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TAKING THE KIDS

Bringing Children's Friends Along for the Ride

November 15, 1998|EILEEN OGINTZ

Abbey Allen had never been out of New England. But the suburban Boston 16-year-old didn't hesitate a minute when her friend's family invited her to Mexico.

"I thought it would be more fun with someone else's parents because they wouldn't yell at you," Abbey explained.

"I was a lot more nervous than she was," said Linda Allen, Abbey's mom, who reported that the trip was even more awesome than Abbey expected. She returned very tanned, with expertly braided hair and a sheet full of new friends' e-mail addresses and phone numbers.

"I think Abbey grew up a little that week," said Linda Allen, who paid for her daughter's trip. "She came home more independent."

The Littlefields, who had invited Abbey, were as enthusiastic. "Teens need their own space, and it was easier to give them that freedom with a friend along," said Susan Littlefield. "I'd do it again."

So would I. Last summer, I became a confirmed believer in the bring-a-friend-along concept when Emily Thomas, my 12-year-old daughter's best friend, traveled with us to Europe. Her presence, I'm convinced, made the trip a grand success--for us as well as my daughter Reggie. Instead of an oh-so-bored adolescent, we had two happy, often giggling young travelers only too glad to lead the way from museum to historic site.

"With two of them, they're exploring, not being dragged along. It makes all the difference," said Emily's mom, Rosemary Thomas, who has invited a child along on their family vacations as a companion for their elder daughter. Emily, I was glad to hear, is still waxing eloquent about her amazing adventure with us.

There also are fewer sibling squabbles when a friend is along. "It changes the chemistry," said Thomas, a mother of four.

"We adults had more freedom," said Marie Forgach, who lives on Long Island, N.Y., and has taken her daughter Kim and her friends on vacations since she was in grade school. Forgach said she and her husband could go off to dinner or a museum and leave the two girls alone together--something she wouldn't have done had Kim been alone.

"It's nice to spend time with people other than your parents on vacation," said Kim Forgach, now a high school senior. "I whined a lot less."

And parents might get another child's very different perspective on new places, enriching the experience for everyone.

The downside is that you'll invariably have less family time, said Brett Laursen, a Florida Atlantic University professor and child psychologist who specializes in peer relationships.

"Friends may fight, just like siblings," he added. "You've got to be prepared for that."

Cassie Littlefield and Abbey Allen squabbled on their trip together, ultimately spending a day apart at the resort. "But I only had to intervene once," said Susan Littlefield.

The key is inviting the right child. "You need to be comfortable with your friend's family," said Abbey Allen, who counts the Littlefields as her second parents.

You must be just as comfortable with the child's parents. Ask how they will react if their child gets sick or hurt.

Kim Forgach's friend was injured skiing. "[Her parents] were fine because they knew I treated their daughter as I would my own," Marie Forgach said.

Bring the friend's medical insurance information and authorization for treatment. And know where to reach the parents the entire time you'll be gone--get work numbers, cell phone numbers, grandparents' numbers.

You should be confident that the child is old enough to handle the separation from his family. I don't think I'd try it with anyone under 10. "Have several sleepovers first," Forgach said. "You don't want a child who will need to call home every 10 minutes."

Hammer out the finances ahead of time. Many parents ask the friend to pay for plane tickets but pick up meals and lodging. Those headed to the slopes might expect their guest to pay for expensive lift tickets and lessons. Is there adequate spending money?

Make sure your guest has a say in the itinerary, just as your own kids would, suggested Laursen.

Intangibles are important, too: You want a child who will mesh with your family. Don't take a confirmed roller-coaster hater to Disney World amid your thrill-ride lovers; don't take along a picky eater with your the-more-exotic-the-food-the-better gang.

You do want a child who will obey your ground rules--curfews, souvenir limits and so on. That's usually not a problem.

Just ask Abbey Allen. She's saving her baby-sitting money, hoping for another invitation.

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

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