Surviving the Beach With Kids

Get back to the basics for family beach fun.

I sat on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean this past summer, watching three teenage girls flip through magazines and giggle as they noted, evaluated and discussed every person of the male persuasion who happened to cross their field of vision.

I turned to my sister, who had one wet kid hanging off each arm, and our eyes met in mutual understanding.

“I hate them,” I said.

She nodded as her son wiped his face, smeared with cherry juice, across her midriff.

Remember the days when all you packed for the beach was your teensy-weensy bikini and the latest copy of People magazine?

I do. And those days seem very far away, indeed.

Beach Fun 101

Taking your family on a beach vacation is one of the best things you can do to forge fond memories of summer fun. After all, what’s better than sand, surf and sun? Not to mention the languid afternoon hours,  when you’re pleasantly sleepy from the ocean breeze.

But lately, a day at the beach takes as much planning as the invasion of Normandy. Not to mention all that stuff.

Buckets and shovels and water shoes and lunch and sippy cups and cut-up fruit and floaties and blankets and sunscreen … all I can say is thank god we have a mini-van.

Would you believe we actually bought a special cart just to haul all our gear? Or that the cart, while exceedingly helpful, was NOT BIG ENOUGH FOR ALL THE CRAP?

And after all that effort to get the stuff—and the kids—to the water, the kids up and decide that sand is yucky, the water is too cold and that applying sunscreen is a violation of the Geneva Convention.

Multiply this by an entire week at the shore, and by the time your trip is over you need a vacation from your vacation.

Luckily, there are ways to avoid making what should be a fun experience into an argument about who is going to carry the umbrella, or hey, you watch the kid so I can at least eat my sandwich, and no, you may not put that hermit crab in your cousin’s bathing suit!

Leave the Stuff at Home

Jennifer Jacobsen-Wood has lived by and frequently vacationed at Laguna Beach, Calif., and she has a very succinct list of strategies that help her family make the most of their time by the ocean.

One thing that helps her stay sane is making sure the kids are protected from the sun—before they ever set food on the sand.

“Put on sunscreen before you get to the beach, preferably at your hotel so that you avoid the whole ‘the beach is fun, fun, fun! Now stand here for ten minutes while I slather lotion on you’ fiasco,” says the Princeton, Ill., mother. “And you don’t need a lot of gear—sunscreen, a bucket or two and a blanket.”

Wait a minute! For Pete’s sake, you mean I didn’t need to blow my grocery money on a beach cart?

No, says Jacobsen-Wood. Leave the stuff at home. That way, you don’t have to bicker with your husband over who is going to haul everything from the car to the dunes and back again.

“I would try to fit everything into one backpack, per adult. That way, hands are free to corral the kids,” she advises. “The kids find so many ways to entertain themselves at the beach—diving in the waves, digging for sand crabs, writing in the sand—that you really don’t need any fancy toys.”

One thing you do need at the beach is vigilance. Kids and water can be a deadly mix, and parents can often be lulled into a false sense of security at the seashore.

Be Water Safe and Savvy

Mindy York and Marlene Bloom are the co-founders of Baby Otter Swim School in South Florida, and they both agree that you should never be fooled—the ocean is just as dangerous as any pool.

“People tend to focus on the depth of the water,” says Bloom. “They tell their kids not to go in the deep end, but the converse is equally true.”

Children can drown in as little as one inch of water, she adds, and at the shore, currents add extra danger. Just because the water might be shallow at the shoreline doesn’t mean you’re off duty.

“Never let your kids go to the shoreline by themselves,” says York.

Both Bloom and York agree that getting your kids swimming lessons is of the utmost importance. Children as young as 10 months old are perfectly capable of learning to swim, they said.

Parents need to be able to navigate the water, as well.

When I told them I wasn’t a strong swimmer and that I often take my daughter to the beach on my own, they advised me to either get swimming lessons (they claim I can still learn, as old as I am) or make sure to take another adult with me.

“You should have someone with you, and preferably someone who knows CPR,” says York.

She adds that parents should ideally stick to beaches with lifeguard stations, but if you can’t, you must remember to bring your cell phone so you can access 9-1-1 in an emergency.

Bloom and York, who have been teaching kids and their parents to swim for more than 20 years, say that devices like water wings and other floaties are lots of fun but that they will not prevent accidents.

“They can give you a false sense of security,” says Bloom.

Floaties can also be hazardous in an ocean setting because they can carry kids away in the current. However, if you do get caught in a rip tide, don’t fight it, experts say. (Read how to get out of a rip tide and other tips in our Beach Safety article.)

“You might end up a quarter-mile down the shore, but the worst thing you can do is try to swim against it,” says Bloom.

There are many, many components to water safety, say Bloom and York. They even created a comprehensive DVD, Is Your Child’s Life Worth 10 Minutes, to instruct parents on how to keep their kids safe.

OK, OK, I get it. I should just cancel my subscription to People magazine—right after I get done with my swimming lessons.

Maybe we’ll just go hiking this year.

Themes: Beach Vacations, Family Travel

Activities: Swimming