Last month, just before Christmas, I went to Las Vegas with my 7 y.o. son. It was awesome. You might think going to Vegas with a 7 y.o. is a bit of a contrarian play, and you’d be right. But my son has decided he wants to be a magician (so much for the ol’ 529 plan…), and I thought a trip to see the pros ply their craft would be an exciting adventure for us.
Not to be outdone, the missus and my eldest son went to New Orleans. They also had a blast. When the whole family came back together, we had exciting tales to share and were ready for a great Christmas holiday.
While we love to travel together as a family, we’ve made a firm commitment to taking regular 1:1 trips with each boy. They’re a ton of fun and a very special time for both kid and parent.
Many of our friends tell us how they’d like to someday do the same. I always encourage them to do so, but I also add some urgency. The window of opportunity is closing, perhaps faster than they might think.
And therein lies a lesson not just for parents, but for everyone.
Why 1:1 Trips Are Awesome
I’ve done my fair share of travel, and some of the best trips and fondest memories I have are from the 1:1 trips I’ve taken with each of my sons.
A family vacation, while great, is just relocating our household somewhere new and enjoyable. The boys don’t always get along (ahem), and the logistics and stress of full-family travel can sometimes counterweight the vacation fun.
When it’s just my son and me, it feels like a bachelor adventure. I can completely focus on him as an individual, and with just the two of us at whatever pace we like, travel and activities are easy and stress-free. It’s a wonderful bonding experience, and he always shines under the spotlight of my undivided attention.
The strongest childhood memories I have of my father and mother aren’t from trips; they’re from important interactions and deep conversations I had with them when we were alone together. Family vacations were certainly memorable, but only due to the exciting location and new experience. Traveling 1:1 with your child can hopefully combine both and give memories that’ll be cherished always.
How to Travel 1:1 With Your Kid
I’ve done enough of these trips to pass on a little wisdom.
When to start
My sons were road warriors at a very young age, so they were both ready for an adventure with dad when they were in Kindergarten.
The simplest rule is to go when your child is a good traveler, he/she can appreciate whatever you’re going to do, and you’re both looking forward to the trip. The safe route is to wait until they’re a little older, but there was something magical about traveling with a excitable 5 y.o. filled with endless curiosity.
Where to go
Traveling can be expensive, but it need not be. You should view the trip from the child’s perspective – they don’t yet know or care what’s a good destination or what you’re “supposed” to do somewhere.
I’ve taken 1:1 trips to D.C., NYC, Vegas, Little Rock, and Alpine (TX). You would be surprised which trips rank highest in terms of fun.
How much money you spend is also a minor factor. You could go camping and have more fun than at Disneyland. Even a day-trip to a park could be an incredible adventure for you and your child. Doing something extraordinary and having dedicated time with you is all your child needs.
Celebrate the mundane
What we accept as normal and even tedious can be a true adventure for a young child. When it’s just the two of you, it’s easy to let your kid play a big role. (When we travel as a family, the missus and I are a well-oiled but hard-to-stop machine of operational excellence – it’s been proven the best way to keep everyone happy.)
Packing can actually be a lot of fun. I always put my son in charge of travel snacks (normally done by the missus). There’s a lot of nervous excitement, deep thought, and strategic planning, and he gets a lot of enjoyment. From packing snacks.
Finding flights and gates and organizing ground transportation is a grand adventure for a young child. It’s exciting and rewarding, and there’s no stress since it’s only dad waiting (and he doesn’t look to be in a hurry).
The simple pleasures you have when traveling with a child are hard to beat. I’ve been to Vegas over a dozen times and drunk deep from its entertainment well. Yet my favorite Vegas evening was sitting in our room on the couch, sippin’ a tallboy from CVS and laughing with my son as we watched Stampylonghead on youtube. My son’s joy – from the moment, from a bellyful of pizza, from the amazing magic shows we’d just seen, from an almost-perfect day with dad – made me happier, and made the evening more fun, than any other. (My 20-something self is scratching his head, deeply confused, but his wisdom will come.)
Relax the rules
On my first ever 1:1 trip with my eldest son, he wanted to start it off right (in his view) with McDonald’s. For our next meal, he very tentatively asked if we could go back to McDonald’s. I told him that Mom probably wouldn’t approve of that, but (looking around) “Mom isn’t here, is she?” The joy on his face was totally worth the crappy food. I did, however, get a raised eyebrow from the missus on our return as a mountain of Happy Meal toys tumbled out of his backpack.
