Something wonderful happened when Lauren Asnis took her younger son, Danny, to Philadelphia for a weekend trip. Beyond visiting the Liberty Bell and devouring some tasty cheesesteaks, mother and son really got to talk and listen to each other. They bonded over the adventure of exploring a new city together, while her husband, Jon, and older son, Zach, spent time together at the family’s New York City home.
For the first time, Danny “didn’t have to worry about being ‘the younger brother,'” Asnis says. And as just two travelers instead of a group of four, they could change plans as they wished.
This Nov. 28, 2015 photo shows Mason Anthony siting in a coffee house in Penang, Malaysia. Older siblings like Anthony, seen here traveling with his father in Malaysia, often behave even more maturely than usual when they travel without younger siblings in tow, says Erin Boyd-Soisson, professor of human development and family science at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pa. (AP Photo/Ted Anthony)
This May 5, 2016 photo shows Wyatt Anthony silhouetted under a sign while awaiting a flight at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport. Wyatt occasionally travels with just one of his parents while his sibling and other parent remain at home _ a type of trip that offers valuable opportunities for bonding, says Dr. Gary Bingham, an associate professor at Georgia State University, who studies the impact of high-quality adult-child interactions. (AP Photo/Ted Anthony)
In this May 7, 2016 photo Wyatt Anthony is shown at Buddha Park in Laos. In planning a trip with just his younger son rather than both of his kids, Wyatt Anthony's father was able to choose activities more suited to a younger child's preferences, including a day of exploring at a sculpture park near the Mekong River. (AP Photo/Ted Anthony)
“We didn’t have to worry about anybody else’s timeline,” she says. “With a group of four, sometimes spontaneity can’t happen.”
Added bonus: By being apart for a few days, her boys got a chance to miss each other.
So while they still plan whole-family vacations, Asnis and her husband now prioritize short trips with each of their boys throughout the year.
If you have more than one kid and haven’t done this before, give it a try: Plan a trip where one parent takes one child away for a few days, or longer if possible. Even a quick overnight close to home can be a surprisingly powerful opportunity to get to know each other in a new context, says Erin Boyd-Soisson, professor of human development and family science at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.
“Every child needs one-on-one time with both of their parents,” she says.
Gary Bingham, an associate professor at Georgia State University who studies adult-child interactions, agrees that any time you can spend individually with one child can be beneficial and lets parents “pick up on different things” going on with each child.
STEPPING OUTSIDE THE GROUP
Family vacations are often an exercise in compromise: Bingham says he was never a fan of camping, but his family did it often. So in planning individual trips with each of his four children, he chooses activities that include their interests.
George Scouten of Columbia, South Carolina, takes trips with each of his three boys. With his 17-year-old, he might spend the day at a football or baseball game. With his middle son, 14, it might mean a quiet weekend at the family’s mountain cabin reading books and cooking dinner together. Whatever the activity, Scouten finds that one-on-one trips allow for moments of connection and deeper conversations than might happen on a whole-family vacation.
“When we’re all in the car together,” he says, there’s often “this sort of jockeying for attention” among the siblings. But “when you travel with just one person, it’s just calm. … There’s no need for one-upmanship.”
Solo trips also help kids learn more about each parent. Stacey Funt, a mother of 13-year-old twins on New York’s Long Island, was a frequent international traveler before she had kids. She and her husband now take summer trips to a quiet lake in New Hampshire with the twins. But as the kids have gotten older, she’s also begun taking them on more adventurous trips that suit her style, including a trip with her daughter to Guatemala that included horseback riding.
Her husband supports her interest in taking overseas trips with each child — something Bingham says is vital in making solo trips work for a family.
“I think most children have very little sense of what their parents do in general,” Bingham says. “Any chance the parent actually gets to flex their muscles at being competent at something can be really beneficial.”
Boyd-Soisson recommends letting children help plan their solo trip with a parent. When she travels with her daughter, she says, “having her plan it can tell me as a parent a lot about her and her likes and what her personality is developing into.”
Especially with teenagers, it’s good to see what they like, “and they’re getting to tell us, as opposed to us saying, ‘You’ve always liked the beach,’ or ‘We’ve always liked hiking as a family,'” Boyd-Soisson says.
Siblings and parents alike might get jealous if others seem to get the more exciting trips, or have more time with each other, so try to keep things fair.
Funt took her daughter to Paris, and then planned to take her son to Washington, D.C. “After we got home and he saw the (Paris) photos, he was like, ‘D.C.? I get D.C.?” she remembers.
Fortunately, the best trips can sometimes be the least expensive. On a drive from New York City to Lenox, Massachusetts, last summer, Asnis stopped for a few hours with her older son at a treetop zip-line course.
“I’m 44 and I’m afraid of heights,” she says, but her teenage son encouraged her and talked her through the scariest moments. As they made it through the course together, she realized, “the roles are changing now, and here’s my son becoming this young man. … and I realized, I actually loved zip-lining!”
Those hours forged a connection that no full-on family vacation could have accomplished.