A Tale of Two Daughters
The Bay Area’s capricious weather teaches young families two things: always wear layers and take advantage of a sunny day. So when this winter broke into a rare week of warmth, I took my girls straight to the beach.
At 5, my older daughter, Fern, is already the expert lifeguard, hanging back and warning us not to turn our backs on the ocean. She wades in cautiously until the water reaches the tops of her ankles, and then she heads for dry sand and castle building.
Her younger sister, Claudia, though, is drawn to the waves like they’re made of cotton candy. She ventures ever deeper, while I follow nervously like a mother cat. Time and again, I pull her from the breakers and lug her back to the wading zone. And every time, Claudia is indignant, since she just wants to remove those carefully chosen layers and catapult her 2-foot-something body back into the choppy surf.
Meanwhile, Fern sits patiently, building her sand castles alone. Sometimes, she’ll call out for help, or to show me some cool new creation, but I can’t spare much of a look: I’m too busy battling the Pacific for custody of my toddler.
Although I have to give Claudia nearly undivided attention in hazardous situations, she far prefers to be ignored. On a visit to Fern’s preschool last month, she played by herself for nearly an hour without once looking for me. Over the same period, her older sister called out a half-dozen times – “Watch me on the swing!” The older sister checks in, the younger sister checks out.
Not that Claudia always knows what’s safe. She sends me out of the bathroom when she takes a shower, insisting that I close the door – and so I pace fretfully outside. I’m not by nature overprotective, yet I hear myself saying things like, “Keep singing so I know you haven’t drowned!”
Maybe I shouldn’t bother, since Claudia only gets hurt when an adult is nearby. If I help her on the swing, she’ll invariably topple out. Let her be, and she happily spins around, her head inches from the support poles, but never falling.
Here’s the best way to solve an unsolvable parenting puzzle: call it a lesson. While I am occupied protecting little sister from the sea, Fern learns to help herself and to seek help from others – valuable skills with elementary school looming on the horizon.
And what skill is Claudia learning? Only stealth, as far as I can tell. Early on, my wife and I voted her “Most Likely to Need an ER Visit” after repeatedly discovering her leaping from the coffee table and hanging upside down from the banister.
Back at the beach, I try one last time to teach Claudia some respect for the ocean: I let her wipe out. A knee-high wave knocks her down and I fish her out, dripping. When she regains her footing, I start to comfort her. But, she runs off even farther into the frigid tide, shouting her favorite word: “Agiiin! Agiiin!”
As usual, I’ve failed to teach Claudia anything, except maybe that her normally mellow dad turns into a panicky mess whenever she tries to swim to Hawaii. Like so many younger siblings, she has already discovered that some of life’s most indelible lessons don’t come from grown-ups. Only despite us.
Read Graham Charles’ blog at Doodaddy.net.