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TPG Contributor Jason Steele has learned the ropes of family travel, but one challenge he never expected was that of finally leaving the kids behind for the first time. For those of you who are busy raising the next generation of explorers, I asked him to offer his insights.
My wife and I love the challenges and rewards of traveling with our children, but we were quickly surprised by how difficult it can be as new parents to travel without them. When our first daughter was two years old, we visited my parents in Atlanta for Thanksgiving, and then cashed in some miles for a week long “second honeymoon” in Salvador, Brazil by ourselves.
The trip was fantastic and horrible at the same time. Sure enough, our daughter was happy and safe with my parents, but we were a wreck. Rather than being excited on the drive to the airport, we were mortified over leaving our daughter for the first time, for an entire week, while we traveled to a different continent. While ultimately we did enjoy our vacation, we spent much of it missing her, and couldn’t wait to return home.
We later realized that while there’s plenty of advice out there (like my own, for example) about how to travel with your children, we had never come across any about how to leave them behind.
Here’s what we have since learned:
1. You have to have a caregiver that has plenty of experience with your child. Grandparents and other relatives are great, but only if they have already spent significant time bonding with your child one on one. The right person is not just someone that the parents trust, but someone the child knows and trusts as well. If your child will be staying in someone else’s home while you’re gone, it must be a place where he or she has spent the night several times before.
2. Make the first few trips brief ones. I’ve heard of couples who schedule two-week vacations in Europe as their first trip without their kids, and I think it’s a huge mistake. Our biggest problem was not going to Brazil for a week, but making that our first trip without our daughter. In retrospect we should have experimented with just one night away the first time, and then at least one other weekend before scheduling an entire week apart.
With our second child we planned more carefully, and have taken two domestic trips before she turns two; both were overnight trips where we were gone for less than 36 hours. From Denver, we visited Seattle and Austin each for one night, on two different trips. The result was that we had much more fun than stress, and are now prepared to take longer trips in the future.
3. Don’t go too far. When we went to Brazil, distance seemed to make a difference as well. Had we taken a road trip or a short domestic flight, it would have been a lot easier to return if necessary for any reason. In South America we felt like we were a million miles away.
4. Plan an extended drop off. If your caregiver is in another city, it can be tempting to drop your child off during a short layover. Don’t do it. It’s important that you take your child to the home of the caregiver and spend plenty of time together there. That shows the child that you are happy with the caregiver, and that he or she will be safe there. It also gives you plenty of time to explain to your child that you’re going on a trip, and to give a meaningful (but not protracted) goodbye, which is crucial.
5. Talk about it about with your child. You can’t make a trip away from your child a surprise. You need to tell him or her about the trip weeks in advance, and have the conversation several times. Even though a toddler might not fully understand it or remember all of the details, your child will intuitively grasp that mom and dad are going “bye-bye,” but that they will be coming home soon.
6. Plan something fun for the kids each day. An extended absence is an opportunity for parents and caregivers to dig deep into their bags of tricks to make sure that kids have an extra-fun time. Have your caregiver plan visits to their favorite parks, museums, restaurants, and be sure to foot the bill. With older kids, you can even create a calendar together of fun activities that ends with your return.
7. Relax and have a good time. Once you’ve planned your trip meticulously and left your child with a trusted caregiver, its time to let go. If you’ve done everything right, your separation anxiety will still be worse than your child’s, but you’ll manage. In fact, your child will probably end up having more fun than you do. Call home just once a night before bedtime, and buy a nice souvenir, but otherwise treat the trip just like you did before you became parents.