NEW YORK — Business travelers might be faced with long lines at airports, mediocre hotel food and lonely nights, but what about the family they leave behind? There likely is double-duty for the other parent or caregiver, and children are forced to change their routines while realizing that they miss the morning kiss from mom or dad more than they thought they would.
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A business trip means adjustments for the whole household, but different doesn't have to mean difficult.
“It does make me sad to travel,” says Dan Verdick, a sales and marketing director for a publishing company outside of St. Paul, Minn. He hits the road about three times a month, each trip lasting two or three days. He says, though, that travel has become more palatable for both him and his family because he has learned to plan ahead and to get the whole family interested in what he's doing and where he is going.
Verdick, who has a 6-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son, put his suggestions for better business travel into "The Business Traveling Parent: How to Stay Close to Your Kids When You're Far Away" (Robins Lane Press). "I really try to think of things from my children's perspective and how it will affect them," Verdick says.
Before he leaves, Verdick puts together a detailed itinerary and might ask for one back from his daughter (his son's not old enough) that will highlight her class schedule and after-school plans so they'll both always know what the other is doing.
He also uses this opportunity for a geography lesson. “I make the most of the situation by teaching my daughter how to read a map, and then I'll correspond by mail or e-mail, talk on the phone and have conversations about what I'm seeing,” Verdick says.
He also makes an effort to be a part of what's going on in the kids' daily life, even if it's from a distance. Verdick's daughter was learning cursive writing as he left on one recent trip, so he sent all of his correspondence — there is still something thrilling about receiving a postcard — to her in cursive.
When her now 16- and 19-year-old children were younger, Miriam Arond, editor in chief of Child magazine, would leave notes around the house for her children to discover after she left. They'd be simple one-liners, such as “Have a good day” or “I love you.”
Bedtime is a particularly vulnerable time for children because it's the point of the day when routine is the most important, and because the quiet of the night can leave kids feeling lonely or sad, says Arond. “Maybe just before bed is the best time to call home,” she suggests.
Also, cell phones and personal digital assistants make it possible to check in a few times a day. However, Arond cautions about overuse of these instant connections. “You don't want to make children too dependent on us (parents). You want to make yourself available but with limited access, so they'll work out some things on their own.”
When parents do phone home, and also before and after the trip, they should be mindful of what signals they convey about business travel. If parents complain or seem stressed, the children will pick up on it and soon they'll be complaining and be stressed, Arond says. “Be very matter of fact about travel; it's just like a parent going to work everyday,” she says.
Of course, a gift always helps lift children's spirits, but a gift that is too extravagant is a sign from parents that they've done something wrong and are trying to make it up to the kids, according to Arond.
Parents often have a harder time with the traveling than the children do, especially if the youngsters are allowed to do special activities with grandparents, friends or caregivers, Arond notes.
It's helpful to whoever is left taking care of the children for parents to write down detailed instructions before they go away, down to meals and playdates. Parents also can ask for notes back so they won't feel out of the loop when they return.
Bringing the family
Sometimes it might be feasible to bring children on business trips instead of leaving them at home, but Verdick warns that family travel requires even more advance planning.
Parents need to find out what the children can do while they are busy: Is there baby-sitting at the hotel? Is there a “kids' camp”? Does the hotel offer amenities such as a pool and room service? ("Don't discount room service as a real thrill for kids," Verdick says.)
Verdick cites a trend noted by the National Business Travel Association to hold conventions in child-friendly destinations such as Orlando for its amusement parks or New York for its shopping. “It's a good idea because there are no separation issues, but you'll have the new issue of 'Why isn't daddy playing with me?"'
Verdick plans to solve that problem by leaving a few days early for a convention in San Diego later this year so he can do a lot of the fun things first. Having his family on this trip might even make future ones better. “Most parents complain about business trips but there are some perks ... and having your family remind you about how cool the hotel is might make it more tolerable for you in the future.”
How to be there when you can't be there
Parents can use business travel as an excuse to start new fun rituals with their children that will make trips more pleasant for everyone involved.
Dan Verdick, the father of two and a frequent flier, put his ideas in the book "The Business Traveling Parent: How to Stay Close to Your Kids When You're Far Away" (Robins Lane Press).
His ideas include:
- Create a keepsake box. Together with your children, decorate a folder, binder, or even a large shoe box for them to store any art or schoolwork while you're out of town. Then, when you return, you can make an event of going through the box and talking about the contents.
- Track the weather. With your child, cut weather symbols, such as a sun, umbrella, snowflake and cloud, from construction paper. Ask your child to track the weather for you while you're gone, so you will know what you missed. Every day he can look outside to see what the weather's like. Then he can tape the appropriate symbol on that day's square on the calendar.
- Calling for story time. Start with two books. When you leave home, give your child one copy of the storybook you have chosen and bring one on the road. During your trip, call home every night around bedtime and read the book with your child over the phone. If your child is learning to read, let him do the reading.
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