Business Travel: Leaving the Little Ones Behind
Business travel, a seemingly inescapable aspect of today's corporate culture, presents special challenges and opportunities for parents.
Corporate jaunts to exotic and not-so-exciting places offer chances to experience more of the world or order breakfast in bed, but for many of America's nearly 44 million business travelers, even clinching an important deal can lose some of its luster when thoughts turn to missed moments with family members.
"It's a chance for you to be a great parent," says Dan Verdick, frequent traveler and author of The Business Traveling Parent: How to Stay Close to Your Kids When You're Far Away . "If a family commits itself to having the energy and time to make the most of the situation, it can really be good."
Committed to Communication
First off, parents need to work together. Communication and sensitivity to other family members' feelings provide a necessary foundation for turning business travel into a positive family experience.
"You have to have a supportive spouse, because they also assume your role," says traveler Jeff Zimmerman, with AAA Publishing.
Experts agree. Marriage and family counselor Chris Essex, co-director of the Center For Work and the Family in Rockville, Maryland, recommends Mom and Dad talk to each other about their feelings, frustrations (what it's like to be on the road or left at home), and expectations. Ideally, discussions should lead to agreements about responsibilities, decision-making, handling emergencies, when to call, and departure and return routines.
"The degree of agreement and difference in feelings between the two parents has a lot to do with how upset the children are," says family psychologist Irene Goldenberg at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute in Los Angeles.
Before the Trip
The following are some ideas to help your child prepare for your business trip.
- Mapping the route
Zimmerman starts discussing an upcoming trip with his son several days prior to departure. On a large wall map, in his son's room, they plot the trip and place stickers on each destination.
"Parents shouldn't just disappear," Essex says. If you have mixed feelings about leaving, she cautions against telling the child that you don't want to go, to avoid giving the youngster something to worry about. Explaining details about the trip and its purpose helps give a better sense of meaning as to what is happening, according to Goldenberg.
- Learning about the destination
With enough time, parents and children can research facts about the destination through convention and visitor bureau websites, visit the library to look at picture books, or stop by the airport to show a youngster an airplane.
- Counting the days
Children want to know how long a parent will be away. Mark the days on a calendar. For younger children, Essex recommends placing one block for each day on the road in a special container. The child can remove a block each morning. An empty box indicates Mom or Dad is en route home. Make older children a copy of the itinerary.
- Planning for your return
"I like parents to start a game, a picture or a project...and say we'll work on this when I come back," Essex says. "The child can look at it and know they'll work on it some more. So the child has the continuity of the process."
During the Journey
While some people hold jobs earning them elite airline status, on average, business travelers take only five trips per year, just enough to upset a child's regular routine.
- Timing it right
"I find the thing that helps me the most is continuity and keeping the little rituals," says Mary Gendron Augustyn, owner of New York's public relations firm Middleton & Gendron. The mother of two frequently finds herself meeting clients in other time zones. "We try to keep the kids on a set schedule, especially during the week. I know when they are having dinner and baths."
That knowledge helps her time phone calls to avoid disruptions. Mom calling when Dad's trying to settle youngsters into bed can create havoc and an undercurrent of tension. Augustyn places one call to the children before supper and a later one to her husband.
- Talking and writing
Listen to what the child wants to talk about. Be creative. A spontaneous, long-distance recitation of a bedtime story that was met with enthusiasm from his little girl prompted Verdick to share his travel tips with other parents. On more unpredictable trips, fax letters home or correspond by email. Encouraging older children to write can help literacy skills.
- Missing big events
Road warriors often miss the joys of a toddler's first steps or a Little Leaguer's game-winning hit. For those events, Verdick invokes the "Milestone Rule: It doesn't count until you see it," which gives the child an opportunity to celebrate twice. He also suggests creating a keepsake box, where a child can stash artwork or other treasures to show the returning parent.
- Bringing back souvenirs
"If you're traveling a lot, bring back something consistent they can collect, not a lot of expensive gifts," says Goldenberg. Augustyn sometimes brings toiletries from the hotel or a coloring book. Zimmerman tries to find something associated with the destination, a miniature Statue of Liberty from New York City or a little trolley car from San Francisco.
Even when happy to come home, re-entry can prove stressful. The longer the traveling parent has been gone, the more the stay-at-home parent has adapted. Sometimes children will act out when the absent parent returns, especially if they feel more comfortable with that person.
"People need to decompress, but children demand an immediate response," says Goldenberg. Spend 10 minutes, without acting cross. Review the keepsake box. Let them help with unpacking. Talk about whatever is on the child's mind. And next time business travel takes you away, let it serve as the impetus to uncover interesting tidbits about distant locales, start some new traditions and bring your family closer together.
"There is no right or wrong way to do this. It should be based on the ages of the kids, the needs of the kids and what each partner needs," says Essex, whose husband flies more than a million miles a year. "There are lots of people doing it really well, but it's hard."
Travel Industry Association of America
UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute
Verdick D. The Business Traveling Parent: How to Stay Close to Your Kids When You're Far Away . Robins Lane Press; 2000.
Last reviewed November 2009 by ]]>Brian Randall, MD]]>
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