The art of ideal parenting might be the most challenging art there is. On the one hand, children need to be given safety and security. On the other hand, they need to be taught courage, not fear.
The balancing act between caution and courage came into clear focus for me the last two weekends when our three-year-old daughter, Sarah, wanted to ski down the sled hill at our neighborhood school.
The hill is only 40 feet high, but it's so steep that even teenagers and adults without kids get a thrill out of sledding down it.
Sarah was the only skier there and was wearing the safest helmet, goggles, skis, boots, and bindings a small child possibly can. She's also been on skis maybe 150 times, counting the living room, our yard, neighbors' backyards, parks, bike paths, ski areas, and now sled hills.
In addition, Sarah wears a harness with long straps I use to control her speed at ski areas.
But I wasn't on skis at the sled hill, only Sarah was. I pulled her 10 feet up from the bottom of the sled hill, turned and aimed her skis, then sent her sailing down it. Sarah went straight down and immediately burst into tears.
I ran after her and, catching up before catching my breath, asked, ''What's wrong?''
''I wanted to go from the top,'' she bellowed.
''Oh,'' I said, looking up at the steep hill, which now looked to me like a mountain. ''Uh, OK.''
That meant pulling her up to the top of the sled mountain, while parents and children looked at us with a mixture of alarm and surprise.
I held onto Sarah's harness straps and let her down the slope, coming perilously close to slipping and sliding down myself. ''Do you want me to let you go?'' I asked when she was less than halfway up from the bottom.
''Yes,'' she said.
''Are you sure?'' I asked.
''Yes,'' she said.
''You're sure you want me to let you go?''
''Yes! Let me go!'' Sarah yelled.
With that I let her go, but then ran after her, as if there was anything I could do once she became a preschooler projectile. She did fine, except when I stepped on one of the straps of her harness and tripped her.
''Do you want to go up again?'' I asked.
''Yes,'' she said.
''You don't want to go home?'' I asked.
''No,'' she said.
''You're sure you want to go up again?''
''I want to go up again!'' Sarah yelled, and we went up again.
This time I let her go from halfway up, and finally had the intelligence to just stand there and watch her go.
And she did go. She went down the sled hill again and again, from higher up each time, until she was going from virtually the top.
The harness straps would sail horizontally behind her, and she would rocket down, hit the flats, and sail across them. She would just stand upright with more calm than anyone watching her.
The other kids, even young teenagers, would look at her with awe. The fastest sledders would be going so fast that they wouldn't stop until they were a quarter or a third of the way across the football field.
Sarah was going so fast she didn't come to a stop until she was two-thirds or three-quarters of the way across. While I stood trying to catch my breath from watching her, she looked like a small child standing way out in the snowy field all alone.
Then I realized she is a small child. But she's a small child with the heart of a lion, and one who constantly amazes me.
We came back the next day, accompanied by Sarah's mom and 50-mile-per-hour gusts of wind. Sarah has a huge coat, and the wind caught it like a sail and pushed her up to me on her skis.
Nothing fazes Sarah when she's having fun. Not cold, not wind, not blowing snow. Nothing. She and I gratefully accepted the not-so-gentle push from the wind up to the top and both laughed about the unseen hand.
I had to read the wind so I wouldn't send her down in a gust. Sometimes when she was screaming down the mountain a smaller gust would blow her sideways, and she looked like a World Cup downhill racer who gets off balance and amazingly recovers to continue down the mountain, immediately putting the past behind and focusing on the present. (Not coincidentally, Sarah's hero is Picabo Street, the world's best woman downhill racer.)
When my wife, Anne, took Sarah to the top so I could take a picture, Sarah came by me so fast - her skis clattering on the ice - that I got the same thrilling sensation as when I first saw a World Cup downhill racer speed past me at 80 m.p.h. Except this time the thrill was combined with both the pride a parent feels when his or her child overcomes fear, and the trepidation a parent feels when the child is taking a risk.
The next weekend we returned in much colder weather, maybe 5 or 10 degrees. Sarah's clothing leaves virtually no exposed skin and would make an arctic explorer jealous.
But the snow was so grippy that her skis split out, and she fell between them. Her bindings released and she barely cried, but it was still frightening for both of us, so we went down the bank to a little gentler, shorter hill.
After one or two runs at the slower speed, Sarah was looking for new challenges, so she wanted to go off the foot-high jump kids had built for their sleds.
Our dialog was very similar to the exchange we had earlier, and the result was the same. Sarah went off the jump, first skiing slowly, then faster and faster and faster until her skis were actually leaving the snow.
I'd done everything I could to make her equipment and preparation for this moment as safe as possible. Then I'd brought her to the sled hill, showed her the possibilities, and asked her what she wanted to do.
But then came maybe the most difficult and most important part of parenting. I finally had to have the courage to simply stand back and watch Sarah go.