WRITERS’ CORNER Mom! Can Eddie Go to Walt Disney World With Us? The Slippery Issue of Allowing Your Child to Invite A Friend on Your Family Vacation
by Bob Sehlinger
If you’ve not yet heard this plaintive appeal, be assured that someday, you will. Sooner or later, your child will initiate a lobbying campaign aimed at persuading you to allow one of his or her friends to accompany your family on vacation. In all probability, the pitch will be shy, hesitant, and perhaps oblique initially, but it will quickly evolve into a clamorous, unrelenting, frontal assault worthy of a rabid Washington lobbyist. Because it’s hard to think clearly when you’re the target of a full-court press, it’s best to anticipate and consider the question beforehand.
Forget for the moment that there’s a minefield of potential emotional explosions associated with the request and how you handle it. Let’s begin by discussing the practical aspects–there’s more involved here than might be immediately obvious.
First, consider the logistics of numbers. Is there room in the car, or will an extra person make traveling conditions uncomfortably crowded for everyone? Will you have to leave some of your things at home to make room in the trunk for the friend’s luggage? Will the addition of a friend change your basic lodging requirements? Will you need another hotel room or a bigger condo to accommodate the enlarged group? Will the increased number of people in your party make it hard to get a table at a restaurant?
If you determine that you can logistically accommodate one or more friends, the next step is to consider how the inclusion of the friend will affect your group’s interpersonal dynamics. Generally speaking, the presence of a friend will make it harder to really connect with your own children. If one of your vacation goals is an intimate bonding experience with your children, the addition of friends will probably frustrate your attempts to realize that objective.
If family relationship-building is not necessarily a primary goal of your vacation, it’s quite possible that the inclusion of a friend will make life easier for you. This is especially true in the case of only children, who may otherwise depend exclusively on you to keep them happy and occupied. Having a friend along can take the pressure off and give you some much-needed breathing room.
If you decide to allow a friend to accompany you, limit the selection to children you know really well and whose parents you also know. Your vacation is not the time to include “my friend Tony from school” whom you’ve never met. Your children’s friends who have spent time in your home will have a sense of your parenting style, and you will have a sense of their personality, behavior, and compatibility with your family. Assess the prospective child’s potential to fit in well on a long trip. Is he or she polite, personable, fun to be with, and reasonably mature? Does he or she relate well to you and to the other members of your family? Is he or she responsive to you? Does he or she accept guidance and correction well?
Because a Disney World vacation is not, for most of us, a spur-of-the-moment thing, you should have adequate time to evaluate potential candidate friends. A trip to the mall including a meal in a sit-down restaurant will tell you volumes about the friend. Likewise, inviting the friend to share dinner with the family and then spend the night will provide a lot of relevant information. Ideally this type of evaluation should take place early in the normal course of family events, before your child poses his request to bring along a friend. This anticipatory consideration will allow you to size things up without your child (or the friend) realizing that an evaluation is taking place.
By seizing the initiative, you can guide the outcome. Ann, a Springfield, Ohio, mom, anticipated that her 12-year-old son would ask to take a friend on their vacation. As she pondered the various friends her son might propose, she came up with five names. One, an otherwise sweet child, had a medical condition that Ann felt unqualified to monitor or treat. A second friend was overly aggressive with younger children and was often socially inappropriate for his age. Three other friends, Chuck, Karl, and Marty, with whom she had had a generally positive experience, were good candidates for the trip. After orchestrating some opportunities to spend time with each of the boys, she made her decision and asked her son, “Would you like to invite Marty to go with us to Disney World?” Her son was delighted, and Ann had diplomatically preempted having to turn down friends her son might have proposed. Additionally, Ann had qualified a couple of back-up candidates in case Marty couldn’t go.
When it’s time to extend the invitation, you should do the inviting, instead of your child, and the invitation should be extended parent to parent. Observing this recommendation will allow you to query the friend’s parents concerning food preferences, any medical conditions, how discipline is administered in the friend’s family, how the friend’s parents feel about the way you administer discipline, and the parents’ expectation regarding religious observations while their child is in your care. Also, as a matter of courtesy, it affords the other parents an opportunity to make their decision without pressure from their child.
Before you extend the invitation, give some serious thought to who pays for what. Make a specific proposal for financing the trip as part of your invitation, for example, “There’s room for Marty in the hotel room, and transportation’s no problem because we’re driving. So we’ll just need you to pick up Marty’s meals, theme park admissions, and spending money.” As an aside, we suggest that you arrange for the friend’s parents to reimburse you after the trip for things like restaurant meals and admissions. This is much easier than splitting restaurant tabs and trying to balance the books after every expenditure.
The toughest situation occurs when the preferred friend can’t go. Your child is wired, you’ve agreed in concept to your child bringing a friend, and now things have not worked out as hoped. If, like Ann, you’ve identified good alternates, you’ll have a fallback plan. You’ll have a problem, however, if there are no other acceptable friends. Your child, naturally, will want to extend one invitation after another until someone accepts–a probable recipe for disaster. Once again, the answer is in anticipation. Before any invitations are extended, explain to your child that you’re willing to invite a specific friend. Communicate that if the friend can’t go, you’ll invite him another time, but for this trip, you are not interested in considering others. Explain to your child that if he accepts these conditions, you’ll go ahead and make the invitation.
If you are a single parent, there are some additional points to consider. Because as a single parent, you are generally also a working parent, planning a special getaway with your children can be the best way to spend some quality time together. But remember, the vacation is not just for your child-it’s for you, too. In lieu of inviting one of your children’s friends, you might invite a grandparent or a favorite aunt or uncle along. The other adult will provide nice company for you, and your child will benefit from the time with family members.
If the main objective of your vacation is to really connect with your child, bringing one of your child’s friends will make that more difficult–maybe impossible. But if you opt not to take the friend, don’t try to spend every vacation moment with your children. Choose a destination that offers supervised programs or activities for children so that you can schedule some time alone. Take advantage of your free time to do what you want to do: read a book, have a massage, take a long walk, or enjoy a catnap.
Sure, there’s a lot to think about, but in the final analysis, you want to do five things:
1. Anticipate the question.
2. Consider the question in light of your own family vacation agenda. Do not compromise your vacation objectives in order to accommodate a child’s friend.
3. Consider the logistical implications of increasing the size of your party.
4. If you agree to take a friend, control the selection process.
5. Establish ground rules for possible accept/decline scenarios before extending any invitations.
Finally, stay loose. Roll with the punches. All vacations bring some surprises, and adding one of your child’s friends to your family vacation party is sure precipitate a few more. And remember, your children aren’t perfect, so don’t expect the invited friend to be faultless either.
Reader Tara Felicio added a great tip: The only really important advice I would add to this is to make a copy of the other child’s health insurance information and also have a signed or even notarized letter from the child’s parents stating they will be traveling with you, to where, and the dates. Hopefully you will never need to use it, but you never know!