Flying Over Water
A cautious kid takes a big leap.
It is a blessing, given the alternative, to have a cautious child.
Parenthood induces an acute awareness of danger in anyone, even someone who spent the better part of his twenties scaring the hell out of his own parents with his reckless behavior. The moment we first walked out of the hospital with a tiny baby swaddled in his carrier, the world looked very different to me—it was suddenly a place full of perils to shield him from.
Shortly after he was born, I was chatting with a neighbor whose own son was just barely two by then. He was a charming little boy, despite his obvious surplus of energy, and the conversation soon landed on all the ways rambunctious children can injure themselves. In this child’s short but decorated career, he had accumulated enough trips to the emergency room or urgent-care center to fill up a customer-loyalty punch-card. Buy ten and the eleventh is free!
I was relieved to find that such was not the case with our son.
I would not call him scared, because I don’t think that’s a fair way to describe any child. The world is awfully big when you’re small, full of things that are fast and sharp and loud and confusing, and if we’re being perfectly honest with ourselves, the things kids are afraid of are often more logical to fear than the things adults do. (Spiders have killed a lot more people than impostor syndrome, but only one keeps me up nights.)
He wasn’t scared, but unlike our neighbor’s happy hellion, he came implanted with a cautious gene, one that largely kept him from the kind of stitch-requiring calamity I’d been warned about. Sometimes this is difficult—after the twentieth time explaining the fire-egress plan for a single-story ranch house before bedtime, it’s easy to find yourself wishing for a dash of the devil-may-care—but on balance, I’m happy to avoid the emergency room.
We joined a community pool last year, and it’s become a huge part of our summers; the weather is stiflingly hot and humid from May to October in Kentucky, and there are days where it seems impossible to do anything other than to take the kids there to cool off.
For most of their first summer there, my kids were more than content to play things safe. They’d linger in the shallowest part of the pool, often playing right on the stairs in defiance of anyone trying to enter or exit that way. Guarded by their buoyant vests and often with one hand firmly gripping the sides, their swim-time experience was a wholly cautious one. As the summer drew on, they became incrementally bolder, paddling out into slightly deeper water, but one obstacle loomed large in the family consciousness: the diving boards.
The pool we belong to has a fairly standard two-diving-board arrangement—one low, one high—and the higher one was never even a consideration, aside from the time I goaded myself into going off it to impress the kids.
The low one became our insurmountable obstacle.
One afternoon last summer, my son decided that he wanted to go off the low dive like a few friends had. We encouraged this notion, but when he got to the end of the board, he froze. “I can’t do it!”, he shouted, as we and all the kids patiently waiting in line offered positive reinforcement to the contrary. (Kids are so much nicer than they were when we were young.) Eventually, he climbed back off the way he came, frustrated and angry.
This happened more over the span of a few weeks, casting a pall over every trip to the pool. I offered to get in the water to greet him when he landed, and ended up giving up after finding out how tiring treading water for ten minutes could be. I cheered and cajoled and even went so far as to offer up a bribe, telling him that he could have one of my old triathlon medals if he went through with it, a brilliant idea that immediately backfired when he asked if he could still have it without going.
(The answer was no; I’m far from a crusader against participation trophies—I mean, I sure as heck didn’t win that triathlon—but that wasn’t the deal I’d offered.)
Near the end of the summer, we finally got over the hurdle. He’d jump off the low dive, but only with a floatie on, and only on to a pool-float toy. It was conditional victory, but victory nonetheless. (He got the medal.)
He’s been pushing me lately.
I have good kids; I feel like every parent believes this about their children, but I’ve been told it enough by teachers and babysitters and other relatively-impartial third parties that I’ve come to believe it’s actually true. My kids are thoughtful, respectful, considerate and well-behaved, at least most of the time.
So, it’s been a bit of a shock to me the last couple months to start encountering stubborn resistance beyond just refusing to eat my cooking.
“I’m not doing that.”
“I don’t care.”
“I’m not talking to you.”
“This conversation is over.” (Hey, that’s my line, pal!)
Parental authority is made to be inevitably challenged, but for the first time he’s pressing up hard against ours, searching for the weak points and digging at all the cracks. I try to be patient, but I don’t always succeed; sometimes he find just the right button to push, and I react in a stern, angry or just plain loud manner that I end up apologizing and feeling terrible for afterwards.
I have struggled to admit that my little guy isn’t going to be little forever.
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It was brutally hot this weekend, the air a fetid, muggy, still soup with a heat index well over 100 degrees. Given this kind of weather, I did what any logical person would do: I took my family to a baseball game. There couldn’t have been more than a thousand people in attendance that afternoon, but this only added to the languid, somnambulant quality that I find so appealing about minor league baseball.
The sport is at its best when it feels a little bit like a hangover, if you ask me.
The kids had a good time, actually watching a bit of the game in between shaking me down for hot dogs and peanuts and Dippin’ Dots and souvenirs, but everywhere we went in the ballpark, he was twenty steps ahead of us, marching ahead with the confidence of a child who’s big now, and chafing mightily every time I bellowed for him to hold up, buddy.
After the game, we headed straight to the pool—a small bit of good planning amidst my otherwise-masochistic idea of an afternoon—and just after we’d arrived and changed into our swim gear, he said matter-of-factly, “I think I’m going to go off the high dive today.”
I did my best to suppress my incredulity, offering a supportive-but-noncommittal “I think that’s great, if that’s what you want to do,” while visions of the previous summer’s angst-filled agonies danced in my head. It’s time to go through it again, I guess.
Not two minutes later, though, he stood up and marched confidently to the far end of the pool.
My wife and I sprung from our lounge chairs, running over to the far side of pool to watch.
There was no fear in his eyes, no hesitation, no calculation of risk. He climbed the ladder, strode to the end of the board, pausing only for a half-glance over to where we stood, and—
I spent the rest of the evening effusing loudly over his accomplishment, both to him and to the friends and family to whom I texted the news, a deluge of praise only briefly interrupted to scold him for splashing water in his sister’s face.
This was a big deal. He went to bed beaming with pride, and I swear two inches taller than when he arose than morning.
Later that evening, the kids long asleep, I found myself staring at one of the many photos I took on his half-dozen subsequent jumps.
In the photo, he’s frozen in mid-air—legs pointed straight down, arms spread wide, in the kind of pose you might see Superman take on while alighting in a crowd of awe-struck citizens of Metropolis. He hangs above the unbroken water, halfway through his leap, unencumbered by any of the worries he’s carried or will one day carry.
It’s ten feet from the edge of the board to the surface of the water, a distance he covered in a fraction of a second, but in those short distance I can see a world of change. A little kid becomes a big one, a big obstacle becomes a small one. Something he thought he could never do becomes something he’ll never again have not done.
A child who seeks my protection and reassurance becomes one who swears he doesn’t need it; fears dissipate, and he lets go of my hand.
I can’t freeze the moment itself, as much as the picture suggests it might be possible. The change is inevitable, and ultimately welcome. The things he fears will become child’s play, and the world will become his.
I can’t stop the leap, nor would I want to.
I can only stand on the side of the pool, cheering my lungs out.
—Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)