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Dad’s Corner: To Avalon!

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Discovering the joys of spending one-on-one time with our kids

By: Justin P. McCarthy   |   August 26, 2021


The spreadsheet was almost full, three rows—one for each kid—and a column for every week from early June through mid-August.
In each shaded cell, the fruit of hours of planning and agile, just-in-time online registration: Gryffindor scarlet for Harry Potter Day Camp, gold for Angel Island Camp, aquamarine for sailing camp and hunter for Kennolyn.

Claire was finally old enough to join Jack and Ali on every one of their big-kid summer adventures, so for the first time—and to my joy as chauffeur—the kids would all be in the same places each week.

All weeks but two: Jack had been waitlisted at the San Francisco Yacht Club’s Summer Sailing Program. Those barren, unshaded white cells glared, missing tiles in an otherwise pristine mosaic.
A month passed, then another. By May, he’d risen to number five on the list, but camp staff put his odds at “slim.” It was time to make other plans.

“Why not take him to Catalina for a few days?” Katie suggested.
“Where? You mean that place near L.A.?” I said.


Twenty nine miles off the coast southwest of Long Beach, Santa Catalina Island is, at almost 75 square miles, the third-largest of California’s eight Channel Islands. Almost every one of its 4,096 permanent residents lives in its sole city, Avalon. People have inhabited the island for more than 7,000 years, and today it is managed by the Catalina Island Conservancy as a plant and animal sanctuary and beach vacation destination.
A nearby, sparsely populated, sub-tropical getaway with a botanical garden, boats to rent and a city named after the legendary island of Arthurian Legend? How had we never visited before? Take my money! And my COVID-19 risk budget! I booked flights and bought ferry tickets. When I let Jack know, he said something like, “Oh. Cool.”

I didn’t give it much thought after that. The weeks before our trip ran together in an undifferentiated blur of physical therapy, the end of school, kitchen remodeling and writing class work. When Jack came to me one afternoon, two weeks before we were to leave, he surprised me with his enthusiasm. “Dad! Dad, would it be OK if I had some extra screen time today? I want to research Catalina! What do they have to eat there? What are we going to do? Is the internet good?”
The next morning, Jack brought me an index card with activities on one side and restaurants on the other. “Dad! These are some things we can do and some places we can eat. We really need to go to the Catalina Coffee & Cookie Co. It looks amazing!” This was the Jack equivalent of an overstuffed, tabbed trip binder. He never took so much initiative. He was excited, and I started paying attention.

When we got off the ferry in Avalon, Jack stopped and gave me a long hug. “Dad, I love you so much. I’m really looking forward to spending this time with you. Just the two of us. We are going to have the best time. I miss Mom and the girls, but I’m so glad we get to do this.” I beamed, and brought him straight to the best gelato shop we’ve found outside of Italy.
Over the next few days, as Jack’s gratitude flowed and I reciprocated, telling him often how much I loved him and was happy being there with him, we talked more as equals than as parent and child.
Our decisions became more democratic, less driven by me. He asked me a few questions he’d been keeping to himself about the “Family Life” (read: intro to the birds and the bees) curriculum he’d sat through at school.
He talked about what he wanted to do with his life.

When we left Catalina to rejoin “the womenfolk” (as Jack cheekily put it), we were closer than we’d ever been.
Predictably, research supports our spending one-on-one time like this with each of our children. Psychologists will tell you there are many benefits, but give it a try, and you won’t need them to. It doesn’t have to be an island vacation, either—a good long walk or a trip to the batting cages can create a closeness that far outlasts the activity, and that closeness will be there when you need it.

Justin P. McCarthy lives in Tiburon with his wife, Katie, and their three children--Jack, Ali, and Claire. He’d be delighted to hear from you at
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