Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Fun for the Entire Family, but Not All at Once


LAST year it dawned on Ellen Belok that her youngest son, Gavin, 10, was often competing for her attention with his bigger and louder 15-year-old twin brothers, Todd and Bryan. In between the twins' shouting "I want to talk," "You're interrupting me" or "I need to be picked up first," Mrs. Belok realized that Gavin never had any time alone with her.

Inspired by this revelation, she took Gavin to Mexico last year, just the two of them, to see the migration of monarch butterflies because he loves nature. In March, the two visited the Arenal Volcano during a hiking trip to Costa Rica while the twins stayed home with their father.

Parents like Mrs. Belok, who have more than one child and hectic lives, have decided that if private time with each of their children cannot be carved out of an ordinary week at home, they will create the time by getting away from home. No ordinary family trip will do, though; for the maximum bonding experience, each child gets a separate vacation with just one parent to a destination chosen with that child in mind.

And it works, these parents say. The children feel more appreciated, and the parents feel more in touch with their children's lives.

"Gavin is more relaxed and seems much happier," said Mrs. Belok, who develops arts enrichment programs for schools and lives in Ridgefield, Conn., with her husband, Lennart, a neurologist. "When it's just the two of you, you don't need to take a vote where to go to dinner or what to do. You really get to enjoy each other's company."

Gavin agreed. "I can talk to her without anyone else talking," he said.

The twins do not seem to mind either. "It was fine with me," Bryan said. "We got to have pizza every night with Dad."

The one-on-one trek is not necessarily a substitute for the annual group vacation or a perilous march toward family fragmentation, experts say, but rather a way for parents and children to reconnect.

Dr. Alvin Rosenfeld, a psychiatrist who is an author of "The Over-Scheduled Child: Avoiding the Hyper-Parenting Trap," has noticed that more families have been taking such vacations in recent years.

"In the past 20 years," he said, "structured sports time has doubled, unstructured children's activities have gone down 50 percent, household conversations have become less frequent, family dinners have declined 33 percent and family vacations have decreased 28 percent."

"It's these quiet times where you're sitting in the car and suddenly you hear, 'Dad, I'm having a problem,' or 'Let me tell you what is going on,' " he added.

Little information is available on how many parent-child pairs travel alone. But Emily Kaufman, a travel expert and the author of "The Travel Mom's Ultimate Book of Family Travel," said she has seen a surge of material promoting one-on-one trips, like father-and-son golf outings and mother-and-daughter spa vacations.

Cathy Keefe, a spokeswoman for the Travel Industry Association of America, said many families with two working parents incorporated mini-vacations into business trips. Statistics from the association show that 10 percent of parents who traveled for business in 2004 took a child along, and the number of such trips with children increased to 169 million in 2004 from 164 million in 2003.

Bruce DeBoskey, a regional director for the Anti-Defamation League, who lives in Denver, has been taking his three sons — Aaron 19; Sam, 16; and David, 14 — on individual trips for years. "On family trips, three boys can be a handful." he said. "I have one kid who likes music and tattoos, the other is into hiking and nature experiences, and the other one likes historical sites."

He still thinks vacations for the entire family are important. "In these family dynamics," he said, "you learn to compromise, and each kid becomes a teacher to the other. But the one-on-one trip can be a nice alternative to the chaos of a family trip."

For some families, traveling all at once is not an option. Kim Larson, a fund-raiser for nonprofit ventures, and her husband, Gary E. Knell, the chief executive of Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization behind "Sesame Street," have four children from 11 to 20 years old in different schools, with the oldest in college. "Outside of Christmas, none of the vacations overlap," Ms. Larson said. "At first, I thought it was a nightmare," she said. "But it turned out to be an opportunity."

Between the two parents, they have taken the children in various pairings to India, Guatemala, Japan and the Galápagos Islands.

Savannah Knell, 17, said she discovered that her mother was "really independent and strong" during their trip to Guatemala.

"She was really like travel savvy," Savannah said, "and knew where she was going all the time in a foreign country."

Some people feel that creating special or exotic vacations for just one child is an indulgence that stems from parental guilt. "It used to be you threw the kid outside and told them to come home for dinner and that was O.K.," said Adele Farber, an author of "Siblings Without Rivalry." "Now parents feel they have to take them on a safari to Kenya. You can also have one-on-one time by taking your kid to the supermarket."

And travel guides point out that going on vacation with one child at a time can be expensive. Monique Elwell, who runs a travel service, singleparenttours.com, with her mother, Brenda, said that most single parents do not get a break on room fees.

"Depending on the property and time of year, hotel rooms can be anywhere from a few hundred dollars to $1,000," Ms. Elwell said. "It drives single parents batty to pay full adult price at an all-inclusive resort for their 8-year-old who eats like a bird."

But not every trip has to be elaborate. Mark Polefka, a salesman at J&S Designer Flooring in Morristown, N.J., gets only two weeks of vacation every year. So he gives each of his sons — Josh, 12, and Eric, 7 — a turn riding on the back of his beloved 1993 Harley-Davidson motorcycle for a one- or two-night jaunt.

"On a fishing trip, Josh, who was 9, became so excited about catching his first fish that he jumped up and down and tipped over the boat," Mr. Polefka said. "It's something that we'll laugh about forever." "I have lots of nieces and nephews," Mr. Polefka added, "but none of them do this with their parents. My family thinks of a vacation as going to Disneyland or the Amish country. They don't realize that you can also take these types of trips."

Whatever parents devise, treating siblings fairly is paramount, experts say.

"Most kids are human calculators," said Ruth Peters, a clinical psychologist who lives in Tampa and has written five books on child-rearing. When her son, Christopher, now 24, was growing up, Dr. Peters took him to see the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. But she also took his sister, Lindsay, now 27, to Manhattan for Broadway shows and shopping.

Dr. Peters said a Florida mother flew with one daughter to Chicago to visit the American Girl Place doll store, and took another on an overnight car trip for a rock concert. The daughter who went to the concert became jealous of her sister for getting to fly on a plane, Dr. Peters said, so parents must explain that the trips are tailored to each child and should not be measured with a scorecard.

Those who have taken one-on-one trips say the effort is worth it, especially in the long run. When Dr. Kenneth Brownstein, a urologist in Philadelphia, was a busy internist, he took his three children, now 36, 33 and 26, to Lake Naomi in the Poconos for individual weekend getaways. "I was working such long days," he said. "Whenever I saw them, it was all together. I really wanted to know them without their siblings."

His son Erick said the trips diminished any resentment about his father's workload. "He carved out this time and let me know he loved me," he said. "For someone with a busy schedule, it is the best and only solution."


  1. my idea of a vacation is time away from my kidThursday, May 25, 2006 1:24:00 PM

    where the fuck do these people get all their money?

  2. My friend Joel, that posts comments on my blog sometimes, does this with his kids as he is able. It is one on one time that they look forward to and have built great memories from. They go camping usually...which relatively speaking is not expensive. Like the author of the article said, it doesnt have to be an extravagant trip-often just alone time to the supermarket is enough.

  3. Heather: You have to consider the sorce. This article was from The New York Times. I don't figure the practice is as common elsewhere.

    Muddy: Mom and I do the "alone time" sometimes. We went to Tysons Corner and New York last year without the rest of the family, and it was kind of nice.