The first time I visited New York City as a child, I was smitten. The bustle of Times Square, the smell of roasted peanuts, the sense of possibility — I loved it all.

So I decided, when my seven-year-old son had a couple of days off from school in April, I would introduce him to my favorite city. We’d leave my husband and four-year-old daughter to fend for themselves for a long weekend while we took on the big city. We’d frolic in Central Park, brave the busy Manhattan streets, and savor real New York pizza. He would be enchanted, just as I was all those years ago.

Here’s what actually happened: He complained that his legs hurt whenever we walked more than two blocks. He did not care for the gooey, greasy slice at the pizzeria near our hotel, opting for Pizza Hut the following night. He might have enjoyed Central Park, but we didn’t make it there — as we got ready to go on our last day, it started to pour.

And yet, I wouldn’t change a moment of our trip.

Instead of getting to know New York City together, we got to know each other better, and that turned out to be much more rewarding. Without the usual distractions of everyday life — rushing to baseball practice, throwing dinners together, attending to an exuberant four-year-old  — I could slow down and really see my son: what frustrated him, what delighted him, what just plain bored him. In this new, stripped-down context, I learned things that surprised me.

I picked a hotel in Times Square, for example, because I thought my son would enjoy the frenzy, that he’d welcome the change of pace from the small midwestern college town where we live. But as we fought our way through the dense crowds on Broadway, he became increasingly exasperated, at one point screaming, “I need some personal space!” to no one in particular.

Some of his reactions were less surprising, but still enchanting. From the time he was a toddler, he’s always been drawn to vehicles and maps, so I knew everything about the subway would intrigue him, from the intricate rainbow-colored criss-crossing paths on the subway map to the screens announcing when the next train would arrive.

Still, as he figured out which subway line had the most stops, I loved watching his eyes go wide with excitement and his body get taut the way it does when he’s really engaged in something. I could practically see the neurons firing in his brain.

Other moments caught me off guard, in a good way. After climbing to the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, we sat down to rest on a patch of grass. Well, I rested —my son spent the next hour enacting a soccer game completely on his own. The trees were goal posts, a pine cone was the ball, and he was all the players and the referee simultaneously. For over an hour, we barely spoke — he was in his own special world, and he was content.

Although I’ve known for a long time that my son is happiest when he’s physically active, there was something unique about this moment. At home we’re always rushing — into the car, out of the car, to the next activity, to school, to bed. But in that little slice of time, we had no place to be and nothing to do, except enjoy exactly what we were doing — my son running, diving, jumping, the dappled late-afternoon sunlight on his back, and me watching him. 

Some of our most special moments happened when we weren’t doing anything special at all. I knew we’d enjoy the Mets game, but I didn’t expect to have so much fun sitting on a park bench, watching a group of pigeons fight over a piece of bread, betting on who would get the last bite. The absence of our usual routines and schedules created space for us to simply enjoy each other’s company.

Even when we didn’t enjoy each other’s company, it felt like an important part of our time together. After what seemed like an entire afternoon of complaining  — he was not a fan of the Museum of Natural History — I snapped at my son, telling him, as I fought back tears, that he should be more grateful I’d planned and taken him on this trip. He was uncharacteristically quiet for a while. And then, with eyes wide and a hand on my shoulder, he said, “I really appreciate what you do for me,” suddenly seeming a lot older than seven.

On the last night of our trip, as I tucked him into our shared double bed that took up the entire width of the hotel room, he suggested we hug “to symbolize our love.” If we hadn’t had some tense exchanges, I doubt we would have shared this tender one.

When I told my friends I was planning a mother-son trip, everyone had the same reaction: “What a great idea! I should do that.” You should. Just don’t be goal-oriented. Or rather, make the goal simply being with your child, not trying to get them to love the same things you do. If you do that, you can’t fail.