“I’m done,” Sprout said, letting go of the cactus painted onto the rock-climbing wall. Looking at the wall, I half-frowned.
“Really? You were doing so well,” I said.
“Yep. That part was easy. I’m going to do it again,” he said, now on the ground. Then he started climbing again.
“Oookay,” I said, trying to be supportive while hiding my disappointment.
A Long-Standing Love
I had been looking forward to this trip for literally years. My first rock-climbing experience was when I was 13, with one of the very few friends I had at the time. Belaying each other, even at a rock gym, solidified our blossoming trust and led to years of outdoor adventures together. In high school, a trip to the climbing gym with my future husband and two friends was one of the first times I realized that I might be in love with him. We didn’t start dating until four months later, but that bonding was foundational to our relationship.
So while I’ve never climbed as much as I’ve wanted, it’s always been dear to me.
While I managed to adapt biking to having kids, I wasn’t able to fit climbing in. I simply had to wait until they were old enough to climb with me.
And now Sprout was! He had taken a great liking to the little rock wall at a nearby playground, scrambling up it and yelling from the top, “Look at me!” He was an old hand at the cargo net at our regular park across the street. Based on his interest, I talked up going to the climbing gym for months. We decided we’d go on the next rainy Saturday.
A Kids’ Climbing Heaven
So there we were, the rain pounding down outside the building’s plate-glass windows. “Here” was ClimbZone, a paean to climbing for kids. With about 30 different routes painted with different designs, bounce houses, and arcade games, it was like a regular rockgym and Chuck E Cheese had a really awesome baby. If I came here as a kid, I would have thought I was in heaven.
Sprout was not as impressed. He was enthused, but didn’t come close to my level of excitement. The giant bouncy slide caught his eye much more than the climbing walls. But after equipping him with a harness and assuring him that he’d have a chance to go on the bouncy slide later, we were ready to go.
Climbing Up and Back Down
As per Sprout’s deep love of music, we started on a music-themed wall. He made exactly two moves and let go of the wall.
“What happened?” I asked. He shrugged. “I’m done.”
“Come on, try again,” I urged. I wouldn’t have pushed him if was a matter of fear or nerves, but he seemed perfectly content. In fact, he hadn’t climbed nearly as high as he does at the playground, where he doesn’t have a harness or rope!
After another very brief attempt, we moved on. That music one was too hard to start with, I told myself. We’ll try something easier.
So we tried a cargo net. He practically runs up the cargo net at the playground, I thought. But three steps in, he gave up again. Then he did one that was like stairs – albeit trickier than it looked. But still no higher than our heads.
Finding My Wings
In the meantime, both Chris and I managed to get some climbing in ourselves. Unlike a traditional rockgym where you have to belay your partner, this one had an autobelay system so that automatically lowers down climbers when they fall or let go. So one of us could both watch Sprout and look after Little Bird, leaving the other person to climb.
Even though I was disappointed at Sprout’s level of enthusiasm, I was so happy to get the opportunity to climb. My fingers clutching the handholds and my legs pushing up my body brought back muscle memories I hadn’t accessed in a long time. There was a dance to the whole thing, a combination of strategy and grace. I forgot how badly I had missed it. Getting to the top always feels a bit like you’ve flown – a wonder that you’ve done something impossible. This is what I wanted Sprout to feel!
But as always, Sprout had other ideas.
What I had failed to take into account was how he likes to do things in pieces. He’s an observer, someone who takes in lots of information and spends a lot of time thinking. Sometimes when you ask him a question, it may be minutes before you get an answer.
Because that’s how he approaches the world, that’s what he was doing when he was rock-climbing. It just wasn’t obvious until he did the desert route. There, he repeated that one section over and over again until he felt like he got it just right. When Chris applauded his effort, it finally clicked for me. That six feet? For him, that was just as important as getting to the top.
The Beauty of Buffets
But that wasn’t he only shift in perspective for me that day. On the way out of the gym, we needed to stop for lunch. Looking on Yelp, I picked out a cute sandwich place with rave reviews. But when we got there, the restaurant appeared to be out of business. Even worse, the parking lot for the strip mall the restaurant was supposed to be in was so crowded that it took 10 minutes to get out.
By that point, we were in emergency mode – both Chris and I were hangry and Little Bird was falling asleep without having eaten lunch. Spotting a Chinese buffet across the street, Chris said, “We’ll just go there!” My hangry annoyance brought out my classist and food snob tendencies. Instead of taking the suggestion, I twisted up my face and argued with Chris. After a good five minutes of bickering back and forth, I finally gave in grudgingly.
On my way in, my point of view changed again. Realizing this was the first buffet Sprout and Little Bird had ever been to, I remembered how I loved the Chinese buffet as a kid in my dinky suburban town. You could get as much as you wanted! You could get all sorts of random stuff! Smiling, I realized that whatever I thought about buffets now, it was irrelevant to Sprout. For him, it was a totally new experience. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he loved the buffet.
What you want for your kid isn’t the same as what they want or what they need. Some days you climb to the top of the rock-climbing wall and eat at an adorable little sandwich shop. Some days you get six feet off the ground and eat at a Chinese buffet. And they’re both glorious in their own way.
Parenthood is a series of incidents teaching you to look at life more broadly, more generously, and with a lot more flexibility. For other reflections on how I’ve learned, check out Birthday Parties: A Lesson on Learning to be Flexible and The Bedtime Dance. Be sure to follow us on Facebook!