When my parents bought their first mobile phones about 10 years ago, I didn't think they'd ever get the hang of using them. Mom would answer my call from the front of the line at Starbucks and say, "Hello darling, yes I'll take the tall thanks, what is it, James do you have any cash?" all in one breath. My favorite were the random, cryptic one-word text messages like "I" or "soon" or "shirtt."
But things have changed. These days mom sends texts saying: "Video chat in 5?" (insert smiley face).
Of course it's not me she wants to see in the chat window on her computer screen. It's my 2-year-old daughter, Kylie.
Video chats have become routine when my parents are at their home in Maryland. Dad will pick up colorful objects -- a Buzz Lightyear figurine, a sombrero, a bird feeder -- and move them toward his laptop's tiny camera lens, making Kylie squeal or say, "What's that funny thing, Granddad?" And mom will hold up an outfit she bought for her granddaughter to see if it meets our approval (it usually does).
My in-laws are slowly getting into it, too. Unable to attend Kylie's first birthday party, they watched us from laptops we set up on top of bookshelves. From their homes in Victoria, British Columbia, and the remote Pender Island, they watched Kylie slap her teeny hand into her cake's white frosting as everyone sang happy birthday. Every now and then, we'd look up and wave or raise a glass of champagne.
Becoming grandparents isn't the sole reason my parents have become technically savvy -- mom had a Kindle before Kylie came along -- but it has likely sped things up. They were quick to take on Google+ Hangouts when my husband (who, full disclosure, works for Google) suggested it as an easier option for us to chat face to face online. They now school their fellow baby boomer pals in London and Australia on how to use it, to varying degrees of success.
And mom is now more adept at navigating Apple TV than I am -- when she's babysitting Kylie and a request (read: demand) comes down for the YouTube rendition of "Twinkle Twinkle" featuring the little owl, mom will bring it up on the TV screen quicker than you can say, "Holy diaper rash."
(Mind you, Kylie is figuring all this out just as quickly. She knows that slamming a laptop shut concludes a chat she deems to be getting dull -- adorable when you're in the room with her, not so funny if you've been hung up on.)
For grandparents who are online -- and a recent Pew study suggests 53 percent of American adults over 65 are, with one in three of those seniors using social networks -- living apart from grandkids doesn't mean never seeing them.
Margie Tucker, 62, of Voorhees, N.J., says she feared she and her husband, Steven, would be strangers to their 4-year-old grandson because he lives in Denver. So she got into Skype.
"My family would laugh at me, because when (my grandson) was just beginning to move around, I was happy just to sit and watch him without any dialogue going on," Tucker says. "We've watched him learn to ride his bike, play ball, learn to write his name, play with his trucks. ... We often eat together, although they are two hours behind us."
And let's not forget the wonders of virtual babysitting.
"My daughter is a single mom, so I have even kept (my grandson) 'occupied' for a few minutes while she got dinner started or put a load of laundry in," Tucker says. "I like my iPad because it's so portable and easy to use. I have shown him an interesting bug on our deck, what the new carpet looks like, and how high the snow is at our house. My own kids were raised with long-distance grandparents, and there is little comparison to the advantages we have now."
Kathryn Barker, 65, from Redding, Calif., is active on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram and has her own blogging website. And in spite of her initial reluctance, she's taken to texting as a way to stay in touch with two of her out-of-town grandchildren, who are 8 and 10.
"I cannot quite get the hang of abbreviating words, and incorrect punctuation is difficult for me to ignore," she says. "But I am giving in to not capitalizing words. My thumb dexterity is still lacking."
Barker has also tried Facetime for video calls and notes that her grandchildren never comment on her tech willingness. Likely, she says, they expect everyone to know as much as they do or more.
"I think I'm just your average grandma in awe of the ease with which these kids have transcended a world I came to know later in life."
I sometimes wonder if it's odd for my parents to see their granddaughter expertly scroll through photos on my iPhone with her miniature finger. After all, it freaks me out. While the Internet has held my hand through my adult life, my childhood was devoid of doodads (unless you count the portable Pac-Man console my brother and I used to fight over).
Lance Ulanoff, editor-in-chief at Mashable.com, refers to the key generation in technological proliferation as "digital natives."
"These are the people who over the next five years will enter adulthood, who know nothing but the digital experience," he says. "It's completely natural for them to share everything. It's natural for them to expect whatever they can see on a big screen they can see on a small screen, to have access to every bit of information they need in the palm of their hands. They don't even imagine anything other than that. Those are the people that are going to transform society."
For now then, grandkids and parents would do well to take advantage of something the baby boomers still seem to hold dear -- balance.
While they might embrace technology to stay in the mix and because they enjoy it, they're also big fans of powering down.
Tucker says she still occasionally writes letters on paper to post to her grandson in Denver and visits whenever she and her husband can. And when my parents are spending time in New York, they bring Kylie Play-Doh, crayons and books. Granddad takes her to the park and pushes her on the swing, her hair blowing in 10 different directions.
You know ... stuff that doesn't require an on-off switch.