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Lessons By The Lake

This article is more than 8 years old.
In one moment of spontaneous, unstructured play lies a lifetime’s worth of wisdom about the joy of letting go. (Meghna Chakrabarti)
In one moment of spontaneous, unstructured play lies a lifetime’s worth of wisdom about the joy of letting go. (Meghna Chakrabarti)

My daughter is a few weeks shy of 2 years old. Earlier this month, she was standing at the edge of a dock on Lake Winnipesaukee. We had been invited to a friend’s house there, and in the warm glow of a July evening, my daughter curled her toes over the edge of the dock’s planks. She picked up a yellow tennis ball, raised it in a small, awkward arc and threw it into the water.

The ball didn’t fly far. The dog who launched herself after the ball, however, traveled much farther. She belly-flopped into the water several feet beyond where the ball bobbed up and down, gamely tacked with an enthusiastic thrust of her tail and turned back towards the ball. She powered and churned a few feet, scooped the ball into her mouth, scrambled up the rocks and trotted back to the dock where my daughter stood waiting.

Glistening, quivering, wet black fur. A small red, green and blue polka-dotted sundress. A vigorous shake. A shower of lake water. Light refracting into minuscule rainbows through the many thousand drops. A wet child, faced screwed up against the spray, followed by a peal of laughter and the singular verdict:


My daughter picked up the ball, wound back her arm and launched it once again. In went the dog, undeterred by the embarrassingly short distance she was being asked to swim. And once again she trotted up to my daughter, her nails clacking against the dock’s slats. She dropped the ball and gave a nose-to-tail shake.

“Funny! Mila, sit!”
Silence. Then … plop.
Clack clack clack.

Again, and again, and again.

Mila is a champion, tireless retriever. My daughter is a champion, tireless toddler. Together, they fashioned their own rhythmic game. They crafted it with minimal language, without any rules, without any goal. With each toss and retrieve, I could see their pattern refining itself. My daughter made more direct eye contact with Mila. Mila, anticipating the throw, edged more quickly to the dock’s edge.

Whether this went on for five minutes, or 10, or 20, I don't know. These two, girl and dog, would have gone on for hours had the sun not set and the wind not picked up.

I watched all of this from just a few feet behind them. The animal protective instinct never leaves a parent; I wasn’t willing to allow my daughter to claim ownership over the dock without a little oversight.

My daughter did once turn around, and with the ball still held high, she smiled and yelled, “Mama!”

That was the moment I realized: She is doing this without me.

No guidance, no coaching. No “let Mama show you how.” Had I interfered, their game would never have come into its own. It belonged to them, without restriction or expectation, and that is why it was perfect.

For me, the moment was as humbling as it was beautiful. It was yet another reminder that I will not be the person who teaches my daughter everything she needs to know. And it was another instance in which I realized how much she is teaching me.

As I watched the small brown arm pick up the ball, the yellow projectile follow its sprightly but short path to the water, the black dog leaping off the dock — as these things were happening, I thought of nothing else, sensed nothing else, experienced nothing else outside the tender confines of their spontaneous game. No stress. No to-do lists. No anxieties. No obsessive calculation of the present value of my future worries.

And so I felt humbled by this small girl and her friend the dog. It’s only with my daughter that I’ve recently been able to experience that kind of peace. She has taught me to seek it out and welcome it when the moment arrives. Such profound lessons, from a not-quite-2-year-old!

At its core, parenthood is a breathtaking act of arrogance. What are we really thinking when we decide to create a life, an autonomous yet vulnerable, independent yet wholly needy human being? What makes us think we’re wise enough, patient enough, strong enough to do it? What makes us think we will be the only ones doing the teaching?

Nevertheless, we all need our mothers at some time, don’t we? The evening at the lake began to wind down. It ended perfectly, but not because my daughter put her small hand in mine and walked off the dock.


It ended perfectly because my daughter got tired, and when it was time to go, she would not.

I threw her over my shoulder. Bare brown feet kicked me in the chest, and an almighty wail roared from my girl’s throat. I welcomed the ringing in my ears as I carried her away. For when you are not-quite-2 years old and you don’t know when to give up, what other way is there to end the day?

This program aired on July 27, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.

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