Mighty Life List
Oct 20 2010

How to Keep Kids Happy While You’re Away

When we decided to take Hank to Ireland last minute, reader Lianne Raymond sent me a touching note offering some tips for keeping kids content while you’re away — whether you’re traveling or just dropping them off at daycare. Her ideas mirror a lot of my own philosophies about parenting, so I thought I’d share. Thanks, Lianne.

1) Acknowledge the child’s feelings.

Empathize with them. “I know, it’s hard to be apart, isn’t it?” And normalize their feelings. “Everybody feels a little bit scared when they go to a new place.” Let their attachment to you be a place they can rest in love in the midst of their anxiety.

Don’t minimize the child’s feelings or ask them to change how they feel. “Can you be a brave big boy for mummy?” Don’t try to change their feelings and behavior.

2) If the child is going to school or childcare, let them see you interact with the teacher or the caregiver in a positive way.

Children are naturally wired to be wary of strangers — for good reason. They will, however, take cues from those they love as to who is worthy of their trust. If they see you interacting with the teacher with smiles, nods, laughter and even a hug, if possible, they will be able to feel safer with that person. Not that they will bond immediately, the relationship will still need to be developed, but this provides a good footing.

3) Give the child an object through which they can feel connected to you while you are apart.

A scarf that smells like your favourite perfume. A locket with a picture of you and them inside. Matching bracelets that you both wear — these can be a simple as a coloured string — hey it works for Kabbalah peeps! Imbue the object with some magic powers, “When you open the locket invisible magic dust will come out and you will be able to see Mummy in your head and mummy will be able to see you in her head, and it will be just like we are together.” “There is an invisible string connecting our two bracelets and when you tug on your bracelet it will travel along the invisible string until it gets to me.”

4) Focus on the return

Don’t talk details about the separation, but give details about the reunion. “Oh, it’s going to be so wonderful when I come to pick you up. I’m going to give you the biggest hug and smother you in kisses. I’m going to be so happy to see you!”

5) Don’t avoid the goodbye

It’s very common for parents to try to sneak out of the house or away from the school and avoid dealing with the feelings of separation altogether. While understandable, it is much better to focus on developing emotionally healthy separation rituals then to leave the child feeling abandoned.

All excellent advice. Thanks again, Lianne. And what about you? Do you have any special rituals that keep you connected when you’re away from the kids in your life?

20 Responses to “How to Keep Kids Happy While You’re Away”

  • BKC Says:

    Sweet post! The daycare drop-off was never rocky for my kiddo until she saw her friends having trouble with it. Then the anxiety started, but we tempered it with our special goodbye secret handshake (totally stolen from Finding Nemo’s Crush and Squirt, the sea turtles): “Gimmie some fin! (high five) Noggin! (lightly bonk heads) (then nose to nose whisper) Duuuuuuude.” I make sure there’s no interaction after that, so it really means I’m gone. And she’s a happy camper.

    For any longer separations, our only “ritual” is that a bedtime phone call is always answered.

  • kate Says:

    Little notes. The first time we left our daughter (then 3) for a week, I drew little cards, one for each day we were gone. I used characters from our favorite books that we loved to read together, and then I numbered the envenlopes so that her grandma could let her open one each day, first thing when they got up. She saved them all, and still (at age 9) has them all pinned up on her bedroom wall. :)

    Even when she went to daycare (and then elementary school) I would put funny pictures (I’d get them off Cuteoverload) in her lunch box every day, just so she knew I was thinking of her.

    BKC, I LOVE your special goodbye. So sweet.

  • Rachel (Hounds in the Kitchen) Says:

    My husband travels for work often. He always carries a glass red heart with him and tells our daughter that he’s carrying her love with him. She likes that and loves when he sends emails with pictures of him and the heart in far away places.

  • Notorious MLE Says:

    When my son started pre-school he had a rough time. We got the book “The Kissing Hand” and read it every night. In the book a raccoon mother kisses her childs hand and tells him that when he misses her he can put his hand on his cheek to feel his mother’s love. My son loves the book and he loves to kiss my hand so that I know he loves me too. It helped ease the transition.

  • Kathleen Says:

    All great tips Maggie!
    Goodbyes are so hard for little ones!
    The hard goodbye for us was Mom and Dad date night. So we devised a special goodbye treat bag for him. I would put a juice box or a small toy or other treat for him in a paper bag and told him, “You can only open it after Mom and Dad leave.”
    Next date night he was literally pushing us out the door so he could have his special goodbye surprise.

  • Courtney Says:

    Love the bracelet idea – so sweet. No ideas for my little one yet (no issues at 13 months, knock wood) but I remember really hating/being homesick when I started kindergarten. What really helped was having a picture of my parents – I think it was Olan Mills! – that I could pull out of my bag and look at when I got sad.

