Hey parents, remember those getaways you used to do as a couple? They were sometimes impromptu, sometimes extravagant, sometimes sexy and always fun? Then you had kids and suddenly travel parameters are restricted to “family-friendly”, with budgets worked out around holidays that your children will enjoy the most. 

It’s what good parents do. But that doesn’t mean you don’t miss the simplicity of couple time. So does pursuing that, even if you have a kid or two, make you a bad parent?

On the contrary. According to Dr Becky Kennedy, New York-based clinical psychologist and founder of parent-coaching site Good Inside, “Spending time away from our kids (and enjoying it!) doesn’t make us bad parents. In fact, it’s the opposite: Spending time away from our kids is part of what helps us be good parents.” The mother of three strongly advocates self-care for parents, which includes travelling without children in tow.

Pamela See, Educational and Developmental Psychologist at Think KIDS concurs. Not only is it an ideal way for parents to recharge their batteries, it facilitates quality time with each other which can become a rarity once children are in the picture. “They can explore new destinations, try new experiences, and create lasting memories without having to worry about their children’s needs and comfort, as well as engage in activities that may not be suitable for kids,” she adds.

Have the conversation with the kids

Separation anxiety is one of the biggest issues, says Pamela See, Educational and Developmental Psychologist at Think KIDS. “Children may experience feelings of worry or fear about being separated from their parents, especially if they have never been apart before or if the trip is longer.”

This is something Melissa Ong, mother of two, can relate to. Melissa and her husband used to travel once a month, either to her parents’ in Malaysia or to his hometown in Australia, among others.

Her reason for not travelling after she became a mother, however, are governed by circumstances. Their first child, a girl, was a COVID baby, born at a time when no-one could travel anyway. Her son – their second child – was born early last year.

Melissa and her husband had their first holiday alone a few months after the borders opened for his birthday. “I really needed the break”, says Melissa.

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They planned an impromptu weekend trip last year to Bangkok. That her mother was able to come over to take care of the children was the saving grace.

Leaving her son, who was still an infant was easier. “The biggest problem was my toddler. Because of COVID, she has always been with us. For almost three years, mummy was always at home; daddy was always home.” Even when they planned to step out for dinner, Melissa and her husband made sure she was in bed first.

So, there were a lot of pre-travel conversations to set their daughter at ease. That she was comfortable with their domestic helper was a relief, and grandma visited often, so there were no issues there either.

“Prepare your children for the trip by talking about who will be taking care of them and what activities they can expect while you are away. Ensure they understand the arrangements that have been made for their care,” says See.

“Reassure your children that you love them and that you will be back soon. Let them know that you will be thinking about them and that you will be in touch regularly. You can use a calendar and get your child to mark off the days till your return.”

Reach an agreement

Melissa soon found the key to making her daughter fall in line with her parents’ decision to travel. “We realised that if she got what she wanted, she was okay,” she explained laughing. This involved allowing extended television time – something that she does not always get to do otherwise. She was also assured that her parents would come back with gifts. There was also the prospect of a pampering grandma.

Melissa was not unduly worried about resorting to a passive form of bribing. “Our home is pretty routine-based, so things got back to normal very soon. We still get a bit of toddler meltdowns once or twice, but then my husband and I are very firm about sticking to the routine,” she says. Having a helper oversee some of the routine was helpful as well.

Cherry Lee, also a mother of two, agrees. Having grown up in a multigenerational home, her children are very attuned to their schedule. “My in-laws know what boundaries we set for our children,” she says. “We sit down and have a conversation about how long we would be gone, but we do not really offer any incentives. As far as gifts go, most of my shopping is for them anyway.”

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“Ultimately, the decision of whether or not to use incentives to manage children’s expectations will depend on the individual family’s circumstances and the specific needs of each child,” says See. “For example, rewarding your child for being brave while you are away also shows your child that you thought of them while you are away therefore you bought them a gift. That will not be considered a bribe.”

Managing the mum guilt

More often then not, the decision to leave children behind and travel is something mother’s agonise over. It was the case for Cherry, who recalls, “being without them and enjoying my time even for a day is difficult for me!”

It’s probably a mix of missing them too much and mum guilt, she admits. Like Melissa, it was easier for her when the kids were young, given that they lived in her in-laws’ home. As much as her tweens are comfortable with their grandparents, they are at an age when they prefer doing things as a family, says Cherry.

There are some common emotions that parents go through, says See. “They may feel guilty for leaving their children behind and worry about their well-being and worry that they may miss out on quality time with their children and important moments in their development.”

Although in Asia, and especially Singapore, communal families are common – that helps mitigate the stress of having someone to care for their children while they are away. But in cases where that luxury is not available, it can be a big hassle for parents, adds See.

What age works best?

A question on most parents’ minds is what is the correct age to leave your children with other caretakers. “The appropriate age for parents to travel without their children depends on several factors, there is no one size fits all answer to this question,” says See. “Younger children may need more reassurance and structure, while older children may appreciate having more independence while you are away.”

But those parameters are not set in stone either. A lot would depend on a secure upbringing, “the maturity and independence of the children, the type of trip the parents are taking, and the comfort level of both the parents and the children with the arrangements made for the children’s care” says See.

A good gauge would be to do a test run like Melissa did and try out a short trip away and see how comfortable they are being left with a trusted guardian. “If they are able to cope well. They may be ready for their parents to travel without them,” adds See. “This may be as early as age 4 or 5 for some children, while others may not be ready until their teenage years.”

Getting the children involved in your plans by encouraging them to help you prepare, pack or discuss the details of the trip and the plans for their care are good ways to ease them into the concept, says See. “Be aware of the children’s emotions and feelings about the separation, and make an effort to minimise their stress and anxiety.”

Your kids-free travel checklist, in no particular order

Regardless of your child’s age, the amount of family support or your domestic setup, due diligence has to be done to ensure your children are safe and comfortable, mentally, emotionally and physically, says See. Here are some pointers she thinks are important before you take your first trip away without the kids.

  • If possible, arrange for your children to stay in a familiar and comfortable environment, such as with a trusted family member or friend. This can help to reduce their stress and anxiety about the separation.
  • Make sure that arrangements for the children’s care are in place and that their grandparents or other caregivers are fully prepared for their role. Leave clear instructions for the children’s care, including their daily routines, meals, and any special needs.
  • Develop an emergency plan in case of unexpected events, such as illness or injury. Make sure that the grandparents or other caregivers have any relevant medical information for the children and relevant contacts.
  • Depending on the age of your child, leave emergency contact numbers of trusted friends and relatives and co-workers if need be.
  • Consider your children’s interests and hobbies when planning activities for their care. This will help to make the experience more enjoyable for them and can provide a sense of normalcy and routine.
  • Practice emergency situations with your children. Teach them how to dial “999” and when to do it. Ask questions like “If someone is trying to get in the house, what should you do?” “If you get hurt, what should you do?” and “If you want to play at a friend’s house, what should you do?”
  • Arrange for regular check-ins with your children, either by phone, video chat, or other means of communication. This will help them to feel connected to you and will allow you to stay informed about their well-being.