We are three steps into the JetBlue terminal at JFK, pulling our matching wheelie bags behind us, when my eleven-year-old turns to me, smiles, and says: “Mom, we’ve never, ever had a trip just the two of us before!” We are on our way to Los Angeles, just my son and me.
The idea for our trip was born on a dark winter morning when I watched my son trudge to the school bus, hood pulled over his head, shoulders slumped. It was like the light had gone out of him, and I didn’t notice until that moment.
I had been so busy fielding FaceTimes from my oldest at college, discussing study strategies with my high school sophomore, and shuttling my 8th grader to her soccer practices. My easygoing youngest child, who will happily play endless hours of Roblox, had been left to his own devices (literally). On the weekends, my husband and I were so grateful to have survived another week of pandemic bizarro reality that we happily fell asleep on the couch or read a book. The house was quiet; no one was crying or shouting. All good, right?
Except it wasn’t. I admit this with a bit of guilt but no judgment — it was what we needed to do to get through the last couple of years. But it was time to shift gears. He needed more attention from his parents.
When my second kid was seven, I realized he was getting lost in the hectic world of a family of four young kids. I decided to focus more attention on him. That week, I brought him Oreos to bus pick-up and stayed to watch his entire soccer practice. As we walked home from soccer, he turned to me and said, “Mom, what’s going on? First, you bring me Oreos, and then you stay for my practice? Is there a special occasion?”
That moment taught me a critical lesson about parenting: it doesn’t take a lot to make a kid feel special.
That experience with my older kid also taught me that it’s never too late to shine some light on a kid who has been left in the shade. It is so easy to get caught up in the guilt of having forgotten about them for a while that we forget it’s not irreparable. Even more than that, naming out loud to our kids that we know they’ve gotten lost in the shuffle is so powerful. It makes them feel seen twice over: once, by openly acknowledging that we’ve messed up (kids love that), and second, by taking action to change course.
How do you make one child feel special when there are so many competing needs in our homes?
In the past, I have traditionally felt so much pressure to pull out all the stops, but the truth is that kids don’t need an extravaganza. We can’t always take a kid alone on a trip across the country, nor do we need to. Mostly our kids want our focus on them without fighting for it. Here are my top three recommendations for families in the same boat as us and who need to change course.
Alone time even tops Disney
I was deciding whether to take my youngest to Los Angeles alone or take him and his sister to Disney World because they’ve never been. So I let my son decide which trip he preferred. And his only question was: Which trip will I be alone with you? Disney was irrelevant if it meant he needed to share my attention.
It’s not about the grand gesture
While I went all out on our trip to LA (using some of our unused travel budget from the last two years), my experience reminded me that kids don’t need grand gestures. Often it’s the feeling of being noticed (Oreos at pick up) and singled out for a parents’ loving attention (staying to watch soccer practice) that matters most.
Don’t assume you know what means the most
We hit all the sites in LA — Universal Studios, Santa Monica Pier, In-N-Out Burger — and saw family and friends. At the end of the trip, I asked my son what his top three parts of the trip were. He said: sharing a bento box with me, seeing his baby cousin, and having a sleepover with his camp friend. It was not the rides, not the blue raspberry slushie, not “animal style” fries, just ordinary activities that connected him to people he loved.
Sitting on the airplane on our way back to New York, my kid turned to me with a huge grin, grabbed my hand, and said: “This is the best weekend I’ve had in four years.” I smiled back and just savored that I had nothing else to do but hold his hand right back.
Vanessa Kroll Bennett is the co-host of The Puberty Podcast; the founder of Dynamo Girl, a company using sports and puberty education to empower kids; and the author of the Uncertain Parenting Newsletter, musings on raising adolescents. You can follow her on Instagram @vanessakrollbennett.