Parenting Lessons from Skipping Rocks

stones-244244_1920“Now hold it just like this, like a frisbee, but smaller.” His large, dark, rough hands would move my chubby little fingers on the oblate river rock.

“It’s all in the snap. In the wrist. You have to get low and snap your hand forward, but hook the rock with your finger so it spins. Like this.” And in one fluid motion he bent low, swung his arm, snapped his wrist forward and a rock spinning fast enough to stop time for a moment spun out of his hand and did not just skip across the surface of the small lake, but seemed to spurn it. As if the speed of the rock’s spin was such that it created enough friction to boil the water where it touched as it sizzled across the surface. In that frozen moment, I watched that rock skip five, six, seven times across the water, leaving a crescent of ripples following the rocks curved trajectory.

“Damn, only seven.” Only seven?! The small mound of rocks slowly rising out of the shoreline from my dismal attempts mocked me. But after several more tries, I was able to skip it three, even four times. Not a record, but better than just one.

Growing up, my father was a master rock skipper. He was also an expert fisherman, as well as a professional mechanic, and he knew martial arts. He could play the drums, the saxophone, and wasn’t too shabby on the guitar either. In short, my dad was cool. I mean, really cool. Literally everyone told me so. He knew every person in town (not that that was hard, it was a small town and I was related to about a quarter of it) and everyone knew him.

Except me, turns out. The one thing my dad wasn’t a master at was communicating. I learned almost nothing personal about him for the first twenty years of my life. But then, what young boy did? We grew up in an era when men didn’t talk about themselves much, about their feelings or about what was bothering them. Basically, if I needed to know something, he’d tell me. For males, feelings were strictly on a Need-to-Know basis. If you’d see another man upset or crying, you’d ask, “Hey, you okay?” and the answer would almost always be, “Yeah. *sniff* I’m fine.”  If he said he was fine (as they almost always do) you were absolved of asking any more questions. To complete the ritual you’d either insult him, punch him, and/or buy him a drink.

So my dad didn’t handle the touchy-feely things well, he did teach me how to skip a rock, right? Don’t be so quick to judge. He thought me a lot with that simple act. He taught me perseverance, to keep trying even if I don’t get it right. He taught me observation, how to keep my eyes open for the right kind of rock. He taught me coordination, turning, bending, and swinging an arm with a wrist flick is hard on a rocky shore. He taught me timing and patience, to wait for the water to be still or to wait for a space between little waves. He taught me to find joy in little achievements and that the quiet moments can be magical. All from teaching me how to skip a rock.

Now, here I am, on a vacation that was, originally, supposed to be for my mother’s 60th birthday spending long hours thinking about my father, and the lessons he taught, because I got it in my head to skip a rock. We found a quiet inlet on the “quiet side” of Acadia National Park in Maine, somewhere along the Ship Harbor Trail. Most of New England is rocks with life tenaciously clinging on to it, so as my children were exploring all the different types of snails they could find (six, by last count), I naturally found a few proper skipping stones. My first one went straight to the bottom, and in that “plunk” sound I was immediately transported to my eight-year-old self again standing on the edge of Pymatuning Lake or Baker’s Pond trying to get my stupid, chubby fingers to work right and skip the stupid rock across the stupid lake.

My next attempt fared no better, but my third skipped a few times. I took my time and found a few more proper stones, which turned out harder than I’d thought. Maine has rocks galore, but not the type needed for a good skip across a pond, or inlet in this case. Once I collected a few, I paused a moment, breathed deep and let one rip, skipping it a good six, seven, eight times. From behind me my daughter called out, “Show off!” I won’t admit it to her, but I was glad she caught that one. I was also glad she had not seen the others. A parent must keep up appearances of being all knowing and all powerful, after all.

A few hours later, as we crossed an exposed sand (tiny rocks) bar to an island near Bar Harbor that was only accessible during low tide, I heard a father say to his son, “How do you not know how to skip a rock? I failed you as a father!” I looked at this man and his son, who clearly had a good relationship, and disagreed. Somewhat. My children have good talks with me, we have a good relationship, and I’ve taught them many things I’ve learned, as well as what my father had taught me, including how to skip a rock. But in the setting New England sun, on that diminishing sandbar as the tide eased back in, it was time to give them a refresher, much to my wife’s annoyance and slight unease. Turns out the tide comes in deceptively fast.

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So, turns out I’ll never be able to match my father’s skill at skipping rocks, but then I don’t need to. I have other ways of teaching those lessons my dad had to impart through skills like rock skipping or fishing. He had to find ways to teach us those lessons without communicating the truth about them because that’s what men did. I do not. I communicate, I share emotions, I cry (Toy Story 3 still gets me every time), and I listen as they do the same.

My father is still cool, by the way. He drives a motorcycle, he still plays the drums though not as much as he’d like, he’s retired, and he has slowly learned how to communicate things like emotions too. I’ve learned more about him this last half of my life living away from him than I ever did seeing him every day and it makes me wish I had paid more attention to those little lessons because clearly, I missed a lot. So now when my children and I do something, be it skipping rocks or killing it on our Nintendo or kayaking around a bay, I make sure to communicate why we do these things and what they’re learning, but they’ll still have to learn what the truth of those lessons are on their own, just as I did. Watching them learn that is one of the best parts of being a dad.

That, and grilling.

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