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Parent Moments: Life's a Beach

"Mama, just put him down," Grace, 6, says matter-of-factly as I struggle to get her little brother unwrapped from my shoulders where he's frantically attempting to climb up and as far away from the sand as humanly possible. So much for my morning resolve to gently help Luke overcome his sand aversion with a little stroll on the beach.

I can barely hear her over his wails. Plus, his arms are covering my ears and his legs are flailing wildly in his attempt to stay tightly encircled around my neck, as if I were trying to wear an electrocuted octopus as a hat.

"What?!" I yell back at Grace, to which she slowly but loudly replies, "PUT -- HIM -- DOWN!" Grace, a hardcore beach baby and sand castle architect, has grown impatient with her little brother's phobia.

By this time, we've attracted a small audience. This beach is home to a mellow crowd unaccustomed to having its morning yoga or quiet walks interrupted by a hysterical toddler mauling his mother while his sister coaches loudly from the sidelines.

Finally, I manage to extract Luke from my head -- both his hands filled with hair wrenched from my aching scalp -- and I hold him out at arm's length over the sand, which he's obviously mistaken for crushed glass laced with battery acid. As soon as the first tip of his tiniest toe makes contact with the first grain of sand, his body begins to systematically jerk up and away until I swear he's on the verge of hovering over the ground in some altered yogic state.

But he's only human, after all, and finally he's sitting firmly on the sand crying -- unable, unwilling, to touch it with his hands to help himself stand.

Now I just feel mean. My mind rushes to memories of being on the other end of someone else's amateur attempts at "immersion therapy." Like the time my older brother threw me in the pool or when he locked me in the dark closet. Or that panic stricken moment when someone takes her hand off the back of your bike the first time you are riding without your training wheels. But suddenly, a strange, unfamiliar sound pulls me from my trip down memory lane: silence.

Miraculously, Luke has stopped wailing and is concentrating on touching the tips of his fingers to the sand, just enough to gain leverage so he can stand. He lifts himself up just onto the edges of his feet, but I can see the understanding begin to register: "Hey, this stuff's not so bad."

With his toes spread and lifted, he begins to walk on his heels. His face still holds the shape of a frown but I can see the smile forming underneath. And then Grace leads our little audience in a bout of clapping and cheering which transforms his tear-stained face into a wide, sunny grin.

And that's when my eyes get a little misty. As a parent, it's so hard to know how to appropriately negotiate the fears, uncertainties and simple inexperience of our children. It's a fine balance that teeters somewhere between paralytic overprotection and harsh lessons from the school of hard knocks. I recall that, after my brother threw me in the pool, I realized quickly enough that I could stand with my shoulders above water; the dark closet held only scratchy wool coats not fiendishly clawed monsters; and sometimes, you just have to pedal harder if you don't want to fall over. As I watch Luke master his fear of the sand, my heart swells at the way curiosity has overtaken caution and how his sister gently encourages every small step.

Luke toddles down the beach to the blanket where Daddy has been dozing alongside his iPod. "How was your walk?" he asks me, plucking the earphones from his ears.

And I tell the truth: "It was fantastic."

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CeReality: 5 Families, 5 Stories, 1 Critical Meal

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