  • Julie Says:

    my boys go to a school that encourages a quick good bye. they dont want parents in the schoolroom at all if they can help it. if you come into the class and linger, they say, it signals that you’re not 100% comfortable leaving your child there. I don’t know how true it is, but I’ve been through several years of first days and I’ve seen all the kids make a pretty easy transition.

  • lucy Says:

    Yes, the goodbye is important! I worked as a nanny for years and so many parents would sneak out the door – resulting in shocked tears from the kid when they realized Mom had disappeared into thin air. But don’t overdo the goodbye – kiss, hug, see you soon, and leave. If the kid cries don’t come back and then have to leave all over again.

  • Shevon Says:

    I love number 5, because when my son was in daycare they would try to shoo me out the door while he was distracted, but I insisted on saying goodbye. I couldn’t imagine him looking up and me just being gone!

  • Lisa Says:

    I try to think in kid-terms when I give time markers, like “dinnertime” instead of 6:00.
    For a longer separation, when I was little, my dad tape-recorded himself reading some of our favorite stories before a week-long trip, and my brothers & I listened to that for YEARS! We knew the stories by heart, but you can hear love…

  • Jen W. Says:

    I’ve never read “The Kissing Hand” but did something similar for preschool/babysitting nights. I put on some lipstick, then kissed a post-it note, creating a “Mommy Kiss”. Easy to slip into a pocket or backpack, and they have a little sign of my love with them all day.

  • Caroline Says:

    Our daughter has been in daycare since 4 months, so we’ve had a few rough drop-offs. Usually what works best for us is a consistent ritual–a hug, a kiss, an “I love you and I’ll see you when I get back!”–we don’t rush out the door, but it needs to be kept short and sweet. It also helps for her to wave goodbye to us out the window (and we wave back, and blow kisses) as we’re driving away.

    She’ll take cues from us–if we’re feeling uneasy about leaving her, she’ll pick up on that and get more clingy, whereas if we’re relaxed and happy, she usually is, too.

  • Meg Says:

    And, realize they will buck up once you leave, so don’t drag out the goodbye.

    I was a nanny in college, and kids would always WAIL when their parents were leaving. Yes, they were a little sad, but they also knew they could delay their parents leaving with the wailing. I’d be telling the parents, “You said goodbye, now just go.” And the parents would be like, “But she NEEDS me.” And I’d say, “Please go now, you said goodbye, they need you to go.”

    You know why? (Well, Maggie you know, you nannied) the second the parents were out of earshot the kids bucked up, wiped their faces, and were like “Let’s playyyyyyyy!”

    So. Say goodbye, tell them you’ll love them and you’ll be back, and then go. They’ll be just fine. They are more resilient than we think.

  • JSweet Says:

    I kind of wish I needed this advice! Going on my fourteenth month without a single night without my daughter. I haven’t had a pressing need for travel but I kind of can’t wait for a weekend away. I’d even take a business trip to Akron, Ohio at this point if it involved a queen sized bed and room service.
    I’m sure I will be worried and sad though when the time comes.

  • Sassafras Mama Says:

    A kiss in each hand —- extras for whenever they are needed. I’ve been doing this for years and my son, now 10, still enjoys a little extra kiss in his hand. It’s a rather sweet ritual.

  • Rebecca Says:

    My toddler (almost 3) is still crying 4 out of 5 days of drop-off at daycare. She’s been going to daycare since 13 months but a transition to a new room and now a new centre, has had her tearful since about August.

    Thanks for all the suggestions. For now, when I come to drop her off, we read one story together and then our ritual is ‘one big hug, one big kiss, daddy will pick you up and I’ll see you at home at dinnertime’ after which I immediately leave and don’t linger. We’ve also left a small photo album in her cubby at the daycare with family pictures inside. The teachers said that the for first few weeks this helped a lot. Now, after she has her cry, which lasts about 30 seconds, she runs off to play with her friends and doesn’t bother with the photos as much.

    I’ve been thinking of cutting out our storytime to make the drop off a bit quicker as you all have suggested. And at the advice of a good friend who’s an elementary school teacher, we’re picking up “The Kissing Hand” from the library this weekend.

    I’ve asked my daughter what we could do to help her feel not so sad when I leave or if she could have a brave face. “No Mummy, when you leave I’m sad, so I cry. But then I have playtime and I’m happy”. Hard to argue with that!

  • Mary Says:

    Hey! Happy belated birthday! Hope it was fabulous.

  • Lianne Says:

    Maggie – I’m so encouraged that you shared this and I love reading all these beautiful ideas in these comments – I’m writing them down and had to run to amazon and order The Kissing Hand before even commenting here. Love to you all!

  • Renee Says:

    It really upsets me when parents “sneak away”

  • Lesley Says:

    When my husband was away for a long period of time I made a paper chain for my small son. He was too young to understand the concept of “days” and “weeks” so I made a link for each day he would be gone. Each day he would wake up excited to rip off another link. He could visually see that the chain was getting smaller and smaller. It helped ALOT!