When Nancie Hall's birthday fell in the middle of a vacation, her two traveling companions arranged a birthday celebration that took Ms. Hall by surprise. That was quite an accomplishment, given that Ms. Hall was traveling with her 11-year-old niece and 13-year-old nephew.
"A lot of people thought I was crazy to take my niece and nephew on my holiday," confessed Ms. Hall, a single executive in her 30s who lives in Toronto. "But it wasn't hard at all. It was great fun and we've become much closer as a result."
The trio threw out half the itinerary Ms. Hall had meticulously planned and instead hit the beach, exploring tide pools and just lazing. "Some days we didn't have to do anything," she said. They laughed a lot and talked. The kids snapped photos to go with the diary they kept of their entire two-week trip. They got to know their aunt -- and she them -- in an entirely new way.
"I've developed a lifetime relationship with a child as a result of these trips -- a relationship I wouldn't have had otherwise," observes Ellen Kurpiewski, a Los Angeles-based flight attendant who travels every summer with her teen-aged niece, Alicia.
"Let the kids lead the way," advises Ms. Kurpiewski. "You'll find yourself heading down paths you never expected."
"Some people have so many wrong stereotypes about kids," adds 16-year-old Alicia Kurpiewski, who lives in Florida and characterizes her travels with her aunt as "a blast."
"This is a great way to show them what being a kid is really like. We're not all bad."
The same could be said for the vision of the adult world that most kids -- particularly teen-agers -- carry around in their heads. Many teen-agers spend their days arguing with the adults they know, mostly parents and teachers, observes Dr. Donald Greydanus, professor of pediatrics at Michigan State University and editor of the guide, "Caring For Your Adolescent."
Dr. Greydanus, the father of four teen-agers, says traveling or spending time with a single relative or friend who cares for them is a terrific way for kids to learn that all adults aren't as bad as they think. "They'll latch onto the nonparent very well, as long as they don't come across like parents, giving them too many rules."
Of course, it's also a great way to give parents a break from the trials of living with an adolescent.
So how about it, all of you single aunts, uncles and godparents? Invite Jessica or Jason, Emily or Kyle to spend a weekend or a VTC week with you. Take them on a trip or spend time puttering around your neighborhood, listening to music, taking in a movie.
"If you're looking for an interesting time and want to go to a foreign land, this is that experience," says Philadelphia psychologist Judith Sills. "All that you can get by going to a Greek island, you can get by sitting at the pool with your 7-year-old niece -- seeing a different place and a different way of life, the land of the parent!"
"It's fun to share old places with a child," agrees Ellen Kurpiewski, who has been flying around the world for more than 20 years for United Airlines. "I get a whole different perspective."
"The great divide of the human race is between parents and non-parents," says Dr. Sills, author of "Excess Baggage" (Viking).
"There's a way in which a mother in Los Angeles has more in common with a mother in Ethiopia than she does with a friend down the street who doesn't have any kids," she says. Spending time with a child when you're not a parent, she continues, is a way to stretch your boundaries and explore new territory without the permanent responsibilities that go with parenthood.
For those setting foot in this new territory for the first time, here are some pointers from Ms. Kurpiewski and others who have been there:
Talk to the parents to get some tips on the kids' likes and dislikes. And talk to the youngster, too. Set the ground rules -- about things you absolutely won't tolerate: smoking, for example, or drugs. Is there a curfew for older teens? How much can they spend on souvenirs? Make sure they know that if they get homesick, they can call home.
Don't forget to discuss what you've got planned. Try getting some input from the children of friends who live nearby. And give the kids plenty of choices. Maybe you've been thinking museum, but they want to hit the mall. "I can show my aunt stuff she wouldn't see without me," explains Alicia. "I like to show her what I can about being a kid."