All I really need to know I learned at field day.
My daughter’s school closed out the year with a trek to a nearby park for tug-of-war and three-legged races and burlap-sack races and a bunch of other activities that make you think:
This here. This is the stuff of childhood.
You start to dream of pulling your kids out of every organized sport and extracurricular activity. You vow never, ever to host another birthday party at an indoor play “space.” You resolve to spend more time at home on the weekends turning common household items into tools for delightful whimsy.
You decide to host your kids’ friends for a DIY backyard field day. How fun would that be?
You figure it’s time to get over, once and for all, the time you hosted your kids’ friends – 10 of them – for a DIY St. Patrick’s Day party, and the girls spent 118 of the 120 minutes fighting over a sticker, and the boys ate all the cupcakes while the girls were fighting and then, in a fit of sugar-induced mania, turned the basement into something out of “Edge of Tomorrow.”
With an extra spring in your step, you track down the gym teacher and say, “This is great! What fun games! Anything in particular you want me to be in charge of?”
And when he says something about just walking around, paying attention, checking that everyone’s getting along, you definitely don’t betray your disappointment, despite secretly hoping he’d hand you a whistle and specific instructions on refereeing the hula hoops.
And then you see the first-grade boy.
He’s on the ground, and he can’t move because his shoelace is wrapped around the narrow wire fence that serves as a barrier between the flowers, which no one should stomp on, and the grass, which everyone should stomp on.
It’s one of those situations you couldn’t cause to happen if you tried 1,000 times. OK, walk by that fence and try to get your left shoelace to wrap itself around that tiny piece of wire that’s barely sticking out.
But happen it did, and the kid was down. You try to untangle the lace from the fence, but the lace isn’t budging and the fence is threatening to topple over and you finally settle on taking the boy’s foot out of his shoe and setting to work from there.
The whole incident takes all of four minutes, but it shakes you awake in a way that’s permanent and overdue.
Quit trying to direct everything, you tell yourself.
The gym teacher didn’t give you specific instructions because he’s done this – directed a teeming mass of children into semi-organized physical play – a hundred times, and he knows that you can’t even dream up the scenarios about to unfold.
What did I expect? “You there, you’re on shoelace duty. Watch the flower beds. You over there, you’re in charge of loosening the tops of water bottles. Hands get mighty sore in tug-of-war.”
He told me everything I needed to know: Walk around. Pay attention. Make sure everyone’s getting along.
Be there, in other words. Which strikes me as pretty brilliant advice for parenting in general.
Is it going to matter, five years down the road, 20 years down the road, whether a birthday party was in a climate-controlled bounce house emporium or a sticky, sweaty backyard? Probably not. Is it going to matter that I was there? Obviously.
To witness and foster the fun and the memories and the bonding, of course. But also because you rarely know what your kids will need until they need it. And if you’re holding too tightly to the role you’ve imagined for yourself, it’s hard to change course. You miss the shoelace moments. You miss a lot of moments.
I don’t need a title: coach, host, ringleader. I’ve got one: parent. And job No. 1 is to be there.
I’m still thinking of buying a whistle, though.