When Nancie Hall's birthday fell in the middle of a lengthy vacation, her two traveling companions secretly arranged a birthday celebration that took her totally by surprise. That was quite an accomplishment, given that Hall was traveling with her 11-year-old niece and 13-year-old nephew.
"A lot of people thought I was crazy to take my niece and nephew on my holiday," said Hall, a single executive in her 30s who lives in Toronto. "But it wasn't hard at all. It was great fun and we've become much closer as a result."
The trio went sightseeing and people-watching all through Vancouver, Canada. They threw out half the itinerary that Hall had meticulously planned and instead hit the beach, exploring tide pools and just relaxing. "Some days we didn't have to do anything," Hall said. They laughed a lot and talked. The kids snapped photos to go with the diary they kept of their entire two-week trip. They got to know their aunt--and she them--in an entirely new way.
"I've developed a lifetime relationship with a child as a result of these trips--a relationship I wouldn't have had otherwise," said Ellen Kurpiewski, a Los Angeles-based flight attendant who travels every summer with her teen-age niece Alicia. Together they've toured Pennsylvania's Amish country, Palm Springs, Los Angeles' Universal Studios and Orlando, Fla. "Let the kids lead the way," Kurpiewski said. "You'll find yourself heading down paths you never expected."
"Some people have so many wrong stereotypes about kids," said 16-year-old Alicia Kurpiewski, who lives in Florida and describes travels with her aunt as "a blast." "This is a great way to show them what being a kid is really like. We're not all bad."
The same could be said for the vision of the adult world that most kids--particularly teen-agers--carry around in their heads. Most teen-agers spend their days arguing with all the adults they know, most notably parents and teachers, said Dr. Donald Greydanus, an adolescent specialist who is a professor of pediatrics at Michigan State University and editor of the American Academy of Pediatrics' guide, "Caring for Your Adolescent" ($19.95).
Greydanus, the father of four teen-agers, said traveling or spending time with a single relative or friend who cares for them is a terrific way to show kids that all adults aren't as bad as they think. "They'll latch onto the non-parent very well, as long as they don't come across like parents, giving them too many rules." It's also a great way to give parents a break from the trials of living with an adolescent.
"If you're looking for an interesting time and want to go to a foreign land, this is the experience," said Philadelphia psychologist Judith Sills, who treats many singles in her practice. "All that you can get by going to a Greek Island, you can get by sitting at the pool with your 7-year-old niece, seeing a different place and a different way of life: It's the land of the parent."
"It's fun to share old places with a child," said Ellen Kurpiewski, who has been seeing new places for more than 20 years as she's flown around the world for United Airlines. "I get a whole different perspective."
"The great divide of the human race is between parents and non-parents," said Sills, who experienced that firsthand in the many years she was single before marrying and having a child. "There's a way in which a mother in Los Angeles has more in common with a mother in Ethiopia than she does with a friend down the street who doesn't have any kids," said Sills, who is author of "Excess Baggage" (Viking, $10.95).
Spending time with a child when you're not a parent, Sills said, is a way to stretch your boundaries and explore new territory without the permanent responsibilities that go with parenthood. "I get a whole different perspective on things from Alicia," said Kurpiewski, who is in her late 40s and makes such trips annually with her niece.
For those setting foot in this territory for the first time, here are some pointers from Kurpiewski and others who have been there:
* Talk to the parents in advance to get tips on their children's likes and dislikes. Must they sleep with the light on? Will they only eat cereal dry without milk? Must they have a certain brand of pizza?
* Talk to the young traveler too. Set the ground rules--about things you absolutely won't tolerate: smoking, for example, or drugs. Is there a curfew for older teen-agers? How much can they spend on souvenirs? Make sure they know that if they get homesick, they can call home.
* Don't forget to discuss what you've got planned. Try getting some input from the children of friends who live nearby. And give the kids plenty of choices. Maybe you've been thinking museum, but they want to hit the mall. "I can show my aunt stuff she wouldn't see without me," Alicia said.
Taking the Kids appears weekly.