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Parenting on a Paddleboat

Updated: Dec 14, 2022

After enduring a second lackluster COVID summer, my husband and I thought we would plan a special family outing before the start of school for our two boys, aged 7 and 4 at the time. We researched options that were both COVID-safe and age-appropriate, and landed on the perfect idea: renting a paddleboat on the Tidal Basin in Washington, DC, which is only about 15 minutes from where we live in Northern Virginia. Not only would this field trip be physically active, but educational as we could discuss the complicated legacies of our country's Founding Fathers while gliding along the water surrounded by the famed Cherry Blossoms only a few months after their peak bloom. We decided we would surprise the kids with the news the morning of the big adventure.

Over breakfast the next day, we built up the suspense by asking them to guess what we might be doing.

“Swimming?” “Nope”

“Playground?” “Uh uh, try again.”

“The zoo?” “Noooo…we’re going on a paddleboat!!” My husband and I expressed our excitement through our voices, facial expressions, and jazz hand-inspired gestures.

“No,” said my 7-year-old sternly. “I’m not doing that.”

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. We thought this would be a big hit and evidently, we had grossly miscalculated. Oh, and we had already paid for the tickets.

We asked questions to identify the source of the resistance. We tried to understand what the hesitancy was about. We told him which of his friends had recently done the same activity and showed him pictures of their happy faces on social media. We pushed. We prodded. We pleaded. He doubled-down.

While pouring my second cup of coffee, a different line of questioning suddenly popped into my head. “Noah, do you want to learn how a paddleboat works?"

He nodded and we jumped onto YouTube to understand the mechanics of paddleboats. My engineer-brained 2nd grader was glued to the screen clicking through videos about how paddleboats were made and the mechanics of how they are propelled.

“Oh, OK, I understand now. That looks fun.” I nearly fell off my chair.

Acting cool and nonchalant while doing a happy dance internally, I casually asked, “oh, great, but what was it that changed your mind?”

“I thought the bottom of the boat was open and we were going to have to make the boat move by being in the water and kicking.”


I have come back to this story so many times since then because it continues to serve as a reminder about how something that seems so obvious to me may not be to others who don’t have the same lens, how we often don’t have all of the information we need to make an informed decision so instead we react emotionally, and how simple the solutions may be to bridge the divide.

I know you’re dying to know what happened next so I’ll fill you in. We did end up driving into the city and renting the paddleboat. Both kids were excited about putting on their life jackets and picking out the best boat. There were only 2 sets of pedals and, of course, the kids fought over who would be at the helm so we had to figure out a rotation so everyone could take a turn. It was much harder to move than any of us anticipated. We did one lap to the other side of the water before heading back to the dock. The total time on the water was 20 minutes (maybe). We had put enough money in the parking meter for an hour-and-a-half and had spent close to that same amount of time convincing our son that this was going to be a fun adventure. As we turned in our life jackets, the kids asked if we could go get pizza. It was 10:20 am.

At least we can say it was an educational experience.

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