Dear Family Whisperer: Is it OK to Leave One Child Behind?

03/06/2015 09:58 am ET | Updated May 06, 2015
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Dear Family Whisperer,

We have two daughters, Serena, 7, and Fiona, 4, and have taken the older one twice for weekend getaways while we left the little one behind. But that was when Fiona was an infant or young toddler. This weekend, we want to take Serena to dinner and the symphony, which probably won't hold Fiona's attention. So we thought about getting a babysitter only for her. Frankly, we want to spend time out with a child who is past the whiny, fidgety stage. But it seems like a challenge to "sell" this to Fiona since she is now 4. I am going to try and arrange for a playdate or something fun with the sitter. I am an advocate of spending quality time alone with each of the kids separately. Just wondered what you'd say about this.

Saying that you have to "sell" your plan suggests that getting a sitter for only one child somehow feels "wrong." To shift your perspective, consider everyone in this drama, not just your youngest. Through this broader lens, you'll see that it's not just "okay" to leave little Fiona "behind." It's a smart way to manage a family.

Every household is a unique mix of children and adults with different abilities and interests that keep changing. You can't possibly do everything together. Of course, one-on-one time is critical. Fun events and pleasant experiences are the building blocks of strong relationships. Guilt shouldn't be part of the equation.

You're not being selfish for wanting a whine-free night out with your older child. Also, you're not "leaving" Fiona. She's staying home -- presumably with an engaging babysitter who talks to her, laughs with her, and gets her brain and body moving. She won't have to sit through a long concert, which most kids her age can't appreciate. Play the music for her (assuming you know what's on the bill). If she likes it, you've discovered one more thing that you enjoy as a family.

Many parents in your situation might decide to "divide and conquer." It can be more expedient to each take a child -- and more fun if the pairs have similar interests. It works well on vacations, too. However, divide-and-conquer is not always "best." If Dad, for example, has no interest in classical music, then he might be happy to take Fiona to a bouncy house. But if he's a music buff who wants to witness his 7-year-old experiencing the symphony the first time, go as a threesome.

Whatever you decide, help both daughters understand what being in a family means. There's always someplace to be, things to do. Every day, we have to make choices about who goes where and with whom. Fun experiences, such as a concert, a game, or a nature walk, make us feel happier, more competent, or calmer. Sometimes, though, we have to do things that are scary (meeting a new babysitter), or hard (studying for a test) -- or a chore (mowing). Either way, we're in it together, helping each other celebrate the good times and endure the not-so-pleasant.

Point out to your girls that they've already started taking "turns" being the one at home. Serena stayed behind to get the house ready when Fiona was born. Fiona held down the fort as a toddler when Mommy and Dad traveled with Serena. Even if Fiona doesn't remember the fun she had with Grandma (or whoever stayed with her), she'll like the image of herself as a big girl.

Also help your daughters see that it's up to them to have a good time. As one wise mother said to her whiny child, "You're too smart to be bored."

Children become more resilient and competent when they're given opportunities to be strong and independent, and to practice emotional skills, not when they're seen as helpless and needy. Be with your girls, play with them, enrich their lives with special moments. But remember that it's not your job to amuse them or shield them. Life isn't always fun or fair.

These probably sound like "harsh" suggestions in today's child-centered parenting climate. In fact, the night you go to the concert, Fiona might cry. Just reassure her that she'll be okay -- and she will!

Hi, it's Melinda. Do you have a question for me about your family or a relationship? No topics are off limits, and it's all anonymous. Send me a question via Twitter @MelindaBlau #DearFamilyWhisperer, or click on this link.