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Staying in Touch with Your Kids When You're Out of Town

By Shay Bilchik

Some of you who boarded this Spirit flight today are lucky enough to be headed to fabulous vacation resorts to enjoy a little break with friends and family. But many of you are on your way to a slate of business meetings that will take you away from loved ones for a few days. So, if you're in the latter group, as I often find myself, here are a few tips to help you stay in touch with your children until you come home to find them safely tucked in their beds the night you return.

New parents may be the ones to suffer the most when forced to spend time away from their children, as every trip brings with it the possibility of a difficult separation and the risk of missing developmental signposts like first steps and first words. On the other end of the spectrum, parents of teenagers may think their children won't miss them at all, and many are grateful to simply find their home in one piece when they return.

But developmental psychologists agree that a parent's separation from a child is a very important concern at any age. That goes for parents who travel regularly, and those who simply work 50-60 hours a week, if not more. Fortunately, there are some really simple ways to stay in touch with your children and even strengthen that bond while you're away.

Let's start with the young ones. When I was just starting my career, and was required to travel for business, my wife was thoughtful enough to give me the gift of a talking picture frame with a photo of my young son and daughter. This was a decidedly low-tech approach at a time when cell phones were rare, but it did the trick. My children each recorded a brief message for me to carry from hotel room to hotel room-it did wonders for my spirits and made them feel more connected to me. (Years later my wife and I bought our daughter a similar talking picture frame with an alarm clock for her to take to her college dorm room. Each morning she woke to hear a recording of her mother screaming, "It's time to get up! Get out of bed!" which made her laugh, but apparently wasn't very popular with her roommate.)

When my kids got a little older, and technology advanced just a bit further, I often carried a pager to stay in touch with colleagues and my family. One afternoon, as I was delivering a speech, I received a message that I dismissed as some sort of error: 07734. My children later told me that if I'd been clever enough to turn the pager upside-down, I'd have read their numerical message: "HELLO." It was a great way for them to tell me they were thinking of me, even while I was away, and they sent that same simple message to me many times.

In the age of cell phones, voicemail, e-mails, and instant messaging, where internet access is never more than a few feet away, there's really no excuse for staying out of touch for too long. Younger children love any opportunity to use the computer. And it's a perfect way for teens to stay in touch with parents-they can keep things brief, reply on their own schedule, and they don't necessarily feel like you're checking up on them when you're just checking in.

But just because business travelers have access to all of these modern conveniences doesn't mean our children do. And sometimes it's better to go with an old-fashioned approach. When our daughter Melissa was only three years old, she headed off to pre-school with the imprint of my wife's "lipstick kiss" on a little piece of paper every day, so she could carry a symbol of her mother's love in her pocket. The good old U.S. Postal Service is another great way to send a message-it takes five minutes to head to the hotel gift shop and send a postcard or two. Even if you arrive home before the postcard does, your children will know you've been thinking of them, and they'll have something they can hold onto-something more tangible than an e-mail or text message that gets stockpiled in an electronic "in box".

Although my wife didn't take quite as many trips as I did earlier in our marriage, she would often write out little messages to our kids on sticky notes and hide them throughout the house, knowing our children would stumble upon them at various times during the week, as they were making breakfast, brushing their teeth, or taking out the garbage. After a while, they started hunting for those messages, searching in every nook and cranny of our home.

There are clearly many simple ways to stay in touch with your children, but if you want them to hold up their end of the bargain, it's important to let them know you're really interested in hearing from them. Give them permission to contact you. That doesn't mean that you'll answer your cell phone every time it rings, but it does mean you'll keep your phone on vibrate, in case there's an emergency, and you'll check your voicemail regularly to see if they've left a message. There's no question that technology has a way of anchoring us to our jobs-the boss can always reach us, day or night. But if used correctly, technology can also anchor us to our family. You may even be willing to send a text message during a long meeting if you've got the chance. Don't know how? Ask your kids-they'll be thrilled to teach you something new. My son Zachary installed instant messaging software on my laptop computer, and now we use it to communicate when I'm on the road and he's up late studying for college exams.

Yes, it's important to set boundaries and let your kids know when you'll be busy, but it's also important that they feel they can contact you. If you send your kids the message that other activities take precedence over talking to them, then you shouldn't be surprised the next time you're sitting at the dinner table and they won't share a word about their school activities. By giving them permission, you set a tone for all communication. The more you open up to them about your daily experiences in and out of the workplace, the more likely they'll be to open about their daily experiences in school and beyond. If you can find little ways to show them you think of them, even when you're thousands of miles away, odds are you'll find the remaining time you spend with them even more rewarding.

For more great parenting tips, including how to prepare your children before you leave home
    on a trip, click here.

Shay Bilchik is the former President & CEO of the Child Welfare League of America in Arlington, VA, the nation's oldest and largest membership-based child welfare organization.

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