It's OK to vacation without the kids Take a break: Separate time off can refresh everybody -- parents and youngsters. Of course, the sitter has to be fully prepared.

Taking the Kids

February 11, 1996|By Eileen Ogintz | Eileen Ogintz,LOS ANGELES TIMES SYNDICATE

Every family needs an Aunt Barbara.

Barbara Willer took vacation time to baby-sit her nephews -- flying from Washington, D.C., to Michigan to do it -- so their parents could get away on vacation.

The boys always have so much fun with Aunt Barbara they didn't mind Mom and Dad leaving them behind. And their parents left confident the kids couldn't have been in better hands. Not only is Ms. Willer a devoted aunt, but she's a child development expert with a doctorate in the field.

"Parents shouldn't feel guilty when they take a trip without their kids," says Ms. Willer, who works for the National Association for the Education of Young Children. "It can be a wonderful experience for the kids. Think of it as an opportunity."

For Mom and Dad, too. As much as we all love our kids and enjoy traveling with them, even the most devoted parents occasionally VTC need a break that lasts longer than dinner and a movie. It's good for a marriage as well as an individual psyche.

"I felt young again," said Gina Willer, Barbara Willer's thankful sister-in-law. "I came back from Mexico totally refreshed."

Weekend wonders

Even a weekend can work wonders. One fortysomething couple burst out laughing when the bellhop asked where they were from. They lived less than a mile from the hotel.

"Kids?" the bellhop inquired.

"Four," the couple replied.

The bellhop nodded knowingly. "We get a lot of folks like you," he said.

That couple, good friends of mine, went on to enjoy a blissful weekend that didn't require them to referee a single argument, cook a meal or drive a car pool. They didn't call home once, confident that if there were a problem, the sitter could reach them in an instant.

Gina Willer, meanwhile, left her sister-in-law well prepared for every contingency with copious lists of emergency phone listings, insurance policy numbers, medicine dosages and even maps to get to the doctor's office and hospital. Gina Willer's tip: Go over the household rules carefully with the kids as well as the baby sitter so they know who's boss.

"We felt really guilty when we left, but the kids had the time of their lives," she said. Aunt Barbara, of course, was completely exhausted at the end of the week.

Of course, few families have a devoted Aunt Barbara. Many do have grandparents willing to pinch hit, though.

Longtime soap opera actress Patricia Bruder recently shared baby-sitting responsibilities for her 2-year-old granddaughter in

Manhattan with the toddler's regular child-care provider while her parents were in France. Grandmother and granddaughter had a wonderful time, singing songs and dancing, exercising, even cooking.

Her advice: Rest whenever you get the chance when helping to care for a young child.

Rita Marcus learned a different lesson caring for her 9- and 14-year-old grandchildren in California recently: It wasn't worth fighting with them to maintain her meticulous housekeeping standards. She even managed to keep her feelings to herself about her grandson's haircut.

"My advice is to hang loose and spoil them a little," she said.

Carol Griffin agrees. She explains that when she takes over her son's household to care for her four grandchildren in Minneapolis, "I don't want to be the general. I try to be the $H pleaser."

But that might not be the best approach in a household full of teen-agers bent on testing every rule as soon as their parents are gone.

Be very clear about expectations -- from curfews to who can come over and where the teens may go, says Dr. Osama El-Shafie, who heads the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Department at Chicago's Loyola University-Stritch School of Medicine.

"That will help the teens to act responsibly," he explains. "You don't want to put them in a position where they might make a bad decision."

The Maggios circumvented that situation by planning a midweek trip when their teens would be in school all day and home doing homework at night. "Grandma came and gave them dinner and spent the night, getting them up for school," said Ms. Maggio, a Chicago hospital executive. "We didn't have to worry."

Barbara Shwom worked out an equally happy arrangement with the parents of one of her son's friends.

When one set of parents wants to go away, the two first-graders spend the weekend at the other's house. "The kids are happier, and we don't have to pay for a sitter," said Ms. Shwom, a college professor who lives in Chicago.

Everything planned

It beats the first time she and her banker husband took a vacation alone. Ms. Shwom thought she'd done everything right. Her then-4-year-old son Nathaniel was staying with his longtime sitter, whom he loved. He followed his regular preschool routine, down to prearranged play dates.

Ms. Shwom made him a "travel journal" to record his week and kept one for him in Italy. He put stickers on a calendar to mark the days until they would return. Each morning, his baby sitter gave him a card they'd written before he left, and each night he went to bed with a tape they'd recorded.

Still, whenever she and her husband called, he knew exactly how to push their guilt buttons. "I know you left me because I was bad," Nathaniel wailed.

The couple understandably felt awful. But bolstered by hearing from both his sitter and his teacher that he was just fine, they were able to put their concerns aside and enjoy their trip touring Tuscany, visiting art museums, lingering over late dinners.

"It was extraordinary to have 10 days to be together and be able to get up every morning thinking about what we wanted to do, not what we needed to do for someone else," said Ms. Shwom.

Nearly three years later, by the way, Nathaniel still loves to read his travel journal.

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