Father and son on a pristine beach, the lake smooth as glass. Among the colored rocks are any number of perfectly flat stones wholly perfect for skipping. The father picks up a stone, skims it across the water. The stone bounces a few feet from the coast then vaults twenty feet before plunking and sinking. Dad picks up another stone and flings it into the calm lake. This time the stone glides across the surface bounding four, five, six times before coming to a stop and dropping into the calm water. The child finds a flat stone sends it into the lake. It doesn’t skip at all but after a dozen subsequent attempts, the child is able to make the stone skip.
The father smiles, the child claps. No words are spoken. There is nothing to say. With the possible exception of manned spaceflight, skipping stones is the pinnacle of achievement and fun.
Of course there’s another way to go about it. There’s always another way. Impossible as it seems, it is feasible to ruin this idyllic scene. The father, rather than walking along the water in glorious silence, could impart a physics lesson. Or correct the child’s aim. Or exclaim, “good job!” when the child makes the stone skip for the first time—the implication being that the child is a complete and utter nimrod lacking the cognitive capability to notice whether the stone sank or skipped. Or make a competition out of an activity that by definition is just so obviously totally awesome. “My stone skipped seven times, yours only skipped three times, you feckless dimwit, I can’t believe I’m wasting my day here with you in the outdoors when I could be watching Baywatch reruns.”
I’m going to go out on a limb here and argue in favor of silence, shared experience, and the unrelenting joy of discovering something transcendent with your kid while I blissfully ignore the reason that the rocks actually skim across the water rather than just sinking–suggesting that the answer doubtless involves “science” or some other arcane phenomena.
It’s hard to get walking along the shore skipping stones wrong. But what about the doctor’s office? What about going to the pediatrician with a stuffy kid with whom you’ve been up every hour on the hour all night long as they repeatedly barfed? Where’s the joy in that particular scenario? How do you get that situation right? How do you get past the fact that you are already three hours late for work, that people are counting on you, that there’s a project due, that you are already desperately behind, that there are flecks of vomit on your work clothers, and that the line of whiny, contagious other kids and parents ahead of you is, to a first approximation, endless?
Look, I just write these columns, I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I will say that after you wait for a geological epoch or two with all those other sick kids, the staff frequently puts you in one of those little rooms where you wait for another couple of eternities and there is invariably a waste basket and a crumbled piece of paper. Time for a little one-on-one basketball! I’m assuming you forgot to bring a picture book to read at the doctor’s office. I assure you. I always forget to bring a book when I took my kids to the doctor. After being up all-night cleaning up puke, I felt good about remembering to bring my kid to the doctor. So let’s toss the crumbled up piece of paper into the wastebasket. Extra points (pun intended) if your child inadvertently notices that three out of four is 75%. Heck, your kid already feels like somebody drove a truck through their stomach. How much worse could a little mathematical insight make them feel.
The point is there’s always a way to get the parenting thing right. Invariably there’s also a way to mess it up. Every day is a new opportunity to be an adequate parent. Just as every parent-child interaction holds the prospect of putting up an airball. I wish you more days walking on the shore of the lake skipping stones with your kids and fewer days at the pediatrician with your phone blowing up with calls from work. But whatever tomorrow brings with your beloved children, there is one thing of which I am certain. You get three hundred sixty-five days to spend with your eight-year-old. Don’t wish them away.
Because Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne is not the only one who can show you where to look among the garbage and the flowers. Your kids can do a tolerable job of showing you the glories and the exuberances of being a parent—on a quiet beach or in that tiny waiting room.