Child Caring

Should 6-year-old travel cross-country with dad she doesn't know well?

[This letter has been condensed. BFM]
My wife and I find ourselves in a dilemma with her daughter’s dad. He would like to take his daughter across the country – by driving – for a vacation from North Carolina to Seattle. The purpose of the vacation would be to visit his parents who recently moved from our area to Seattle. He would also like to stop on the way in Las Vegas area for a visit with his wife’s family. This would be approximately a 2-week trip. My wife’s daughter will turn 6 when the trip occurs.

Our problem [is due to his] lack of involvement with his daughter. He has custody rights to her on Wednesday evenings and every other weekend. That arrangement is not consistently met by him; he often makes excuses ...why he cannot pick her up and/or changes plans at the last second.... He is inconsistent in other areas of responsibility for his daughter as well; late (or no) child payments, does not call to speak to her on a regular basis, is not directly involved with her schooling, etc. He is a generally good person but has not necessarily built a strong bond with his daughter or taking her as a prioritized responsibility; hence our concern.

The daughter does enjoy a relationship with her grandparents prior to their moving to Seattle. She seems to enjoy spending time with her dad when it happens; other times she is reluctant to visit; she often tries to hide when he comes to pick her up; more so out of what appears to be her joking around to avoid the reality of her leaving to visit. Our nervousness also includes that she is very clingy to her mother. Mom is very protective of her well being and does not feel comfortable with the Father taking her for extended time, given his inconsistent responsibilities. I have made suggestions on how she can work with him on “building towards” a trip (i.e. she needs to work with him on building more trust prior to the trip, based on consistent actions from both sides); can you suggest an approach? I greatly appreciate any thoughts you and the readers may have; thank you in advance.

From: TCH, Cary, NC

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Dear TCH,

Has this little girl ever been away from her mom for more than one night? You say the dad has Wednesday "evenings" and every other weekend. I'm wondering: does that translate to overnights, or to extended time?

To me, this is a no-brainer: Before any 6-year-old spends an extended period of time away from her primary-care parent, she needs to build up the muscle to do so. Literally. How often does she sleep at dad's? How does it go? Has she ever spent two days or more with him? What kind of relationship does she have with his new wife? And how does she do with long-distance car travel? Some kids get car sick. That could be agony -- for everyone! -- on a cross-country trip. Some 6-year-olds have a pretty solid idea of how long "two weeks" are, others don't have a clue. Where does she fall?

I like your idea of building up to this. To that end, I suggest the adults have a sit-down conversation with all the cards on the table. Begin with the positive side of the ledger. It sounds like your wife knows this could be wonderful for her daughter to see her grandparents and for her to grow a stronger relationship with her dad. At the same time, it sounds like she has every reason to need to be made to feel more confident and comfortable that it can work. Put the responsibility on the father so that it's his choice to step up to the plate or not. Can he build on the relationship with his daughter before the trip happens, by spending more time with her? Can he work to improve his record of reliability?

I, too, hope we hear from readers who have had similar experiences and can offer suggestions.