Is it okay to take one child overseas, but not the other?

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

Question:

My brother is getting married overseas in September, and I'm planning to travel to attend the event (my husband will not be able to leave work). My kids will be sevenĀ and nine, and they are extremely jealous of each other when it comes to (perceived) attention from and time with me.

The nine-year-old really wants to be at the wedding and is excited by the prospect of international travel. This does seem like a great opportunity for her to experience another country, culture, etc. I don't think the seven-year-old has any of these interests, but because of jealousy would probably want to go if she hears her sister is going.

I'm not crazy about the idea of solo international travel with two kids (not to mention the cost), but kind of like the idea of sustained one-on-one time with my older daughter (we'd be gone for about a week). Should I just avoid the whole mess by going by myself, or do you have any suggestions for responding to the younger sibling's inevitable upset and/or for avoiding an intensification of the jealousy if I just take the older child? Thank you!

Answer:

This is easy! You have two options, as I see it: 1. Bring both of your children. 2. Bring neither of your children. Note that, of the choices I have offered, the idea that you put forward is not included. Why? Well, you clearly state in your letter to me that your daughters become "extremely jealous of each other when it comes to (perceived) attention from and time with me," so why would I suggest that you take an action to knowingly make this worse?

Before everyone construes that parents ought to twist themselves into pretzels to please their children, let me assure you that I don't carry that expectation. It is absolutely acceptable and appropriate for a parent to decide to bring one child somewhere while leaving the other child at home.

It is fine to decide to split time between children. Spending time with only one child is a powerful way to connect with that child; it fills up the connection cup and it fills it fast. Laughing, smiling, full attention? Nothing affects a child's heart like having their parent's full and undivided attention. Spending one-on-one time with a single child also allows room and space to really get into a child's specific needs, interests, and most importantly, her emotional world. The one-on-one time (or special time) is a parent's secret superpower; I want all parents to know it is always available to them.

But, when we know that children are competitive for our attention, we have to take another look at the parent/child dynamic. It is normal for siblings to have bouts of jealousy and competition for a parent's attention; I have yet to meet a family where this doesn't occur to some extent. Yet when the jealousy is chronic and causing rifts in the family, we need to understand this insecurity another way.

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Every child has a deep, emotional need to belong to her parent. This belonging takes many forms: Being close to, being liked, being heard and fully seen, and more. When a child, for whatever reason, thinks that she cannot be close to her caregiver, there is a deep impulse that springs forth. This impulse is best described as a panic. The child will unconsciously do whatever is required to belong and feel close to her caregiver - even if this means misbehaviour, whining and aggression.

To make matters worse, if one of your daughters even perceives (and it is important that I emphasise the word perceive, because parents twist themselves trying to make everything equal for their children and the children still don't feel it is) that another sibling is getting more or better attention, the fighting, aggression and misbehaviour can grow like a cancer. The more you try to "respond" to each child, the worse it can seem to get. The child can become more demanding, more prescriptive and more jealous.

It's a sticky wicket, huh?

So, with all of these big emotions flying around, why would we choose to grow the insecurity by choosing one child to go on a very special trip over another? I can almost feel the hurt that your younger daughter will experience just imagining this scenario playing out, and I am afraid it will be a significant blow to your relationship. The decision will simultaneously elevate the older daughter (filling her ego) while shaming the younger child (not good enough). It is a lose-lose for everyone in this.

In fact, as I write this, I am going to just suggest you go to the wedding by yourself. Why?

1. If you bring both daughters, you will have to handle their jealous squabbles abroad, and that sounds like the opposite of fun to me. You need to be equipped to handle their frustration and jealousy with strategies beyond threats and punishments and bribes. (I don't know if you are doing that.Those are just the go-to's for many parents when confronted with these behaviours.)

2. Going by yourself is a wonderful way to focus on yourself and your family. Solo travel for pure fun is a rare treat for most parents, so you could really see this trip as a way to get back in touch with your fun side, enjoy some time alone, as well as visit with people you may not get a chance to have one-on-one time with.

3. Going by yourself guarantees that you do not create a family story of the "chosen" child and the "left out" child. And if you think that a story like this doesn't have legs, ask friends and family about a time they were left out. Children have memories like elephants for this stuff; it is simply not worth the pain, no matter what you intended.

4. While you are travelling, you can create a list of different ways you can connect to each child, one on one. This can be daunting if you are accustomed to the dynamic you find yourself in, so I highly recommend "The Five Love Languages of Children" by Gary Chapman and Ross Campbell. (There is a Christian leaning in the book that may turn some people off, but the material is so thoughtful and provokes so many good ideas in parents, I still recommend it to almost everyone.)

The book suggests that every child has a unique way that she receives love from her parent, and as parents, we can cultivate an authentic and loving relationship when we better understand this special "love language." As an example, my youngest child receives love in a very physical manner, so wrestling and roughhousing are an effective way to show her I care. It sounds odd, but to watch it work in front of my eyes has been pretty darn cool. Take this trip to write down (yes, you must write it down) what each of your daughter's love language may be.

Finally, if you decide to bring them both, do it with an excited and willing heart. Yes, you will be schlepping stuff from here to there, and yes, there will be exhaustion and hanger (hunger plus anger), and yes, you will have to parent. But if you can find the adventure, the joys and the fun in the trip, by all means do it. And take every opportunity to make it as fair as you can (who sits where, when and how, for example).

Good luck!

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