Extra steps can help bridge the gap to distant grandkids

How can a grandparent stay in touch with grandchildren separated from them by distance, divorce or other dislocation?

That depends on your level of commitment.

If you are very motivated, there are plenty of ways. But be prepared to invest some time, effort and money in the cause. Here are some ideas:

*Arrange visits. Ask parents — or in divorce cases, the custodial parent (and if that's not your child, ask very diplomatically) — for time during school holidays and summer vacations.

Offer to keep the children so that the parents can take a much-earned vacation and you could be a real hero. Be prepared to shell out for at least half, if not all, of the travel expenses involved. And if very young children are involved (under 7 years old), realize that you may have to fly to pick them up and return them home. Most airlines will charge a fee to watch "unaccompanied minors" ages 7 to 14 during the flight. Children 14 and older can usually be expected to travel by themselves.

If great travel distances are not involved, propose a plan that emphasizes regular visitation time, at your expense and the parents' convenience. Avoid conflicts with school nights, religious functions, sports activities, birthdays and other times parents should expect first dibs with their kids' free time. Try to make visits as easy as possible, for all concerned — pick up and deliver, door to door. Be prompt and reliable.

*Use the phone. Telephone contact is a dependable, if not over-used, solution. Be consistent. Arrange a regular time that avoids mealtime, study hours, or other times that the kids will be too distracted to talk to you. The early evening, around 7 p.m., is most often the safest bet.

If the house you're calling has only one telephone, be sensitive to how much time you propose to tie up the line. If you have the resources, and are really serious about this, you may even suggest helping foot the bill for a separate line for the kids.

*Use e-mail. Yes, this may involve becoming computer literate, but it's not all that scary. It's easy to learn to use a computer. Classes that teach you how to use the Internet are plentiful, cheap and mercifully quick. With e-mail, you can write letters, send articles, and links to other Web sites, and even transmit pictures back and forth. Again, consider chipping in for the costs involved.

*Send videotapes. These are fun to send back and forth. To avoid the cost of a camcorder at your grandkids' end, you could purchase a camcorder small enough to share.

If you became really computer savvy, you could transmit live video images through a webcam, which cost about as much as a name-brand 35-millimeter point-and-shoot camera.

*Mail letters. Write weekly letters and enclose return postage — don't make your grandkids beg for stamps. Ask for copies of school work, drawings they've crayoned, construction-paper projects, pictures of pets or even friends, and other areas of interest to your grandkids. Be prepared to decorate your refrigerator. Send stuff to them as well — don't make them do all the work.

*Be a teacher. Offer to teach or mentor. Again, be mindful of the parents' wishes. Don't stick your nose in areas where you're clearly not wanted. Consider helping out with schoolwork, religious school lessons, scouting projects, or other extra-curricular activities. If you get the green light, you may even wish to contact teachers to get resource materials for assisting with regular lessons, basic tutoring or even extra credit. This could include sports activities, musical instruments, games, sewing, and arts and crafts.

*Take an adventure. Show your grandchildren the world — or at least the next town over. Consider some place they wouldn't, or couldn't, go with their parents. Maybe it's just a baseball game, a museum, the opera or a flea market. Anything you can do to show them the world will help broaden their interests, not to mention sweeten their memories of your time together.

*Wing it. Improvise some ideas yourself. Take into account all the benefits of your years of experience, your special skills, talents, abilities and experiences you can share with your grandchildren. That's what grandparents are for.

Since your own kids probably decided years ago that they know more than you do, it's time to share your knowledge with your grandkids — while they're still young enough to listen!