I know how hard it is to travel frequently when you have kids at home. It's as tough on them as it is on you. But sometimes, traveling for work is simply unavoidable.
Over the years I’ve come up with some free, or at least very cheap, ways to connect with my kids when I’m away for a few days. I thought I’d share my favorites—and those of parenting expert Susan Newman with you this week.
1. Take pictures
You don’t have to lug around another electronic; your cell phone will do. In fact, it’s even better because you can send them off to your kids instantaneously. Snap a picture of you at breakfast, in your hotel room, or at a meeting and send it to them.
2. Send an actual post card
Kids love mail, and it’s particularly exciting because it’s not something they typically get—the whole idea seems very grown up. So pop a post card in the mail with a simple message about what you’re doing and a note that you miss them.
3. Play an online game
4. Video chat
If you have a computer and a Web cam, and your children have access to one as well, you can use a free program like Skype to talk and see each other.
5. Send an e-mail
This works best for older kids, but a quick e-mail goes a long way. Share a few things that happened during your day, ask about theirs, and let them know that you miss them and you’ll be home soon.
6. Mark a calendar
Before you leave, Newman suggests taking a paper calendar and marking the days that you’ll be gone. Then have your child cross off each day as it passes, so they know they’re one day closer to seeing you again.
7. Be honest
“There’s nothing wrong with saying ‘I miss you, or I’m not thrilled to be away from you,’” says Newman. “Parents tend to make light of this, because they don’t want their children to think they’re upset by the travel, but it’s far more honest to tell them that you’re sorry you’re going to be away but it won’t be for too long.”
8. Make an away mug
You can have a mug with your picture printed at any mall or online, and it’s nice for your kids to have it to drink their juice from while you’re gone. It makes the time a little bit special.
9. Make yourself feel close
If you leave them something of yours—a T-shirt to sleep in, your pillow, a pen you always write with that they can take to school—they’ll feel closer to you even when you’re not home. My favorite tip? Let them sit in your seat at the kitchen table while you’re gone (if you have more than one child, have them alternate nights).
10. Pepper your house with photos
Not just of you, but of the whole family having fun. “Leaving photos around reminds them that you’ll be home soon to have more fun,” says Newman.
11. Start a collection
Every trip, bring home something to add: a mug, a magnet from a new state, a T-shirt. These are all things you can pick up inexpensively from the airport on your way in or out, but they feel special to your kids. It gives them something to focus on, rather than the time apart.
12. Bring home items from your hotel room
Those little bottles of shampoos, conditioners and lotions can be fascinating to kids, particularly if you have little girls who are into makeup and other girly things.
13. Buy two copies of the same book
This is a great idea from Newman: Take one copy with you and leave the other at home. At night, for 15 or 20 minutes, you can read together.
14. Record a story
Take the above idea one step further, especially if you travel a lot and your kids have one book that they want to read over and over (and what young kid doesn’t?). Record yourself reading that book out loud. It might take an hour, but it’s something they’ll treasure, and they can play it again and again every time you’re gone.
15. Share interesting sites
Take pictures of things they’re truly interested in right now, says Newman. “Snapping a photo of something that reflects your child’s current love at the moment shows that you’re thinking about them when you see something they’re interested in. It could be flowers, a building going up, a train station or a billboard for their favorite movie.”
16. Send an animated e-card
These are so fun for kids, and they’re almost always free or very cheap. It’s the kind of e-mail that even little ones can enjoy, because you can send it to your spouse or their caretaker and have them play it. Tryegreetings.com, which even gives you the option to add your picture to some designs.
17. Leave notes
Newman suggests leaving a lot of little notes in unexpected places—their pants pockets, their book bag, their lunch—or leaving a bunch of sealed letters, one for every day, that they can open as the days pass by (this works particularly well with #6, above).
18. Give them special privileges while you’re away
It makes it seem like a happy time. Little kids can stay up 10 minutes later or watch a show that’s usually on past their bedtime, and older ones can spend the night with a friend.
19. Make thoughtful calls home
Don’t just call for a few minutes between meetings—save it for when you truly have time to chat with your kids and take an interest in what they’re doing while you’re gone. Ask about their friends, tests they may be taking at school, sports they’re playing, etc.
20. Plan a welcome home celebration
“It could be dinner at the children’s favorite restaurant, preparing their favorite dinner at home, or making pancakes together. Anything to show that you’re excited about being back home with them,” says Newman.
Jean Chatzky is financial editor of NBC's "Today" show, a contributing editor at More magazine and author of "Money 911: Your Most Pressing Money Questions Answered, Your Money Emergencies Solved." She recently launched the Jean Chatzky Score Builder in partnership with smartcredit.com. Check out her blog at jeanchatzky.com and follow her on Twitter and Facebook.
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