My two children and I have traveled to Washington, D.C. together four or five times since my sister moved there with her family eight years ago. And each time, we have some variation of the same discussion. It starts with me, on an emphatically cheerful note: "What do you two want to do while we're in Washington? We could go to some of the museums, or the zoo, or climb the Washington Monument, or take one of those sightseeing tours by trolley....What do you think?"
And each time, the kids manage to strike just the right blend of receptivity and noncommital-ness to deceive me. "Sure, Mom, those all sound fun!" they say, almost as if rehearsed. "Can we decide when we get there?"
Deceptive is right, because we all know what's going to happen when we get there. The kids will start playing basketball with their cousins in the alley. Then they'll play wiffle ball in the backyard. At some point they might go inside to film a movie of their own scripting and direction. If it gets dark or chilly in the yard, they might decide to play Wii Fit in the basement for a while. If they get hungry, they might ask for a few dollars to walk several blocks to the candy store up the street.
Monuments? Museums? Sightseeing tours? Not usually. As I always lament, my sister might as well live in Peoria for all the time we spend exploring the treasures of our nation's capital when we make the trip south to visit. This week we managed an afternoon at the National Zoo, but that was because one cousin had a soccer practice and the other was committed to a birthday party, so we had a few hours to fill on our own.
But the truth is that I don't try very hard to change the course of our usual program. Sure, I know we could be making better use of our time from an educational or cultural standpoint. And yes, I admit I covet the idea of the kids going back to school and telling their teachers that they visited the Museum of Air and Space or the Holocaust Museum, or had an audience with a senator, or saw money being printed at the U.S. Mint.
Sort of. At the same time, there's never really enough time with the cousins, whom we see only two or three times a year, and I just can't muster the intentionality to tell the kids they need to stop playing in the yard so that we can go do something culturally and educationally important.
Because really, when you're 8 or 10 or 14 years old, what's more important than playing with cousins in the yard? Especially, as was the case with us this time, when it's been a long, cold, snowy winter at home and when you get to Washington it's 62 degrees with freshly budding leaves and bright green grass everywhere and you haven't really played outside, other than a few great days of sledding, in almost five months?
So every year, I manage to rationalize the fact that we go to Washington and come back with far more photos of playgrounds and impromptu theatrical productions than monuments and historical landmarks. But this year, by the time the trip was over, I was even less concerned than usual about the decisions we'd made. We drove home on Monday; halfway through the trip we received word first by text message and then on the radio of the tragic bombings in Boston. Stories of children losing their limbs or their lives make every parent stop to think about our own kids. And in this case, there was no question in my mind that if such awful things can happen to anyone, at any time, then we were probably making the best use of our time that we possibly could.
Playing instead of sightseeing? Dancing in the basement instead of following a reenactment of how a bill becomes a law? It's a choice, and like so many choices parents make, I can't say for sure that it was the right one. But coming face-to-face this week with such a stark reminder of how horrifically everything can change in a moment, I think playing with cousins is as good a way for a kid to spend a week off from school as any.