You are not the only one who has asked yourself this question. Type it into Google and you’ll get a mind-boggling 39,900,000 responses — with the vast majority of the respondents giving the same answer.
[Confession: I did not read all 39.9 million responses before writing this article. (I am a slow reader.) I randomly scanned well over a hundred and read about half of these, especially ones from psychologists, educators, and others likely to be knowledgeable about this topic.]
The consensus: parents taking well-planned vacations without their children do their children no harm and may even benefit them. But there are pitfalls.
1. Consider “togetherness” when planning the length of vacations. Vacations provide far more togetherness than being at home, more togetherness than some families are comfortable with. At home, there are acceptable “escape valves” such as separate leisure activities, school, multiple TVs and friends to visit, for example. Not so in hotel rooms and trailers. On long vacations, some adults become anxious about missing work. Children miss friends. Homesickness causes moodiness.
2. Family vacations need not involve all family members. A growing trend is for one parent to go with one child. It may be because one parent is tied up by work or family obligations. Or sometimes vacations are planned for one parent, one child to tailor to specific interests or reward for outstanding achievements. Such vacations, likely produce quality togetherness for those going, but they also require strategic planning to prevent those remaining at home from feeling left out. The stay-at-home child (or parent) must understand that his or her turn is coming.
3. School-age children successfully vacation without their parents. Experience shows no on-going ill effects on the millions of children who go to sleep-away camps, many for eight weeks. Most parents and children find such children’s attendance at camps to be positive experiences, occasional homesickness notwithstanding. Yet most camps severely restrict contact between parents and children, acting almost prison-like. Usually, children can make or receive few, if any, telephone calls and no texts. They generally get one Parent Visiting Day when staying many weeks and none when staying a week or two.
4. Some parents foster separation anxiety in their children.These parents (more often mothers) in subtle ways encourage their children to remain dependent on them. Such children are rarely left with sitters (even when capable grandparents are available) and are breastfeed and co-sleep well into the second year. They are more likely to experience their own separation issues, school phobia later on, for example.
5. There are reasons parents need to spend time away from the kids. Raising children is difficult and most parents who differ are not being honest with themselves. Parenting is emotionally and intellectually draining, often requiring professional sacrifice and financial hardship. Kids are demanding. Yet societal pressures force parents to convince themselves that their children are an essential and continuous source of contentment.
6. Couples who have been together for many years and have young children often forget the importance of being alone. They need time to rekindle their relationship somewhere other than home. Adult-only vacations are healthy and low stress. Rediscovering each other in a romantic environment is ideal. Consider a resort that restricts young children.
7. Vacationing without children will not necessarily restore marital bliss if there are problems in a relationship. Too much togetherness can widen rifts. At home, interactions with children, outside work, separate hobbies and different bedtimes provide buffers that permit acceptable social separation.
8. Leave infants between six and thirteen months of age only with adults with whom the infants are thoroughly comfortable, adults they see almost every day. This is the period for separation anxiety, a normal developmental stage. Before six months of age, infants appear unaware of their surroundings and probably do not recognize their parents (though many parents disagree). After about 13 months of age, infants seem to grasp that a parent cannot be present continuously and that they do return after being out of sight.
9. Modern technology makes possible being “virtually there.”Studies on children between seventeen months and five years of age show that readily available video communications (Skype, for example) provide many of the same effects as does a physical presence in giving children a sense of proximity and security — far better than traditional telephone contact does.
10. Return home with substantial presents for the kids. Call it bribery. Bringing them something that they have wanted for a long time lets them know you were thinking about them while you were apart. It helps kids forget any lingering resentment they may have regarding your absence.
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If you have any questions, call me.
Karl Neumann MD, FAAP, CTH