I know that parenting kids should be a reward in and of itself. Uh huh. But let’s face it – we all look for those momentary, even fleeting rewards that help us be better parents. That help us face a day after a sleepless night up with a sick kid. We do what we do because it’s what we do: as parents, we love and care for their children. We meet their needs and sometimes surpass them. We provide for them, and not just the stuff, but provide them with opportunities, with love and with the tools to help them move forward in what is a very complex and demanding world.
But we all like rewards, right? That look on her face when your child opens the Christmas present she never dreamt she’d get. The hug that comes out of nowhere after a great day on vacation. The “Thanks, Mom” for something as benign as covering up tiny, cold child feet with a blanket as you walk by the couch. The gratitude for a favourite dinner.
I’ve been thinking a lot about rewards lately. We’re in South Carolina on our annual pilgrimage to the long grasses and the ocean. And we met this great family, two parents with college-aged daughters. The dad from what I can surmise seems to have suffered some kind of health event – he has difficulty articulating speech and has some physical signs of serious illness. But he is, bar none, the most enthusiastic, good-natured father I’ve ever seen.
The thing with this family is that they spend 24/7 together. They are out on the beach at 7 a.m. (chairs and umbrellas lugged out by dad, gleefully) and spend the entire day chatting, swimming, paddleboarding, kayaking, Frisbee-playing, reading books and eating together. They are mortifyingly bad Frisbee players – can’t catch that thing even once – but man, do they have FUN. And in the evening, the daughters take out the paddleboard and the surfboard while mom and dad sit on the surf and watch. And talk. Once it’s dark, they are out on the beach playing glow-in-the-dark Frisbee, wearing glowing headbands and throwing (but not catching) a glowing red and blue disc.
They are unstoppable in their capacity to have fun together and they’re unfailingly nice to each other. One hot afternoon in 90 degree weather, I watched the dad carrying two huge ice cream cones across the beach to the girls. The look on his face was priceless: pure happiness at the anticipation of their pleasure.
I talked with the dad a bit, poolside. They’re from Pittsburgh and he and his wife are working class parents. One daughter is an engineering major and the other studies abroad in Italy for the year. They work hard to give their daughters a good education and these yearly vacations that all four of them love (I mean, LOVE). They’ve been coming here since the oldest daughter was a baby.
As the dad said to me, “I work hard all year. But these two weeks, oh man, we love it here. And it’s all about my girls. We just make it all about them. That’s the reward for me.”
Georgia loves it here. This is the first year she began asking to come here for summer holidays in about March.Keep in mind I usually start longing to be here about two hours after I arrive back in Toronto, so March is a bit late for me, but I’m hopeful about further beach-brainwashing her. She loves the pool, the ocean, the lifestyle. Eating lunch oceanside or on our little beach balcony. But regularly, she asks to go home or to go to Uncle Ralph’s house. When we tell her that there are 11 sleeps left here, she whines to go home to Toronto. Two minutes later she’s happily splashing in the pool. Momentarily. Then she’s changed – to worrying about whether I’ll wash her back in the bath later on.
The experience of rewards are different with Georgia. Her pleasure is fleeting and fluctuating and often hard to hold onto. She takes pleasure in simple things – and the harder you work to provide her with an experience, the less likely she is to “love it.”
Case in point: We decided, together, that it wouldn’t be worth the effort to take her to visit the giant water park up the highway. As amazing as it looks, and as much as she loves water, she’d be overwhelmed by the line-ups, anxious about the crowds, and far happier in her own little lazy pool here with an inner tube and her goggles.
When Georgia opens a present that we think she’ll like, she’ll seem pleased but is quickly distracted by something random.
She doesn’t remember who gave her presents. She has no concept that we work hard and save up for these precious weeks on the beach in order to give both her and ourselves the pleasure of being here. Her experience of pleasure here is different in quality than the pleasure of other kids – she isn’t running on the beach carefree and laughing. She’s worrying a bit about what’s next or what’s just happened…
But once in a while, I see it. I see an ephemeral, genuine smile of pleasure cross her face when the ocean wave catches her off guard. Or a perfect giggle when we dump her out of her inner tube into the pool. A relaxed, momentary grin when she’s eating her favourite lunch outside. A happy dance when you hear fireworks outside on the beach.
Last night as I was tucking her into bed, after a perfunctory protest about the lack of fireworks on the beach, I pulled up the blanket under her chin, as I do routinely and without thought. She nestled into the bed and quietly sighed, “Ahhhhhh – thanks, Mom.”
I stopped and blinked and looked at her for a few moments, remembering that I’ll never quite figure out her pleasure but realizing how easy she may well be to please. Reward enough for me for the day.