could understand her on our most recent visit (with some translation of “baby” English and Slovak-English the way K speaks it, of course). They were able to talk and play games, which will in turn help their next meeting to be even more fun, I think. K is old enough now to remember and start to form the emotional ties to extended family, even though I know it will never be the same as if we lived close by. That is a regret that I have, but there is no way we could satisfy both sides of the family, and we have to live our own life, too. It’s just a consequence of international living, it seems.

The flip side of that is that currently Slovak is K’s weaker language, so her Slovak grandparents really DON’T understand her. My mother-in-law is visiting now and I am providing a running translation of what K says, since K understands Babka but Babka doesn’t understand K. (And K seems DETERMINED that she will speak English to whomever she pleases, thank you very much, and that if someone doesn’t understand, then that is hardly her problem.)

Was language a factor for you? Like that your son didn’t understand Spanish well, so he – or grandma – was uncomfortable or unable to really connect? It really makes the Slovak of my dreams and I sad when we see that with his parents. Of course, part of the problem there is that they don’t understand even the Slovak that K does speak, because she talks too softly or they aren’t listening properly. It is pretty frustrating. However, we aren’t all that worried about it in the long term, since we know we’ll be moving and K will be learning Czech (close enough to understand Slovak) soon enough.

In short, I feel very fortunate that K and her grandparents on both sides have had as many opportunities to meet as they have, even though it is not as many as we could wish for. It gets harder and harder to walk away from them after a visit, knowing that K will be different next time, and that her grandparents are aging, too. I'm glad they have as good a relationship as possible under the circumstances, though, and I hope that it will continue to improve over time. I really hope that your next visit to Mexico will be more fun and relaxing for everybody!


Stay tuned for more answers next time. Thanks for asking and especially for de-lurking, since I didn't know you were there!


  1. I totally second that things just might get better with age - at least that's how it went with both my kids and their grandparents and other relatives (the closest ones to us are still 3 hours away, so we don't see them all that often either).

    Early on, my MIL had a hard time waiting for the kids to be ready to come to her, and I remember one incident in which she attempted to rip our daughter out of her bucket seat that we had plunked down in the hallway upon our arrival. The poor child was still strapped in at the time and the MIL was so excited that she didn't even notice she had a car seat attached to the baby in her arms. That didn't go over too well with our daughter who wailed and didn't let the grandma near her for the rest of that stay.... But normally they'd just both take their own sweet time before they were ready to interact with anyone "not us".

    Now that the kids are 3 and 5, they waltz right into the living room and seem to feel almost at home there, although the little one still has his shy moments. So hang in there, it'll probably get better!

  2. Hi again! Sorry for asking and running away, we were on vacation, but didn't mean to be rude! Thanks for answering my question in such a thorough way, by the way.
    I agree that must of the issues we've had with my son are due to his character (he's an independent introvert), and hopefully things will get better as he gets older and gets more familiar with the fact that he has relatives in another country. Unfortunately for us is not as easy to visit my side of the family every year, and so far no one of my relatives have come to visit, so that also is a factor. But you make a great point in managing expectations, next time I'll try to be more conservative in terms of what to expect, so the reality of it doesn't come as a shock.

    Funny enough, the language was the only thing that wasn't an issue, since I speak to him in Spanish all the time and we actually saw a bump in his Spanish while we were there.

    Anyway, thanks for the tips, it's always great to hear how other bilingual families deal with the issues that we inevitable have to face. Thanks for writing your blog!

  3. No problem, I hope you enjoyed your vacation! I know what you mean about travel to see family being complicated - I only hope that we can keep it up as K gets older and our family potentially grows. Without regular visits I think it might be more complicated but still doable - especially since smashedpea confirms for us above that age does, in fact, help! :) And...thanks for reading my blog :-D



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