Children and Foreign Grandparents



We have been in Poland for about a week, with another week to go. TH’s family is as lovely as ever, and once the (grueling) flight from the States to Poland is over I always feel we shouldn’t wait so long to come back again.


I anticipated a really awful flight, and the kids actually exceeded my expectations. It was overnight and they slept for a good portion of it. We bought a seat for T2 and put her in a car seat and that made things a lot easier. I also expected jet lag with two kids to be tough, and it was. The kids have been sleeping in the same room for several weeks now, but here we have been unable to get them to settle in and sleep through the night if they are together. I’m grateful that my in-laws are providing us with several days in Berlin without the kids. We are craving some serious re-connection time as a couple.


One thing I didn’t anticipate was how hard this trip would be for T1. Previously he was very young, either not talking yet or just learning to speak, and he didn’t seem to mind the language barrier so much. All speech probably sounded a bit confusing to him! Now though he seems really thrown by the lack of English and strong accents. I confess I’m not sure how to walk the line between affording him space to be shy and autonomous, and pushing him outside of his comfort zone in order to be polite and attempt to form bonds with these family members who love him so much.

We’ve talked about different options but aren’t sure what will be best. Maybe we keep the current approach, visiting for two weeks every 1-2 years, and see how things develop. Try to prioritize video conferencing more often. Long summers in Poland for the kids at some point? Are there things we can do now to prevent the same disconnect for T2?

It’s been really hard for me to watch all of this unfold, because I feel like one way I can express love and gratitude for my inlaws is to encourage my kids to engage with the in meaningful ways. But T1 is his own person, and I can’t force him to feel and think and act in ways that don’t match with what he wants. I hope this is just a stage, like most other things with kids this young.

Do I have any readers with family who live internationally and speak a language that isn’t spoken by their grandchildren/nieces/nephews/etc? How have you made it work?

31 thoughts on “Children and Foreign Grandparents

  1. This is something I have thought of and one thing I think would be to find some sort of Polish group back home so the kids are hearing the language and culture first hand before coming back and also if your husband reads children’s books to them in Polish.

  2. I’m not quite in the same situation, as my children are growing up bilingual (we use the one person – one language approach at home), and having a shared language has really helped my daughter (almost 3 now) to connect with her Finnish family.

    Could you start helping the kids learn Polish, even if just a little bit? Maybe “study” together using picture cards or something? Or could your husband start speaking Polish at home? I haven’t been reading your blog for long, so I’m not sure how you feel about bilingualism, but that might be worth a shot… Might there even be a Polish kid’s group around your area? We are considering taking the kid’s to a monthly Finnish playgroup about 1.5 hours away to strengthen the minority language.

    We do have a “almost kind-of” adopted family in Canada, who speak neither German nor Finnish, and, already last year, it took my daughter some time to get used to not understanding them/them not understanding her. It was quite adorable how she tried swithing languages to make them understand her 😉

    We’re having someone from that family over later this summer and I’m really interested to see how it goes this time around. I found that talking about it, giving the kid time and space and encouraging common activities that don’t require a lot of talk helped her at 2, so maybe it’ll work again.

    Ooops, that turned into a novel…

    Have fun in Berlin, it’s an AWESOME city.

    Jenna Reply:

    The Polish family sends over flashcards and movies and such, maybe it’s time for me to start paying attention to them as well! We need to look for things for really young babies though, like 18 months. We have a few board books for 3-5 years and even a few words on the page is too much for me!

    We saw a little boy through the fence yesterday (grandchild of my inlaws neighbors) and he was teaching us simple Polish words as he responded to us handing him raspberries and strawberries. I think a playgroup of really little kids would be the very best for all of us!

    Finnmarie Reply:

    My husband even started learning Finnish using those board books they make for 12 – 18 month olds. Basically just pictures with single words. It gives you a great start and you can make it a game with the kids.

    PS. can you sense that bilingualism is a passion of mine? lol

  3. In light of the language barrier and how uncomfortable P is, are you worried about leaving him to go to Berlin? It sounds like it might be pretty scary for him.

    Lauren Reply:

    honestly, I spent a lot of time with my grandparents who didn’t speak english, it works just fine 🙂

    Finnmarie Reply:

    That didn’t even occur to me when I was commenting, but yeah, I must say I’m not sure that’s the best idea if T1 is uncertain about them… While our English speaking “family” was over last year, they really wanted to watch the kiddo for us, but we organized it so that I put her to bed and left after that. They were there to cuddle her in case she woke up (they were all comfortable with each other) but there was no need for a lot of talking.

    Will the kids have someone around who can understand them/who they can understand? Even if with a heavy accent…

    Jenna Reply:

    Oh yes, my FIL speaks english. And we were gone most of the day at museum and shopping and dinner so I think he is warmed up to the situation by now. He would really struggle if we dropped him off and left straightaway, I think.

