Childless In Africa

Normally, this African adventure story would begin in exactly the same fashion as my first three travel narratives:   “… and the family made its way to the Minneapolis airport for our long flight to Nairobi.”    However, plans changed dramatically when our two children, now 17 and 14, informed us that under no circumstances would they join us on this venture. As I knew must happen eventually, they had reached the age where hanging out with friends, playing video games, and going to the mall were far more appealing summer pastimes than spending a long period of forced interaction with mom and dad on the other side of the globe. I tried convincing them of the wondrous sights they’d see. No dice. I switched to begging, cajoling, even bribery. Still no sale.  We were at an impasse that appeared to have only three solutions: 1) I could drag them along unwillingly and spend three unpleasant months with dispirited, unhappy teenagers—not a pleasant thought. 2) I could cancel the trip entirely, or 3)  I could leave them in the care of responsible adults while my wife and I went on our merry way.  (Question for readers:  What would you do?)

My guess is most people would choose option two and cancel the trip, bemoaning their misfortune while promising to try again in a few years when the kids went off to college. That option did not appeal to us since there was no guarantee this unique teaching and travel offer would repeat itself four years hence—successful cold calls have a notoriously short shelf life. So we asked one more time and, when they refused yet again, met with the parents of their best friends whom we knew well and trusted thoroughly.

These friends agreed to serve as surrogate parents for three months, a move motivated not only by close friendship and our agreement to pay all of our children’s living expenses, but also enlightened self-interest. Their own kids, often bored and cranky during the long, hot summer months, would have full-time, live-in playmates. It worked out well for all parties although to this day our adult children, who now must dive into their own wallets to support a travel habit, lament this lost opportunity for an all-expense-paid three-month holiday in Africa. They still can’t believe we listened to their non-stop whining and complaining and allowed them to remain behind.

Of course I would have preferred that our children join us on this zoological, anthropological, and cultural odyssey, just as you would certainly enjoy having your entire family travel with you. But when that is no longer a viable option, throwing away a once-in-a-lifetime travel opportunity may not be the winning strategy. I understand that most parents do not want to leave their almost-but-not-quite adult children behind while they wander the globe; this runs counter to the parental instinct buried deep within our breast. In our case, though, this mutually voluntary three-month separation worked out quite well as each family member got exactly what he or she wanted from their summer hiatus.  The kids were able to sleep in, play, swim, read, watch TV, and even spend a few weeks at summer camp, while we had the cultural experience of a lifetime, an experience I will be sharing in the coming weeks.

So, before throwing in the towel when children balk at joining you, consider option three, traveling without the kids, either using family members or trusted friends in loco parentis, or sending them to summer camp for the duration of the overseas stay. No one will think you’re a bad parent, and everyone, parents and children alike, will have a wonderful time. Certainly you will enjoy it more than sitting home moping about what could have been.

The Thoroughly Modern and Beautiful Downtown Area of Nairobi, Kenya, One of The Most Lovely Cities In East Africa

So this working vacation story begins in a slightly unexpected way:  “For the fourth time in eight years, on May 22, 1987 Ruth and I, but not our children, trekked to the Minneapolis airport to begin our next working vacation–this time an East African safari adventure.


4 responses to “Childless In Africa

  1. You have begun to lay out the case for the children to stay. The prospect of doing all of those things may have been enough to keep them with you. Another thought is that there is the prospect of one of them wanting to stay and the other wanting to return. Yikes!

    Ultimately, trusting the 17 and 14 year olds to do that sort of thing alone is an individual call based on the experiences and maturity of the children involved. Its not like they are sailing solo around the world. :^)

  2. There is a fourth option–it is a cross between options 1 and 3. Tell the kids that they *are* coming along, for at least two weeks. Then after two weeks, they get to decide whether to stay for the rest of the trip or return home. (BTW, I would pick a less desirable arrangement at home–that aunt who loves to pinch children’s cheeks regardless of their age?) This does introduce the potential cost of changing a ticket, but the child makes a decision with full knowledge of the situation rather than perceptions.

    • I like that option. I am not a parent, but I was thinking I might just drag the kids along if it was me. Once they got there they may be glad they came. This option provides a good compromise.

    • In theory your fourth option sounds good, but there are problems. As you mentioned, there is the cost of rebooking two international air tickets, whichthat could run to hundreds of dollars. Second, the kids would have to make a long, complicated flight home on their own. They would have to fly from Nairobi to Paris, change planes at DeGaulle, fly to New York, reclaim their baggage, go through immigration and customs, take a shuttle from the international terminal to the domestic terminal at JFK, recheck their baggage, and then board a plane for Minneapolis. Would you trust a 17 and 14 year old to do that alone? Finally, I would have to arrange for friends/family to pick them up at the airport and take care of them for the summer, making all the living arrangements from Nairobi. These are not insoluble problems, but it would be a bit of a hassle.

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