Mark vs Cancer

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Ski Frog

Yesterday was the first day of ski season for my six-year old daughter, Joy, and me at our little local hill, Big Horn Ski Resort. (Suggested motto: Two lifts. No people.)

We were both blessed and cursed with a major snowstorm that was tapering off as we headed up the mountain. Blessed, because there was nearly a foot of fresh powder, the trees were blanketed, and hardly anyone else had braved the roads, so we had the whole mountain nearly to ourselves. Cursed, because the deep powder on the mostly ungroomed trails came up to Joy's knees and made the skiing much more challenging. (Doubly cursed, because our Honda Pilot would slip into a ditch on the way out and now sports a crack in the bumper.)

But mostly, it was a great day for skiing, and Joy and I had been anticipating it ever since our final ski trip last March. Last winter, Joy had turned the corner in her skiing skills in a big way, and we had ended the season by cruising down blue runs together at a good clip. She became skilled and fearless, and we had had great fun together on the slopes.

All started well on this trip, as at the top of the mountain the trail was groomed and the slope was gentle. We started our usual game of "Ski Frog," which is like leap frog, each taking turns angling down the hill, passing the other, waiting, then passing again.

But when we hit the deep powder, Joy's memories of last winter's successes transformed into fear. A couple of biffs, a ski coming off, a runny nose . . . soon Joybear's tenuous courage wavered as her anxiety surfaced.

As her Dad, I sense everyday Joy's great potential in so many areas, but I am also aware of her proclivity to search for the exits when the going gets tough, to whine, and to have her parents bail her out of tough situations.

Hey, I know, she's only six. But still, I feel a fatherly impulse to guide her away from this whining and dependency and steer her towards problem-solving and mental toughness. (At home when she comes to me to bail her out of any of the myriad problems a six year old faces--"My feet are cold," or "I'm thirsty," or most typically "Grant's bothering me"--my usual refrain is, "Joy, you need to solve your own problems. Daddy can't always fix it for you." Sometimes, this is parenting genius. More often, this is during the fourth quarter of the big game.)

Regardless, I tend to take a laissez-faire approach when Joy gets whiny, and she most always responds well to this and finds she can indeed solve her own problems.

But now, as I leaned on my poles a dozen yards down the slope, she was having none of my non-interventionalism. She was in deep powder and couldn't get her skis under her. I started calmly calling out instructions to her as I shuffled back up the slope. But she started thrashing in frustration, then shrieking in anger at me, quickly exploding into full-blown hysterics. She hated skiing, it was the worst day of her entire life, and she wasn't going to move until she got home: three epiphanies that she vocalized to me as I climbed towards her.

When I arrived, there was a four inch string of snot hanging from her nose and her face was flushed with frenzy. I cleared the snot away with my glove as she reiterated her above-mentioned epiphanies. I stayed calm, reminding her that she could do it. "Just one step at a time, Sweetie." I reached to help her up and she began to pummel my chest with her engloved fists.

I, on the other hand, felt cool as could be, absolutely certain of her capacity to handle this minor difficulty, but her hysteria wouldn't let her see past the moment she was stuck in. I knew I had to intervene, so I mustered my stern Daddy voice (which usually reduces her to mush), and barked at her that this was unacceptable, she was better than this, she had to get a hold of herself. I then pointed out the essential impossibility of her going home without moving. This initial command briefly phased her, and then she resumed the hysterical whining. I intensified the voice, locked her eyes on mine, and said forcefully, "That is enough, young lady! You are not going to make another sound, you are going to get up on your skis right now, and we are going to ski down this mountain. That is the only way. If you don't, I'm going to have to spank you."

Instant silence. She has never been spanked, and that threat has only been pulled out on the most rare of occasions; in times past, I have felt horrible at seeing the fear in her eyes that this could even be a possibility.

But I didn't see fear now. She knew that Daddy wasn't going to spank her, yet the threat seemed to snap her out of her hysteria. What did I see in her eyes, then? Truthfully, I saw trust, as if I had spoken some secret code between us that said, "Look, I'm not going to spank you, but I own this problem now, so you do what I say and trust me to solve it."

I reached down and lifted her up, hugged her, and set her on her skis. "Now, just follow me down the mountain. Go as slow as it takes."

And that's exactly what we did. She had one more minor fall but bounced right back up. We made it back to the groomed trail, and by the bottom of the hill we were ski-frogging again; she zoomed and laughed like she had last winter.

We loaded onto the lift again and headed up the mountain. I still felt unsettled from the confrontation, that awful feeling of having to discipline your children sternly, of having to break them down to build them up.

But Joy apparently felt none of that, as she beamed at me with her rosy cheeks and crystal blue eyes.

"Are you having fun, Sweetie?" I asked.

"Yeah, this is awesome!"

She leaned into me and gave me a big hug. "I love you, Dad."

I smiled at her as I shook my head quizzically. "I love you, too." I thought of what else to say, wondering at her resilience. To validate what had just happened, it seemed I had to verbalize a teaching moment: "Now remember, when you have a problem that seems too big and you get scared, you have to stay calm. Just do one thing, and then do the next thing, and then pretty soon you'll be all the way down the mountain."

"OK, Dad," she smiled politely if somewhat dismissively, then hugged me again, tacitly acknowledging that I, as her father, had to perform this perfunctory teaching duty, but really, it wasn't necessary. The sun burnt palely through the lifting clouds, but the heavy snow persisted, huge flakes now sifting silently through the still air, clinging to our eyebrows. Joy eyed the big flakes and exclaimed, "Hey, Dad, let's catch snowflakes on our tongues!"

And we did.


Danalin said...

You need to submit this story somewhere...I love all of the detail and the great teaching moment for Joybear. I see that being used in a talk in Church years from now. You have such a way with words, Mark. I'm glad that Joy's love of skiing returned!

Kristen said...

That was great. I for some reason wanted to tear up. Joy is really an amazing girl and can do so many things. You and Liz are wonderful parents. I expect Joy to someday be a pro skier.

Goose said...

Thanks for the post Mark. It sounds like Joy overcame and then conquered. I think all of us feel like that at times, let's just hope that I can learn to respond like Joy.

P.S. Kristen wants me to tell you that skiing stinks..its all about snowboarding. I strongly disagree.

Dad said...

Oh how I remember such moments. I remember thinking, Is this just a power struggle between me and my child or am I really trying to do what is best for him or her?" As a parent, one has to really evaluate how to handle such a situation and be honest with themself. Joy has such a strong personality...maybe fiery at times might describe her attitude. It has served her well so far and if that passion can be moderated when necessary it will be one of Joy's great strengths in her life. I'm afraid all to often in my life that kind of passion has turned into stubborness and that is a bad thing.
You handled it perfectly, son and I admire your skills at grasping what had to be done. It is one of those experiences that Joy and you will both look back on and laugh about but such teaching moments have profound ramifications to a childs self esteem and learning about themselves.

Way to go. You and Liz are doing such a great job with your kids. Now if you can get Grant to also learn in the same way, you will likewise do him a great service for if joy is fiery at times...what does that make the Grantster?


Rappster said...

That was a great post. I hope I hold up as well as you did when Zoe turns on the tirades and tears.

Happy new year!