  4. I think the more time spent with them the better. So the idea of more video conferencing I think is a good start. I grew up with a grandmother who barely spoke English. Granted she lived in the same state so I would see her a lot more through the years as compared to T1 and his grandparents. I don’t remember how I reacted when I was younger but eventually we found our own rhythm, it just took time. I would even spend weekends with her where pretty much all she could say was “My granddaughter”, “My beautiful” and somehow we survived. Having a sibling with me also was key so I’m sure T2 might be more comfortable in general just because she has T1 showing her the way.

    I have a sensitive child too so I know the inner battle between giving them space but trying to push them. I’m sure your few days in Berlin will be fine. There will of course be a transition period but as long as T1 is with people who love him, eventually he’ll feel comfortable and safe with them.

  5. Oh and I forgot to ask, have you thought about teaching the kids Polish to help? I know that’s overwhelming but I seriously wish my mom would have taught me Ukrainian so I could have communicated with my grandmother over the years and so I could have been bilingual. I know it’s hard because TH travels so much but even if T1 could learn some basics I’m sure as he got older he’d really appreciate it. You might even be working on it now so I’m don’t know. I hear it’s infinitely easier for children to pick up a 2nd language than when they’re adults. This of course is more for long term, doesn’t help immediately on this trip 🙂

  6. This doesn’t help you in the present but would it be possible for T1 and T2 to learn Polish from TH at home? Many of my dad’s relatives only speak Spanish and I remember that once my dad started speaking Spanish more at home I felt more comfortable spending time with those relatives as a child.

    Jenna Reply:

    When T1 was born I nagged TH constantly to speak Polish to him. Then I got tired of nagging and decided that he could figure out his children and his parents and his mother tongue. Maybe I shouldn’t have given up so easily?

    Finnmarie Reply:

    It’s tough when you’re not both on board.
    It’s tough even when you are. My husband didn’t speak any Finnish when we met. At some point, as things we getting serious, he started learning in order to talk to my mom (it helps my mom charms everyone right off the bat so he really wanted to talk to her), when the kids came he was pretty far on and now he understands everything I say to the kids.
    Our friends tried to do it as well, but as he doesn’t understand her mother tongue, she got tired to repeating everything in two languages and only speaks her native language sporadically.

    BUT, it’s not too late. Maybe the trip will help convince TH that it’s time to speak Polish to his children!

  7. I know exactly how this feels… but as the child. My grandparents never spoke english. When I was very young (up to the age of 5) I was able to communicate with them, but once I started going to school, I lost all of my spanish, and found it very hard to communicate with them. My honest advice is a few things. Teach both the child and the grandparents a few hand signs that they can both understand: bathroom, sleepy, hungry, and VERY IMPORTANT: ‘I LOVE YOU’!!! Skype more. and yes, send him for the whole summer, he’ll learn how to deal, and it will all work out. I spent every summer bounced between family members because both of my parents worked, and honestly, those are some of the best memories I have!

    My biggest regret is the fact that I never bonded with my hispanic grandparents as well as my ‘white’ ones, and I firmly believe that it was due to the language barrier. Do EVERYTHING in your power to overcome that, it is so very important!

    Also, try putting him in language classes, have your husband speak to him in both languages. Babies pick up so much, and being bilingual is such a wonderful asset.

    Jenna Reply:

    Ohhh, your parents sent you to your grandparents for the summer! I never did that so I don’t know what that feels like. Did you feel confused by what your parents were doing? Maybe hard at first, but then you started to have fun and it felt more familiar?

    Catherine Reply:

    My grandparents all spoke English, so it’s not the same, but as a child I and my sisters would spend substantial amounts of time with our grandparents during the summer without our parents. Not the whole summer, as I recall, but definitely at least several weeks at a time. There’s an adjustment period, but it does become more familiar and fun the longer you are there, and the more you do it. I think that’s what has to happen, really – it’s never going to be comfortable right off the bat, there’s always going to be a necessary warming up period, and it may be that with 2 weeks every 1-2 years you don’t get much past that because there simply isn’t time. I think that in sending them for the summer (or even a month) initially it might be scary and strange, but eventually that would pass, and is probably the best way to get past it at that.

    Sorry for the long reply to something that wasn’t even mine to begin with, but really I’m just saying I think sending them for the summer would probably be a pretty great thing, in the long run, even if it’s scary and hard at first. 🙂

  8. Does TH speak Polish to him at all? Maybe that could be something else you incorporate (besides more video conferencing), that way T1 gets even more familiar with the language. Maybe you and he could learn some basic Polish together!