Bedtimes and the like have a tendency to slip quite a bit, but that’s OK when it’s just a two-man team.
Give them the reins
When my boys are together, giving them options rarely ends well. Family vacations, by necessity, are often (somewhat) benevolent parent dictatorships.
All that changes when it’s 1:1. Simple things like picking between activities or choosing a restaurant can be extremely fun, and your child will love the responsibility and authority. You will love that there’s no fight with a sibling.
I love to have some game-time decisions on these trips and let my son decide what we’ll do. However, I plan ahead and have him choose between two or three options – never ask the open-ended, “What do you want to do?”
If there’s something you need to book in advance, get them invested and excited well before the trip. I showed my son some clips of the magic shows we were going to see in Vegas, so he accepted those as given. I then let him choose all of the activities around them, and he loved being in charge for those.
I’m the guy who always has a full agenda on trips. When I travel with one of my boys, I have to relax and let him set the pace. There is always some desired activity that we end up missing, and that is probably a really good thing.
Have a theme
The more you can market your trip as a special event for the two of you, the better.
Branding our Vegas trip as a magician-themed adventure (and career-confirming diligence) got my son extremely excited. We also added a “Pizza Challenge” – since I knew my son would want to eat a lot of pizza anyway, why not amp it up a bit with a contest between various styles? (Chicago deep dish crushed the field, btw.)
Talk to them
This is the one of the greatest parts of the whole experience. Traveling 1:1 with your child allows you to shut off the rest of your life and truly focus on him/her.
I’ve had some of my deepest and best conversations with my boys when I’ve traveled 1:1. We talk all of the time at home, but everyday chatter doesn’t always mean you’re truly connecting. It’s far easier to have really meaningful, important conversations when we’re alone on a trip.
Windows Are Closing
The wonderful (and frightening) thing about traveling 1:1 with your child is that every trip is unique because they are changing and growing. That’s obviously happening every day, but a 1:1 trip provides the sharpest possible contrast and highlights the differences.
I had a wonderful trip with my 10 y.o. last summer, and it was fun for us to talk about everything that’s changed since our first trip when he was in Kindergarten. Both trips were great, along with all the ones in between, but it emphasized that the window has closed on traveling with my 5 y.o. wide-eyed little buddy. He and I are both very thankful for those memories.
If you think creating a memorable 1:1 experience (trip or other) with your child is a great idea, but want to wait until the “perfect” time, you need to rethink your framework. The real question is, “Will I go at this age, or lose this opportunity?” If you do it later, it can still be great, but a window will have closed.
Speaking of Kids, I Don’t Care About Kids
If you don’t have kids, don’t want kids, and don’t even like kids, there’s still a lesson here.
While a growing child is a powerful, daily reminder of windows that are closing, the same dynamic is at work everywhere. You may not notice it as much, but youth, health, and time are slipping away. If you’ve always wanted to start running, should you do it today (when you might clear a 7 minute mile) or tomorrow (when you’ll be lucky if you can still run)? If you fancy yourself a thespian, should you join the community theater today, or wait until Grandma / Grandpa is the only role they’ll offer? Do you want to see Paris now, perhaps when money’s a bit tight, or truly enjoy it from a wheelchair? The opportunities of tomorrow may be lesser than the ones available today.
My 1:1 trips with my boys have been one of the great joys of parenting. Most parents I know agree it’s an excellent idea, but few have followed suit.
Being responsible in finance – and life – often means front-loading efforts and delaying gratification, and I definitely embrace that discipline. However, I’m always ready to make exceptions when a window of opportunity is closing. Your kids are only young once, and you should do everything possible to cherish each moment and stage of their lives.
I know people who are working like dogs and don’t have a lot of free time (especially for indulgences like a magician-themed trip with a 7 y.o.). They’re going to be quite wealthy, retire in style, and have plenty of time for their kids. Who will have just finished college.
Life isn’t a single window of opportunity but a series of them. You can’t go through every one, but some of them are really, really important, and they’re closing fast.
I’m sure there’ll be a day when my youngest son thinks traveling with dad is pretty lame, and the wonderful window of traveling 1:1 with him will be shut. But that’s OK. We’ll always have Vegas 🙂