Parents' getaway can be fun for kids left at home

April 18, 1993|By Eileen Ogintz | Eileen Ogintz,Contributing Writer

Before Jeffrey Fireman and his wife left on their Caribbean Cruise, he sat down at his computer and wrote a 10-page "cruise guide." Not for the ship -- for the grandparents who had arrived to baby-sit during the week the Firemans would be gone.

"The kids don't see their grandparents often," explained Dr. Fireman, a Sherman Oaks, Calif., pediatrician who has an 8-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter. "This was like a vacation for them, too." His "guide" covered everything from wake-up to bedtime, their play dates, the clothes they liked to wear to school, the foods they preferred, the TV programs they were permitted to watch and emergency phone numbers.

The trip, Dr. Fireman reports, was a great success -- for everyone. "We didn't want to come back," he says, joking. "When parents go away," Dr. Fireman continues in a more serious vein, "they should be as specific as possible in their instructions. No matter what the children's ages, the more consistent their routine, the more comfortable they'll be."

Parents too. Inevitably, you're going to feel guilty when you head off without the kids -- even for a weekend. You wonder what the neighbors will think. Will you be viewed like the "Home Alone Couple" who outraged Chicago over the Christmas holidays by leaving their two young daughters unattended while they went on a vacation to Mexico?

You will have every base covered before you walk out the door. That won't salve your conscience, though. The younger the kids, the worse you'll probably feel. (With toddlers just grappling with separation anxiety, you may want to consider a shorter trip.) The older they are, the more you'll worry that you won't have a house when you get back.

But take comfort. Experts will tell you that a respite from the kids is as good for them as it is for you. And remember, they'll always behave better when another adult -- besides a parent -- is in charge.

I learned that firsthand when we took a second-honeymoon trip to Antigua and left my in-laws in charge of our three kids. Eight-year-old Matt, known in the family for his antics, is definitely getting a bad rap, my in-laws insisted when we returned. His behavior was perfect. Matt smiled slyly at the telling.

"When you go away, it sends a message to kids that mom and dad think they [the kids] can handle things OK. It helps build self esteem and confidence," explains Dr. Michael Silver, a child psychiatrist who is associate medical director of the Philadelphia Child Guidance Clinic.

With many couples juggling two jobs and child-rearing, Dr. Silver says, spouses need time away together to focus on their relationship. "Trips alone are a necessary luxury for my wife and me," he adds.

It helps if you tell the kids your plans once you've got them firmed up. And then, "Go into the trip with positive expectations," Dr. Silver advises. "Start out thinking it will be fun for everyone."

That's made all the easier if you can leave the children with someone they know well and like. Grandparents are always a favorite. If you fear the breakneck pace of your household will prove too much, hire extra sitters to help out. That's what we did -- going so far as to have one sleep over to help with our toddler at night. "We didn't have to do any work," my mother-in-law reported happily. "We had plenty of time to enjoy the kids."

And the kids loved the extra attention. If you have no grandparents handy, try your preschool or child care center. Young teachers frequently are glad to be of service.

Don't forget to build in fun-time for the kids while you're away: plan for the sitter to take the kids to the movies or McDonald's. Arrange a sleep-over for your daughter or a skating date for your son. And above all, make sure the kids know who's in charge.

For the more anxiety-prone preschoolers, try leaving a calendar they can mark off until your return. Leave a tape they can play saying "This is Tuesday. . . . mommy and I are. . . ." Have the children keep a diary of their week and you keep one too. You can have fun exchanging notes when you return. Don't worry if your toddler gives you the cold shoulder when you get home. Just go back to your regular routine and he'll come around in short order.

Whatever you do, don't forget the presents. (But you might do better to skip the native doll in favor of a Barbie or video game you bought and stashed before you left!)

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