  9. I don’t have a dual-language family but we do have grandparents with whom my older child felt quite shy for a couple of years. I think he’s at a tough age for socializing–not a baby anymore but too young to be able to “fake it” for the sake of other people’s feelings. I’d let him (mostly) express his emotions/shyness as he wishes; maybe encourage things like reading a book or playing ball together that doesn’t require much hard work on his part. Let him just watch and process from the sidelines if he wants to. If his feelings are respected now, it will set him up well for when you return in another year or two, when he’s older and able to engage more fully.

    Jenna Reply:

    I think the thing I’m struggling with the most is feeling trapped between the two parties. I want to respect my child, but I also want to respect my MIL. I want both of them to like me and feel like I am on their side! But I do firmly believe that it’s important for children to feel like they are respected.

    Laura Reply:

    What does your MIL seem to want you do to? Encourage him to be more outgoing? With my in-laws I had to “side” with my child for a year, but did it as subtly as I could. When they were saying things to my daughter like “come here! give me a hug! Why won’t you talk to me? Don’t be shy!” I would speak to them, suggesting how they could interact with her less aggressively (“why don’t you read her a book”; “you could ask her to play this game”; “give her a minute to settle in and then I bet she’ll want to play Uno”; “maybe we can all help make the snack together”), rather than speaking to my daughter and telling her how to respond. The language barrier makes everything harder for you, I’m sure, and it’s hard for me to imagine exactly how it would work in two languages…

  10. I grew up with some first and second generation immigrants and they went to “Polish school” on Saturdays where they took language classes and socialized with other Polish kids. Not sure if there is as large of a Polish community in San Francisco as there is in the NYC suburbs, but it might be worth looking into when your kids are a little older.

  11. We make a big effort to include Greek in our kids’ lives, and it is some work. I speak it, but not at all fluently, and my husband is fluent, so we decided that he would do mostly Greek, and I do mostly English. Every time we go over, we buy ridiculous amounts of books and toys just so our son will have exposure to the language–we want him to know it not only so he can understand Baba, but also so he can read his favorite book about Elenitsa taking a bath, or play with his toy phone! I respond to and reinforce anything he says in Greek, read books to him in Greek (which takes practice beforehand… good for me!) and listen to Greek songs in the car (also good for my own language skills 😉 ).

    When I was a child, my dad would take us over for a month or a month and a half at a time, and that was a good amount of time to settle in and start learning. There were times it was overwhelming or lonely, but living at home is never perfect either–and now as an adult, I have a warm, loving relationship with my family over there and we all talk on Facebook 🙂

    If I were you, I’d look for a Polish nanny and take an introductory class! It wouldn’t take too much for you to be able to read board books (some public libraries have kids’ foreign language books, too–you could ask at yours which branch to visit), and it would make your travels even richer. My parents deeply regret that they didn’t speak the language in the house, because it would’ve been a (relatively) easy and very valuable gift to give me–one I had to work at to achieve later in life.

  12. Check out, maybe there are some courses there… or some other resources? Start learning it yourself – it will take a long time, but it will be worth it! And then you can both work on teaching it to the children. I’m glad it matters to you!

  13. Please do a recap of your trip and your side jaunt to Berlin–I love those!

    I’d encourage TH to try and speak to them in Polish. My grandmother is Polish (immigrated after WWII in the 1950s) and my dad spoke (but didn’t write) fluent Polish growing up because of her. He never tried with us and I really wish he did. He can still remember a lot more than he thought he could when he tries, though. It’s such an awesome skill to have and so easy to acquire as a child vs trying to learn formally later. Given your kids have very close family still in Poland, I think it is even more important.

  14. It is not too late to start doing the bilingual thing. Read some research about it, it proofs to be a real benefit for the children’s brain development.

  15. My mother used to speak to me in Dutch as a child, but over time she shifted to English because we live in an English-speaking country and it’s my parents’ common language. I know that she regrets not speaking to my sister and I more in Dutch when we were growing up. She sometimes tries to start speaking to us only in Dutch, but habits have been formed and it never lasts more than a couple of weeks.
    Thankfully my grandparents and older relatives all speak perfect English, but my cousins (aside from the half-American ones) couldn’t speak more than a few words until they were about 11/12. We taught each other new words whenever we visited. I could understand what everyone was saying but I didn’t have the confidence to speak in Dutch myself and would only do so if strictly necessary.

    To be honest, that hasn’t changed much. I understand what’s being said around me, I can listen to the news, listen to lectures, watch films, read magazines etc but when it comes to speaking I’m at a loss. I just can’t find the words. My vocabulary returns to what it was when I was four. I think it’s because that was around the time I started caring about making mistakes and thought I would be laughed at.

