How to make a summertime museum trip with kids worthwhile.

Notes on time off.
June 23 2008 8:13 AM

We're Going on a Treasure Hunt

How to make a summertime museum trip with kids worthwhile.

Read more from Slate's Summer Vacation special issue. 

Illustration by Nina Frenkel. Click image to expand.

In the middle of a recent hot Sunday, I found myself on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., with two tired children and a divided agenda. On one side was my ambitious plan to inject my kids with culture, first by hearing Russian-born singer Regina Spektor and then by trekking over to the FDR Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial. On the other side was my 8-year-old son, Eli, sinking into the dusty grass beside the path we were supposed to be walking on. "I want to go swimming!" issued forth as he collapsed, for the second time in two minutes. His younger brother, Simon, looked down at him pityingly and took up the chant.

Emily Bazelon Emily Bazelon

Emily Bazelon is a staff writer at the New York Times Magazine and the author of Sticks and Stones

I am actually not much of a museum/memorial/high-class-performance-goer. (OK, Spektor doesn't really qualify for that last category, but she's not a puppet show.) Exhibits tend to make me feel like I'm falling asleep on my feet; all the earnest appreciating is just too taxing. So, my kids' weekends aren't often punctuated with good-for-them activities. In our household, it's all catch-as-catch-can. Our kids don't play instruments or casually pick up sketch pads. They kick and throw balls. But once in a while, I am shamed into action. Parents aren't supposed to always opt for the crowd-pleasing lowest common denominator; we are supposed to expose kids to history, art, music—the 2008 version of finishing school.

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On this particular Sunday, I was also feeling the prick of inadvertent peer pressure: a friend's offhand comment that her kids had been to the FDR Memorial more times than she could count. Whereas mine had been there never. Even though they are little American-history sponges who know all about the Battle of Yorktown (they tell me it has something to do with the Revolutionary War). And so I was determined to make them take a hit of music, for variety's sake, and then march around the memorials, where they'd drink up worthy quotations and iconic images.

But here's the thing about kids, summer, and culture: Know thy timing and their limits, and plan accordingly. The beach and the pool require only sun and sunscreen to be a good bet. Highbrow outings are more delicate creatures. My three-event program was utter overkill—too much thinking and walking. And I'd chosen the wrong moment: early summer, when the pool still seems novel and the mosquitoes haven't yet had the chance to remind us that Washington, D.C., was built on a swamp.

Just as I was insisting that Eli rise from the dust to prove his (or, really, my) fortitude, Paul, my husband, appeared out of the car-parking distance and performed triage. FDR Memorial, yes. Regina and Abe, no. Also, no walking; the reason we'd never worshipped at the altar of FDR is that it's way off to the side of the Mall somewhere. We would take a cab, with air conditioning, in which the boys could suck away at their water bottles. They did. And they emerged rejuvenated, only to complain that the first statue of FDR was "weird, because he's not looking at anything." Paul segued gamely into the controversy over whether to show FDR in a wheelchair. "Why do you think he didn't want to be photographed that way?" he asked after a bit of suggestive explanation. "I dunno," Eli said, as Simon tried to climb onto the president's lap and then moved over to petting his Toto-like dog.

Still, when I asked the kids a few weeks later what they remembered about the memorial, they came up with, "The Depression made people poor" and their inevitable bid to pose for a picture in the back of the bread line. I call that success. We did also make it to the pool that afternoon, which either kept them happy enough to retain those facts or just kept them happy.