Fostering curiosity in kids (and their parents) since 2011

How can you keep kids in the loop when you visit a sick relative without them?

stuffed penguin looking at a manmade fountain on the hospital grounds

Zootkayse inspects the fountain outside the hospital’s front door. He decided not to go swimming. (Photo: Shala Howell)

My father has been having a few health issues lately. Since we live in California and he’s in Texas, most of the time keeping my daughter in the loop means chatting with my dad on the phone while she’s at school and relaying a carefully curated version of what’s going on to my daughter when she gets home.

Our approach has been to be truthful, but not detailed, and to not share with her anything that my dad doesn’t want her to know.

In practice, this means we give her the headline, and then stop to see what questions she has. My daughter, being the curious and caring sort, often has lots of questions. As you can imagine, respecting both my father’s need for privacy and my daughter’s desire for answers can be challenging.

For the most part, though, we’ve muddled through by keeping the answers short, factual, and to the point. We avoid speculating whenever possible by saying something along the lines of, “we don’t know that yet” or “I don’t have enough information to answer that yet.”

However, a couple of events have happened in the past six months that have resulted in my flying to Texas to help out. My trips kick my daughter’s questions into a much higher gear. Unfortunately, situations that are improved by my physical presence are also typically situations that my dad doesn’t want us to talk about too freely with his grandkids.

What’s a parent to do when their child’s curiosity runs into the brick wall of their grandparent’s right to privacy?

When I travel to visit Grandpa without The Eleven-Year-Old, I need some way to talk to my daughter about what’s going on without exposing her to all the details of recovery that:

a) Grandpa rightly doesn’t want her to know

b) A child doesn’t have the perspective or the life experience to deal with.

While visiting my dad in the hospital last month, I accidentally hit upon a good solution – a little narrative I call “Travel Penguin Visits the Hospital.”

I thought I’d share it with you in case you also wanted to try it.

Before I continue, a few caveats:

  1. My father’s condition was serious, but not immediately life-threatening. I wouldn’t have done this if things had been touch-and-go.
  2. I was careful about the times I picked to pull out Travel Penguin, so that it didn’t irritate my dad’s medical team or get in the way of my dad’s care.
  3. As in all things parenting, your mileage may vary. My child responded well to this, but yours may not. Fortunately, you are the world’s expert in your child, and as such, you will be able to tell from reading this post whether or not this might work for you.

Who is Travel Penguin?

Whenever either Michael or I go away on a trip without The Eleven-Year-Old, she tucks a stuffed penguin into our suitcase. The agreement is that we will take a photo of Travel Penguin doing something vaguely interesting on our trip to show The Eleven-Year-Old when we get back. (It’s what we do instead of bringing home physical souvenirs.)

As you might imagine, we have a giant collection of photos of Travel Penguin sitting on planes, posing outside hotels, and pointing his flipper at various landmarks. (Digital photography has really improved parenting.)

Travel Penguin watches the ground crew at San Jose Airport prep the plane for take-off. (Photo: Shala Howell)

On my last trip to Texas, I took things a bit further. Quite a bit further, and depending on which of us here at Caterpickles Central you talk to, maybe a little too far.

I took Travel Penguin with me to the hospital.

Why did I take a stuffed penguin into a hospital?

Understandably, my father didn’t want me taking a lot of pictures of him while he recovered or sharing too many details about his recovery with my daughter, but The Eleven-Year-Old very much wanted to know what was going on.

I used Travel Penguin as a proxy for my dad, and sent home daily pictures of Travel Penguin getting his blood pressure checked, having his temperature taken, washing his hands as he entered the room, and, once my dad was feeling up to it, going for walks with Grandpa down the hall.

Dad’s nurse kindly checked Travel Penguin’s blood pressure for us one afternoon. It was a little low, but nothing to worry about. (Photo: Shala Howell)

So, how did it work?

Sending pictures of Travel Penguin spending time at the hospital worked beautifully as a way to reassure my daughter that things were ok without violating my dad’s privacy. Of course, it only worked when Grandpa and the nurses were in a position to have fun with it.

Obviously, there are lots of times in a hospital stay when pausing the action to take pictures with a stuffed penguin is wildly inappropriate. Still, I wanted to send my daughter at least one picture every day, so Travel Penguin and I explored other parts of the hospital too. Here he is checking out the garden outside the hospital.

Travel Penguin inspects the garden outside. (Photo: Shala Howell)

I think he was a little miffed about the sign in the garden, because the next day at lunch I caught him complaining to the fish in the hospital aquarium about it.

Travel Penguin chats with the fish in the lobby aquarium. (Photo: Shala Howell)

Anyway, you get the idea.

“Travel Penguin Visits the Hospital” turned out to be an excellent way to help my daughter feel like she was part of an important family event while respecting Grandpa’s boundaries and allowing him the space he needed to heal. Honestly, it was helpful for me, too. Finding fun ways to pose the penguin once or twice a day helped lighten the mood a lot.

And yes, before you ask, I thoroughly sanitized the penguin before I brought him back home. After all, as Daddyo says, “The immune system helps those who help themselves.”

What about you?

Have you used something similar with your kids? If so, I’d love to hear about it.

Related Links: 

Revised March 1, 2019

7 Responses to “How can you keep kids in the loop when you visit a sick relative without them?”

  1. c

    Beautiful and thoughtful. Thank you for sharing. We haven’t had anything like this come up yet, and I’m glad for the idea. Lots of love to you all ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Roy Kerstiens

    Great idea! Love the Travel Penguin- Maybe the 11 Year Old should send pictures to you when she visits Florida!

    Sent from my iPad


    Liked by 1 person


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