Second thoughts on sending your kid on the best vacation of his life

www.jeffvrabel.comJuly 31, 2013 

What's the appropriate amount of time to send your kid away on a vacation with another family? Also, if you could frame your answer in the form of "About a week," I'd appreciate it.

Here's why I ask: My 9-year-old is currently the luckiest human being alive, having just returned from a weeklong trip to Orlando, Fla., that included pretty much everything there is to do in Orlando, Fla., that isn't going to the Holy Land Experience or getting your head cryogenically frozen. (That's right folks, frozen-head-of-Walt jokes, still timely in mid-2013!) It sounds like an amazing trip, one that was capped off by a sunrise hot-air balloon ride that, as it turned out, included a festive early-morning group in pirate costumes. That's right, a BALLOON ride, with PIRATES. My son's vacation experiences have basically peaked at age 9 with another family.

I say "sounds like" and "it seems" because this is hearsay. I didn't go on this trip. Neither did my wife, neither did my son's brother, who is just south of 2 and would have spent the entire trip pooping/clamoring for juice. My oldest went as a guest of a good friend, whose grandmother called to invite him along several weeks prior in the sort of insane instant-weeklong-vacation-to-someplace-awesome that I would have gleefully sold all my G.I. Joe toys or my brother for in 1986. (I'm kidding, of course. I'd have never sold the G.I. Joe aircraft carrier. Everything else, though? FIRE SALE.)

My first thought was, "Awesome, he'll love it, we're in!" My second thought was, "Wait, can I go? I've never been to Discovery Cove and I'd love to swim with dolphins, because the ones around Hilton Head get all nervous when you grab for their fins." My third thought was, "Wait, is this OK, sending my son away for a week like this?"

Now, of course we weren't sending him with anyone we didn't know; this particular friend has been a yearlong schoolmate, neighborhood pool and Minecraft buddy and we've essentially done a kid swap with his family most weekends this year.

The friend likes coming here because of our legitimately insane volume of Legos; my son prefers going there because his friend has Legos we do NOT have, which makes his house considerably superior. So we knew the people he'd be traveling with, and so did he; we'd seen them all year.

But even knowing all those things, even enacting most of the major safeguards you put into place, there comes a moment a few days before your son leaves when you stop to think, "Wait, what in the hell am I doing?"

When you send your kid with your family, you're sending him with your family, and even if the idea of spending an extended period of time with your own family can fill you with an existential dread, it's usually pretty aces for a 9-year-old.

You send your kid to a summer camp, and (one assumes) the staff has been checked and vetted, and they probably have some experience spending all day in the woods with hordes of children, which actually does make them legitimate crazy people. This, all of a sudden, seemed like putting my son on a Greyhound bus with $15 and telling him to call us when he got to San Luis Obispo, which is silly and irrational but so is parenting, and, come to think of it, life.

The crowd reaction to this trip was varied; my cousin was basically like "YEP, BYE," when I asked if she'd send her kids on something similar. (My cousin and I tend to share a great deal of parenting theories, such as the appropriate age to begin feeding your child frozen waffles, which is 4 months of age.) Another friend was more cautious, and by "more cautious" I think she called me "insane" on at least six separate occasions.

As someone who likes to respond to peer pressure, this diversity in opinion threw me. Again, I don't want to insinuate we didn't know the people he was going with, because we do, and they're lovely.

And in the end we sent him because we trusted these guys; they were gracious enough to ask our son to accompany theirs on a trip of boss-level fun and because, I mean come on, random weeklong trip to Florida, how am I going to tell him no? And naturally, he had a blast. Time of his life.

Except he did say something at the airport on the way out that stuck with us. "It was kind of strange to be with somebody else's family," my son said over a post-pickup donut or two. "It was really fun, but I'm glad to be back home. The best part of the trip is coming home," he said, repeating something his mom programmed into him many years ago, but is still nice to hear, and I think he meant it.

Jeff Vrabel does not recommend grabbing dolphin fins in the wild. Follow him at twitter.com/JeffVrabel and read more at www.jeffvrabel.com.

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