    Anyway, what I’m trying to get at is that early and consistent exposure is everything. If I was practiced enough to maintain confidence throughout childhood I’m sure I would be perfectly fluent by now. Also, I would always take a couple of days to warm up to these strange people who I only saw every other year. Then again at that age it would also take me a few hours to warm up to Maltese relatives I hadn’t seen in two months.

  16. We haven’t reached the stage where language is an issue yet since A. is the same age as T2.
    We’ve made the decision to be bilangual at home. I speak French to my daughter (it’s actually been easier than I thought) and my husband speaks English. We speak English to each other since he doesn’t understand French.
    I read books to her in French, get her to listen to French music/stories. That’s for the language part.

    To keep the connection with my family we skype whenever possible (difficult with my schedule and the time difference, it’s not regular). My daughter loves it and waves at the computer even when it’s not on 🙂
    I’ve also printed a book called the little book of faces that we gifted her for her 1st birthday. I read it regularly to keep her familiar with the faces of the people in her family that she doesn’t get to see.

    Now that T1 is older, maybe you could also have Polish nights, put a polish kid movie on, make polish food (or order out if you can), talk about family there. Maybe you could regularly show them pictures of your trips there and tell them about it.

    Reading other comments, I definitely love the suggestions to tell his family on how it’s best to approach T1. Suggest activities that he loves to help him warm up to them and help them bond. His grandparents love him and they will reach out anyway they can I’m sure.

    As some readers I spent weeks at a time with my grandparents when we were kids. My parents worked, so our vacations were with Mamie and Papi. I have wonderful memories of it. They would take us to the beach or in the mountains, we would hike, boat, watch grandma make jam and taste it. Etc.
    Of course it takes a little more organization when traveling overseas… But it’s worth it. If they have cousins there they’ll love it even more so.

  17. It sounds like two things are going on: the grandparents T1 rarely sees expect him to be outgoing and comfortable with them and that’s hard. My daughter was very slow to warm up to people she didn’t see on a regular basis and it took me a long time to understand not to push her and the grandparents finally “got” it and it helped when they could interact thru an activity and not in conversation. As far as language, I think others have made great suggestions but TH has to be proactive on this- it is HIS native language and it’s not too late to integrate at least some basic vocabulary into daily conversation. Bridging the two cultures can be done in little ways day-to-day at home just by introducing Polish words. Can you bring back some picture books in Polish? Good luck.

  18. Hi! I’m really late on this, but maybe you’ll see it anyway. My grandmother was both ESL and hearing impaired, so I have a bit of insight. While your husband definitely needs to take some responsibility for teaching the kids Polish (because that is a life skill and it’s important!), I think it’s also important to step back from putting language at the center of the kids’ interaction with their grandparents.

    T1 is at a great age for playing board games or even learning simple card games. Most of those don’t require language. Memory, Chutes & Ladders, Candyland, etc. and not language-intensive and they are a great opportunity for him to bond with his grandparents. Do either of his grandparents have active hobbies? He might enjoy working with them on a small garden, for example. They could bake cookies together or roll cabbage rolls or make meatballs–the kind of handwork that kids can’t mess up. If his grandfather has a collection of any kind–coins, stamps, etc.–maybe they could work on that together.

    Even non-creative grandparents can make playdough or pancakes or color a coloring book together or play catch. It’s about finding a way to do something active and kind of slide in a little bit of language, I think. Over time, T1 will pick up more and more.

    I also think Skype is a great idea. Let T1 and eventually T2 show off art work or a song he learned at school. Like, if you do five minutes at a time, it doesn’t feel like, “OMG, weird foreign grandparents.” You know? I really loved my grandma, even though she was hard to talk to sometimes. You have to let it develop and it’s easier if it’s fun.

  19. My 2 year-old son skypes with his Italian grandparents almost every morning while he eats breakfast (they’re eating lunch at the same time). When they came to visit last month he acted like it was no big deal and he’d seen them just yesterday. He grabbed Nonna’s hand and took her see his toys. He’s just now starting to talk, so it’s hard to tell how well he’s learning Italian. Right now he seems to comprehend everything they’re saying, but he only uses a couple of Italian words himself. We definitely plan to send him for extended visits over the summer when he gets a little older.

  20. I am Portuguese, and my husband is English (from South Africa). I speak a mix of Portuguese and English with my almost-2-year-old son and he understands both languages. He also says certain words in Portuguese – for example when I ask him if he wants “water”, he replies “agua” which is Portuguese for water. The same for “light”, he says it in Portuguese, not English. I think the way to get around this is for your hubby to start speaking to the kids in Polish, its the only way to learn. I am lucky though that Connor’s day mother ONLY speaks Portuguese and that my mom also speaks Portuguese to him. It is very important to me that he grows up understanding both, like I did.

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