Ask Sally: Summer Fun (And How To Make Sure It Is!)

Ah, summer. Lazy days, unstructured time … yikes! Sally Tannen, Director of 92Y’s Parenting Center, offers her advice for parents during the months that bring kids so much joy, and moms and dads so much stress!

I’m fortunate to be a stay-at-home mom, but summer still throws me off balance. I know the city is filled with things to do with kids, but mine need to be dragged to museums, and such. I want them to have a great, enriching summer. Any suggestions?

Many suggestions! The city has so much to offer kids of all ages. Museums needn’t be on your list, but maybe you haven’t considered smaller, more manageable, kid-friendly ones, like the Skyscraper or Fire Museums. The Parks Department has opened some terrific new water playgrounds, with some of the newest ones resembling mini water parks right here in the city. There is a zoo in every borough, the public library offers great programs, and more. But some of the most enriching things you can do need little more than your imagination.

You needn’t have a major destination every day—take small children for a leisurely walk around their own neighborhood, stopping to observe and talk with them about things (and people—shopkeepers, dog walkers) you might normally rush by. Snap a few photos of each day’s outings, and help your child make and keep a journal. A simple “My summer in NYC” becomes a wonderful project and meaningful keepsake. And your plans needn’t always involve a destination at all—make the journey the adventure! One mom I know planned a “train ride to nowhere” with her young son on hot summer days, letting him plot out a trip on a subway map, and then riding together and making transfers wherever he liked—empowering for a child. You can ride the Staten Island ferry for free, or the Roosevelt Island tram for a song. Take a sightseeing bus with your kids, and be tourists in your own city.

Think “simple pleasures”—take older kids on a pizza tour, going to a different borough each day, to sample the slices and explore parts of the city that may be new to them. Or don’t take them anywhere at all some days. Summer is a time to recharge. Give your kids (and yourself!) permission to enjoy unstructured time. A bit of boredom can be a great gift, sparking imagination and creativity.

The takeaway: Being a parent in New York City has its challenges, but wow, does it have its opportunities. Broaden your idea of what outings with your kids can be, and you’ll give them a rich and memorable summer. And know that a bit of boredom can be the ticket to unimagined delight.

The kids are off from school for 10 weeks, but my husband and I each get only two weeks of summer vacation time from our jobs. We have day camp plans for our boys for part of the time, but the cost quickly mounts, plus, we’d like them to enjoy some unstructured summer days. Any advice?

Summer is a real challenge for parents, and it often ends up being a patchwork of activities and child care (which is perfectly fine, it just takes planning and management). One idea I like to encourage is tag-teaming with family friends who are in a similar situation. Spend some of your time off caring for your friends’ children along with yours, then have the other mom or dad look after your kids during some of your work time. The kids will have familiar playmates in a familiar setting, and looking after a couple of additional children for a short stretch isn’t much more demanding than caring for just your own. It’s an approach I don’t think is considered enough, it’s economical, and it’s rewarding for everyone involved.

The takeaway: Before there were science camps, musical theater classes, and organized soccer, there were… friends. Consider joining forces with other families in the same situation as yours—it can be win-win for both parents and children.

My husband and I are planning our first driving vacation with our school-age children. What are some things we should plan for to keep them happy and occupied before we hit the road? 

The more you involve your children in the planning of the trip, the more engaged they’ll be. Ask each child to suggest something specific they’d like to see during your journey—whether it’s a cow being milked or the place where the time zone changes—and have your trip accommodate their requests, even if that means a few small detours. Talk ahead about things you’re likely to see while on the road, and have your kids make (or help make) a custom car bingo game in advance of your travel. Who will be the first to spot the train crossing or horse farm or state line sign? Games like this, and other time-honored ones like I Spy, help encourage children to be not merely passengers but observers, making the difference between their being transported and really traveling.

I also recommend having each child bring—and pack—their own backpack, with a book, paper and crayons, snacks, travel games, audio storybooks, etc. (but never a treasured toy that isn’t replaceable—it can be easy to lose things on the road!). You can buy inexpensive lap desks or travel trays, making it easy for kids to draw, play games, and more. I even like giving each child an individual bag for trash, so they learn to manage their own messes. And I recommend making your rest stops about more than just food and a bathroom break. Build in enough time so the kids can run around and burn off some energy. Lastly, if your children sleep well in the car, consider starting off on your trip at bedtime, to cut down on “Are we there yet?” time. And if setting out in the evening, have your kids wear their pajamas. Even if they’re not car sleepers, they’ll be ready for bed if/when you stop somewhere for the night.

The takeaway: Involve your kids in your travel plans before you head out on any long trip—engagement begets engagement. Help children prepare for the trip, and think through the timing of your travel for the smoothest sailing (or whatever!).

I’m the dad of two very active young children. I love watching them explore and discover and climb trees and dive into pools and such. I want to encourage their boldness. My wife wants to keep them out of the ER. How can we best navigate our competing impulses?

First, I would encourage you not to think of your impulses as being “competitive” at all! You and your wife both want great and important things for your children—adventure, exploration, safety. Fueled by two loving parents, it sounds to me like a recipe for a wonderful childhood! Recognize that your goals are the same. And understand that your wife doesn’t want to stifle your children’s urge to discover and delight in the world any more than you want them to get hurt. As two individuals, parents are bound to have differences in perspective, judgement, and style. Let those differences work together and balance each other.

The takeaway: Children get the best parenting from a mom and dad who complement each other. Embrace it! Let your kids climb trees, and know where the first aid kit is!

Director of 92Y’s Parenting Center and Grandparents Center, Sally Tannen has been supporting parents of young children, building community, and creating and offering activities and classes for babies, kids, parents, and grandparents for thousands of NYC families for more than 25 years. A mother of four and grandmother of three, Sally’s personal experience continues to enrich and inform her work.