Teaching your child to take time alone

 credit: Jessica Ashley/Single Mom Nation

credit: Jessica Ashley/Single Mom Nation

My son and I are two days into a vacation, visiting my brother and his family. Most of the time we see them is on FaceTime, which is never as complete feeling as a real hug, squeals that go on for too many minutes, hearing your name repeated over and over. Aunt Jessie. Aunt Jessie. Aunt Jessie. 

We love to be here with them. And still, for all the real-time cousin-play and conversation and all of the good stuff that comes with being in the same city for a few days, I still consciously, carefully plan in time for the two of us - just my son and me - to be alone together, just a few minutes and miles away from all the family action.

This morning we slept in, lazed around the hotel, went to Target for a few things we needed, lingered in Starbucks, watched some World Cup, grabbed a little lunch -- all before we picked up my nephew and packed the rest of the day with pre-K-centered activities. There was no pressure of time or expectations, no work calls, no traffic or worries. And when we saw my nephew, we were rested and fed and full of happy anticipation. I feel like that's the tenor vacation should take, even if it means not spending every waking hour with the people you are there to see.

Even still, after several hours swimming and being silly with my nephew, then dinner with the rest of the family, cuddling with the baby and the boys running crazy in the cul-de-sac until bedtime crept in, I saw my boy get antsy with it all. On the way back to the hotel, I asked him how the day went.

"I love being with my cousins," he said with careful measure, "and I am so happy to see them. But I am getting to the place where I need a little time alone."

This sentiment is not one I would have ever said as a child, certainly not as a teen or in my twenties. It would have been a challenge for me to say it aloud last year, even if I'd thought it. But life, and in particular divorce, have forced me to spend time with myself and have helped me learn to want it and need it. It filled me up to hear him say what has taken me decades while sitting in a booster seat in the back of our borrowed car.

We are social people, my son and I, and love parties, play dates, posing for the camera, dancing in crowds of people. Sometimes, though, the introvert emerges. I got very good at ignoring those moments in myself. But by boy, he announced it in a way that made me happy and proud.

He's an only child (for the next few months) and so he's used to spending hours alone, or at least without a preschooler begging his attention or asking question after question about Minecraft during some critical goat-herding or stick-gathering expedition in the game. The preschooler was being a hilarious, adoring, gooby-for-his-buddy preschooler. For the most part, E loves this. It's great to be the cool, older cousin. And then he hits a wall. A wall that doesn't protect him from his name played on repeat. E. E. E. E. 

I told my son he needs to speak up when he needs some time alone, to tell his young cousins he needs to take a few moments to read or play a game by himself and then they can get back at it with light sabers or the soccer ball. I told him I'd help make that happen. 

And then I said this is great practice. Soon he will have a sibling who will soon want the same time and attention from him. And he it is good to practice how to spend great time together in person and then excuse himself for some time on his own. 

We will see if he can work that out tomorrow -- and since we are venturing out to the water park an hour away, it will be a big test day for tolerance and time and attention. But if he doesn't, it's OK. We have a few days left here, and he has years to try it out on a little brother or sister who might just cling to him with more tenacity and love. Then there will be friends and crushes and girlfriends or boyfriends and possibly even parents who he'll get to practice asserting his need to step away from for a while. 

I hope it gets easier to say the words. I pray (for myself?) that I can hear the sentiment when he says the words to me. Mostly, I want for him to know that time alone is precious, important, totally OK. Even when the people you love the most are right there, within arm's (and kisses and light saber) reach. 

One day, maybe he'll be so fueled by time alone, he'll choose to take off on a solo adventure to a remote part of the world or just to a hidden camping spot a few hours away. He might decide it is ideal to have a dorm room to himself in college or live in a city where he doesn't know a soul. He may pursue a profession that shutters him away from an office or conference calls. He might walk a path no one before has taken. He may also just know that for a few minutes every day, he is centered by shutting the door, going silent, meditating over a pile of Legos or the last few pages of a book or a hangnail on his thumb. I really hope he considers options I never dreamed of because I was unaware or afraid or ill-at-ease of being by myself. 

As the mama who he shared this need with, it's also on me to honor that he recognized it. It's good work for me to ask if he'd like to take a time out, and to keep scheduling in no-scheduling on vacations and days off. It's also good practice to continue my practice of holding sacred my own time to myself, and to share when those hours are as a way to show him we all get to take those opportunities. 

This is newish for me, and I want to get it right. For today (and tomorrow, in the midst of water slides and car rides), at least I get it. That's more than would have happened for us, but especially me, a few years ago.

What ways have you gotten good - or at least better - at spending time alone? And how in the world are you helping foster that in your kids? Please share your advice and ideas and I will certainly take them with me the next time I grab a Vanity Fair and fill up the tub.