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Taking the Kids

Just the Two of You

January 02, 1994|EILEEN OGINTZ

We smiled at each other across the candle-lit table at the terrific little restaurant we'd stumbled on in the town where we'd stopped overnight--one of those conspiratorial, "I'm glad I'm here alone with you," kind of smiles. Then, in between bites of steamed clams and seafood fettuccine, my daughter Reggie filled me in on the latest doings in her second grade class.

Reggie, who is almost 8, was thrilled with the grown-up ambience and food. She'd picked the place after reading the menu outside (checking with me that it was within our budget) and peering in the window at the flower-bedecked tables. But most of all, she liked having me all to herself. As the middle child in a typically time-crunched '90s family with two working parents, she frequently complains about not getting enough "alone" time with me or her dad.

That was why I grabbed the chance to take her along when I had to do some research for a book on the Southwest. I wasn't doing this all for her. I wanted her input--the book is for kids--as well as her company. I was pleased her teachers were all for the idea, sending along a week's worth of homework that she dutifully completed along with a journal of what we'd seen. I didn't count on how much fun I'd have.

Along the way--which included long stretches in the car--my daughter and I got to spend more time alone with each other than we'd ever managed since she was born a scant two years after her brother. I told her lots of stories about when I was her age. She listed every aggravating thing her brother and 2-year-old sister had done in the previous month. She told me the latest "knock-knock" jokes. She gave me her take on every place we saw--especially the duds--and we helped each other choose just the right souvenirs to take home, laughing that the rest of the family would never have allowed us so much time to choose. She was helpful, cooperative and never whined. Where was this child at home, I wondered?

"The dynamics are all different. You're more like companions, than parent and child. You're focusing on each other, rather than work and getting homework done," explains Los Angeles child psychologist Jill Waterman, who teaches at UCLA. "The kid will be an angel so it's easier for you."

"It's like he's taking care of me too," adds Pat Murray, who owns a Chicago beauty salon and has traveled alone with her adolescent son since he was small. That's not to say you can totally relax. "You're always on duty," Murray sighs.

Reggie and I had spats along the way, of course, but there were so many adventures that we'd forget what they were about by the end of the day. Despite a grueling schedule, we were both sad when the trip was over.

As I dried her tears on the flight home, I resolved to sandwich in more one-on-one time with each child. In fact, I subsequently took my son Matt on a similar but shorter trip. His favorite parts: "swimming at 10 at night, missing school and room service."

The experts tell me such individual forays--whether for an afternoon during a family vacation or a visit to the relatives, a weekend spent camping or even time squeezed into a business trip--can have long-lasting positive benefits that include wonderful, lifelong memories. "It's great for a family's mental health," said New York psychologist Jane Greer, who is an expert on sibling relationships. (Her book "Adult Sibling Rivalry" has just been released in paperback by Fawcett, $5.99.)

Siblings may feel less compelled to compete so hard for your attention, she explains. And you won't feel so stressed on vacation trying to please everyone at once--especially when the kids want to go in entirely different directions. "In order to share together as a family you don't have to be together all of the time," Greer added.

Only children also get a lot out of one-on-one time with each parent away from home. Just ask Hathi Hanna, a Washington administrator who took her 6-year-old son on a business trip she extended over a weekend. "It was totally different than when the three of us are together," she said. "We talked about school and his friends. It was like, sit back and look at the big picture. It was great."

When you get home, give your kids some "booster shots" of time alone with you. "It takes work to maintain that special bonding," UCLA's Waterman said.

I'm afraid that won't be enough for Reggie. She'd like the two of us to take off again--permanently.

Taking the Kids appears the first and third week of every month.

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