Sally Tannen is the Director of the 92Y’s groundbreaking Parenting Center. She has helped grow a vibrant hub that supports over 2,000 families on the Upper East Side of New York City. She is a leader in the field of Early Childhood Education and shared her unique perspective with Forward Females.
Take me through your career path from the beginning. How did you end up where you are today?
I always knew that I wanted to work with kids. My mother was a nursery school teacher. After a few years of teaching post-college, I went to graduate school and got a Masters in Early Childhood Education. Back in the early ‘80s there was more flexibility in schools and the school I was in was very supportive of new moms. So I was able to take a year off after I had my daughter, and then I went back part-time for a few years until I was ready to return full-time. I became the Director of Admissions and stayed in that position for seven years.
I moved to a more traditional school and became the head of the lower school. It wasn’t a great fit philosophically. I had very progressive roots and being there didn’t feel right. I switched to a different school and went back to doing admissions.
After eight years, I started to get antsy and I felt like I had stopped growing. So I applied for the position of Director of the Parenting Center at the 92Y. I was very nervous about this role because I thought, “What do I know about babies?” It was a good personality match because I’m comfortable working with parents and kids. This is my 14th year at the Y.
What are your goals in this role?
The Y can be an impersonal place. It’s big and so many things are going on. When I started in this position, I felt strongly that I wanted to personalize the Parenting Center and make everyone feel welcome. I want parents to know that this is not just a place to take a class, but it’s a place to seek support, advice and friendships.
You’ve been the Director of the 92Y’s Parenting Center for the past 14 years. What are some trends that you’ve noticed over the years? How are parents today different from parents 14 years ago?
In some ways it’s changed a lot. In New York, more parents feel pressure to do more. There are also more challenges related to technology. Now there’s a ton of information out there. With more information, comes more confusion. Parents are struggling with where to go for advice and who to believe. As a result, parents don’t trust their instincts as much as they used to.
More families in New York are living away from their parents. Many women move to New York for work, get married and end up starting families here while their parents are in a different continent. They don’t have built-in support. It takes a village to raise a child and it’s up to them to create their own village.
More women are working so many parents today are enlisting caregivers to raise their children along with them. We feel very strongly at the Parenting Center that we want to support caregivers as much as possible. We started a program called Caregiver Connection where they have a network, they share songs, and we give them resources for things to do in New York. We let them talk about struggles that they’re dealing with and help them figure it out with their families.
Today, parents are overscheduling their kids. Babies and children need downtime. They need unstructured time when they’re not being instructed. When they explore, play and pretend. And just be. Overscheduling is having a negative effect on children and parents don’t see it. Babies are going to two classes a day and that’s nuts. By the time these kids are two and three, they’re anxious because they’re constantly getting things thrown at them.
What’s your advice to women who want to “have it all”?
I don’t think there’s one answer. It’s what works for you. You also have to give yourself a break. It’s not possible to have it all. Get help when you can – from your parents, your neighbors, if you’re able to hire somebody, engage your partner. But you’re going to feel guilty no matter what you do. You just have to do the best you can, and that’s really good enough. I think parents impose so much on themselves without me having to say anything. I never want them to feel judged.
You mostly work with mothers but what is your experience working with fathers?
Certainly after 2008, there was a period when we saw lots of dads because they lost their jobs and were taking their babies to classes. We always see dads but right now there aren’t as many as there had been before. We have a program called Boot Camp for Dads and we have other opportunities for dads to come in – classes, conferences, etc.
It’s now the norm for dads to spend more time with their kids. More businesses are family friendly and support fathers in the workplace. Years ago, fathers were embarrassed to put their child’s photo on their desk and now that’s definitely not the case.
What has been your greatest career mistake?
Previously working in a school that didn’t match me philosophically. You’ve got to go with your gut, but I was so focused on the opportunity to be a lower school head.
What are you most proud of?
Coming to the Y. It was a huge leap and a big learning curve. It still is and that’s why I love it. Every year I learn something new. In the beginning, I learned a lot about babies, toddlers and their behavior. This year, I worked on development because it’s the Parenting Center’s 35th anniversary. Over the years, I managed a larger staff. I’ve grown the Parenting Center’s offerings and I’m proud of that growth.
What life experience has had the greatest impact on you?
My whole life has been in preparation for this job. Teaching, working with kids, parents and caregivers, having my own family – everything has come together and helped me navigate this. I couldn’t have done this earlier in my career. And I’m still constantly growing and that’s where I always want to be.