On Wednesday evening, as is my usual practice, I picked up my daughter from her daycare, and began walking home with her. The unseasonably warm weather suggested a little detour in the tot-lot on the way back was a very good idea. (I remain unenthusiastic about visiting playgrounds but my sense of parental duty overrides this unease of mine.) There, in the playground, my daughter confronted a familiar challenge: the combination jungle-gym/slide which serves as centerpiece for juvenile mayhem.
This particular variant features two slides, three sets of stairs, and two ingenious tests of balancing/climbing ability on the side: a set of semi-circular rings with a running bar which can be traversed by a child who grasps the side and then walks from ring to ring, and a set of interlocking metallic ‘Olympic rings’ set at a slope, which can be used as steps of a sort. My daughter had mastered the first challenge a while ago, but the second remained out of reach. The leg length and the grip strength it required were bridges too far. Moreover, my daughter would often freeze when I would start to instruct her on how she could solve the various challenges the rings posed. I had backed off, worried that I might be making her more anxious.
Now, there we were yet again, staring at a familiar nemesis. We had visited the playground last week, and then again, a familiar pattern had manifested itself: my daughter ascended partway, stopped, overcome by doubt and anxiety; I stepped closer, offered some advice; she froze; she dismounted. Now, she went off again to climb the rings, and I hung back, checking my phone for messages. I was determined to stay out of this one.
My daughter took her first steps, and soon hit a dead-end. She shifted her feet and moved left. Then, she reached up and pulled, moving up to the second level of rings. Now, again, she was stuck. For a moment, she took one foot off the rings, a sign that she was considering dismounting. I groaned inwardly. Then the foot went back on, and she moved right, looking for a better foothold. Crucially, she had not turned around to look for me. Perhaps she was going to go ahead with this thing. She looked up, saw a hold. She would have to reach and pull herself up to a spot from where she would be secure and could then use the bars on the side to take the final step to safety. I tensed.
I realized, at that moment, that I was experiencing a sensation that I had previously only felt while watching sports: cup finals, penalty shoot-outs, tennis tie-breaks, the frenetic closing stages of a one-day cricket game. I was ready to be overcome with elation, while simultaneously terrified at the thought of failure. I was urging ‘my team’ on.
My daughter pulled, and swung up. She fumbled on the bars, but grasped them nevertheless, and then stepped to safety. As she did so, she suddenly broke into a grin and announced, “I did it; all by myself!”
Standing behind her, I had executed, as circumspectly as possible, the kind of punching-the-air ritual I often execute when a goal or touchdown is scored, a catch taken, an ace served. My team had won. Against itself.