Kids can benefit from some one-on-one


January 09, 1994|By Eileen Ogintz | Eileen Ogintz,Contributing Writer Los Angeles Times Syndicate

We smiled one of those conspiratorial "I'm glad I'm here alone with you" kind of smiles at each other across the candle-lit table at the terrific little restaurant we'd stumbled on in the town where we'd stopped overnight. Then, between bites of steamed clams and seafood fettuccine, my daughter proceeded to fill me in on the latest doings in her second-grade class.

Reggie, who is almost 8, was thrilled with the grown-up ambience and food. She'd picked the place after reading the menu outside (checking with me to be sure it was within our budget) and peering in the window at the flower-bedecked tables. But most of all, she liked having me all to herself. As the middle child in a typically time-crunched '90s family with two working parents, she frequently complains about not getting enough "alone" time with me or her dad.

That was why I'd grabbed the chance to take her along when I had to do some research on traveling in the Southwest. And I was pleased her teachers were all for the idea, sending along a week's worth of homework that Reggie dutifully completed along with a journal of what we'd seen. I didn't count on how much fun I'd have.

Along the way -- which included long stretches in the car -- my daughter and I got to spend more time alone with each other than we'd ever managed since she was born a scant two years after her brother. I told her lots of stories about when I was her age. She listed every aggravating thing her brother and 2-year-old sister had done in the previous month. She told me the latest "knock-knock" jokes. She also gave me her take on every place we saw -- especially the duds -- and we helped each other choose just the right souvenirs to take home, laughing that the rest of the family never would have allowed us so much time to choose. She was helpful, cooperative and never whined. Where was this child at home, I wondered.

"The dynamics are all different. You're more like companions than parent and child. You're focusing on each other rather than work and getting homework done," explains Los Angeles child psychologist Jill Waterman, who teaches at UCLA. "The kid will be an angel, so it's easier for you."

"It's like he's taking care of me, too," adds Pat Murray, who owns a suburban Chicago beauty salon and has traveled alone with her adolescent son since he was small. That's not to say you can totally relax. "You're always on duty," Ms. Murray sighs.

Reggie and I had spats along the way, of course, but had more than enough adventures to make us forget what they were about the end of the day. Despite a grueling travel schedule, we were both sad when the trip was over.

As I dried her tears on the flight home, I resolved to sandwich in more one-on-one time with each child whenever we travel. In fact, I subsequently took my son, Matt, on a similar but shorter trip. His favorite parts: "swimming at 10 at night, missing school and getting room service."

The experts tell me such individual forays -- whether for an afternoon during a family vacation or a visit to the relatives, a weekend spent camping or even time squeezed into a business trip -- can have long-lasting positive benefits, including wonderful lifelong memories.

"It's great for a family's mental health," says New York psychologist Jane Greer, an expert on sibling relationships and author of "Adult Sibling Rivalry" (Fawcett).

Siblings may feel less compelled to compete so hard for your attention, she explains. And you won't feel so stressed on vacation trying to please everyone at once, especially when the kids want to go in entirely different directions.

"In order to share together as a family, you don't have to be together all of the time," adds Dr. Greer.

Only children also get a lot out of traveling one-on-one with a parent. Just ask Hathi Hanna, a Washington administrator who recently took her 6-year-old son on a business trip she extended over a weekend. "It was totally different than when the three of us were together," she said. "We talked about school and his friends. It was like 'Sit back and look at the big picture.' It was great."

Even better is knowing that such easygoing interaction can lay the groundwork for better communication during adolescence, notes Chicago pediatric psychologist Kim Dell'Angela, who teaches at Loyola University-Stritch School of Medicine. "You're letting them know that you appreciate them for who they are."

That means not having an agenda.

"This is not the time to talk about school problems," warns Dr. Waterman. Nor is it the time to impose your will on your child. Let him or her have a voice in the planning. And remember, you don't have to do the same thing with each child -- as long as you do something with each one.

It doesn't have to be a trip to Paris, either. What they'll remember more than anything is the time you spent alone together.

Head out on a hike with your oldest while the rest of the family does something else on vacation. Take your daughter camping for a weekend (if she likes the outdoors). Hit a children's museum near your mother-in-law's house with your preschooler.

Then when you get home, give your kids some "booster shots" of time alone with you. "It takes work to maintain that special bonding," explains Dr. Waterman.

But I'm afraid that won't be enough for Reggie at the moment. She'd like the two of us to take off again -- permanently.

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