It’s not often I beat Posh and Becks to a trend, but this week it finally happened. I rejoiced at pictures of David Beckham on holiday in Venice with his youngest child, Harper, because it’s the kind of one-on-one family break that I’ve been banging on about for years. Social media showed the pair enjoying the obligatory gondola ride and dressed up for an evening at the theatre, an outing that Hello! magazine nauseatingly insisted on calling their “date night”. David’s wife, Victoria, responded to his post, in which he and their ten-year-old tucked into gelato for breakfast, saying: “Special time with Daddy is everything.”
I might not have put it quite in those terms, but I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment. Like the Beckhams, my husband and I are outnumbered by our kids — three sons aged eleven, nine and five — and every year he or I take each child away on an individual trip. Whether camping in the UK, exploring a new European city or going on an outdoorsy adventure further afield, it has been revelatory to see how time away together strengthens our relationships.
The idea came out of a conversation with my friend Tom, one of four siblings, who told me his most treasured childhood memory was of a night spent with his dad in the Lake District. “During a family holiday he rowed us out to a little island on Derwentwater where we cooked sausages on the campfire and slept under the stars,” he says. “Back then my father was very work-focused so I didn’t have that many bonding experiences with him; I think that’s why this one stuck out.”
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I found this recollection inspiring and vowed to conjure up similarly magical moments for my kids — although immediately realised that turn-taking would be necessary. Ever alert to perceived injustice, my sons kick off at an uneven distribution of fish fingers, so if quality time were in the offing, they would need the reassurance of a rota system.
For another friend, Victoria, her spin on the concept was inspired by the groundbreaking 1960s documentary Seven Up! “I decided that at seven my children could pick any destination in the UK, at 14 anywhere in Europe and, aged 21, anywhere in the world,” she says. She took her eldest to Scotland on their inaugural trip. “The five-hour train journey to Edinburgh — watching the landscape change, eating a picnic and playing card games — was one of the best bits,” she says.
A paediatrician, Victoria says it’s not uncommon for children to act out or even manifest stomach pains and headaches in a bid to secure more parental attention. “It’s not necessarily the amount of time you spend with your children, but the quality of that time,” she says. “Being present is really important, and for me travel is a really fun way to do that. Once you’ve got more than one child they become ‘the kids’, but away from home you’re focused on an individual.”
Orla Thomas and her son paddleboarding on the River Medway, Kent
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Freed from the daily routine and the demands of multiple offspring, I become a better parent on these excursions; more open, engaged and playful with my one charge. Although it can be hard to carve out the time, Kate North took a creative approach. She booked a campsite that was driving distance from home so she could go back mid-weekend to swap over her two eldest children. “The kids loved the adventure and the time with me,” she says. “I felt more connected with them and also like I’d had a break. It was an all-round win.”
Post-pandemic, tour operators are seeing increasing interest in one-on-one trips. “We all spent lockdown together, but people are realising our independent relationships need nurturing too,” says Charlotte Hamilton, the sales manager at the family specialist Stubborn Mule Travel. Bookings tend to be for a special reason, such as an older child finishing their exams, and often cater to a specific interest such as wildlife, photography or adrenaline sports. “We also see grandparents taking one child away,” Hamilton says. “They tend to go all-out with an African safari.”
In my experience you needn’t spend big for the trip to have impact. Sometimes it’s the littlest things that linger longest in the heart — ordering room service at a cheap hotel or staying up well past bedtime to skim stones on a moonlit beach. One of my most successful one-to-one trips took place a mere 30 miles from our family home: an overnight paddleboarding adventure on the River Medway in Kent. My son, then eight, burst into tears as we departed for home. “Thank you, Mummy,” he sobbed. “I didn’t want it to end.”