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Dr. Neumann’s KidsTravelDoc 10 Tips: Leaving Children at Home Alone

Date October 16, 2012

Should parents take vacations with their kids or from their kids?

Family vacations expose kids to new experiences, strengthens family unity and build memories for the future. But for many parents, family vacations are stressful and expensive obligations, not the relaxing and refreshing breaks from everyday routine that vacations are supposed to be.

In the long run, do kids benefit more by spending limited time having fun and visiting interesting places with their parents, or by having their parents enjoy some peace and quiet by themselves?

Here are some thoughts:

1. There’s no easy answer. No studies exist on the effects, if any, on children left at home for short periods with competent caretakers. Little is known about young children’s concept of time. But there are lots of opinions, many of them thought provoking, in the media and on the web, written by anyone who wishes to do so – no expertise required. The vast majority of these comments say that parents can/should go on vacation alone.

2. Avoid leaving infants between six and thirteen months of age, if possible. 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 may disagree). After about 13 months of age, infants seem to grasp that a parent cannot be present continuously and do return after being out of sight.

3. Parents may suffer from separation anxiety. Some parents (more often, mothers) have great difficulty separating themselves from their children and, in subtle ways, encourage their children to remain dependent on them. Symptoms may include children never being left alone with a sitter (even though capable grandparents are willing to step in) and breast feeding and co-sleeping well into the second year. Such children are more prone to experience their own separation anxiety (such as school phobia) later on.

4. Modern technology makes possible “almost being 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 a physical presence in giving children a sense of proximity and security, far better than telephone contact.   

5. School-age children successfully vacation without their parents. Experience has shown no on-going ill effects on the millions of children who go away to summer camps, many for up to eight weeks. In fact, both parents and children generally find sleep-away camps a very positive experience, occasional homesickness notwithstanding.  This is so even though most camps severely restrict contact between parents and children, allowing few or no telephone calls, prohibiting texting, and permitting one visiting day for those staying many weeks and none for those staying a week or two.

6. Have caregivers shadow you for a day or two before you leave. This   eases transition for both children and caretakers, even if caretakers are grandparents. It allows caretakers to observe real life family situations such as difficulty in waking up children and temper tantrums. It also familiarizes caretakers with the nuts and bolts of the household operations: how car seats work, which neighbors you count on, and where food, medications, and “to do” lists are kept. For older children, talk about where and why you are going, and what you expect from both caretakers and the children in your absence.

7. Children generally prefer routine to change. Try to make your absence the only change they experience while you are away. Ideally, children should be left in their own home with a capable caretaker, someone the kids have known well for a long time and with whom they are comfortable. Encourage friends, both yours and your children’s, to drop by. But caretakers need not be your clone. Don’t leave “written in stone” rules. Letting kids stay up a little later, picking up after them, and taking them for ice cream more often than you do will seem like a treat for the kids and make the caretakers’ task simpler.

8. An upcoming vacation is reason to review your important legal documents.  Wills, medical consent forms, and powers of attorney, for example, should be up-to-date at all times, starting the day your first child is born.  Documents should be reviewed yearly and at times of major changes in the family: divorce, death of a parent or a designated guardian, and severe financial upheavals, for example.

9. Fears that you will have a serious accident while away are unrealistic. Mountain climbing in the Himalayas or backcountry skiing may not be advisable for parents leaving kids at home. On the other hand – although there are no studies on this subject – vacationing where you would go with the kids (if you were taking them) is probably no more rash than driving on local highways for a Saturday night out for dinner and a movie.    

10. Return with substantial presents for the kids. Bringing them something that they have wanted for a long time lets them know you were thinking about them while you were apart. Regardless of children’s ages, bribery always works. It helps kids forget any lingering misgivings they may have regarding your absence.

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