I learned when to cheer and when to put on socks

My daughter is stuck in a tunnel, and I am helpless to free her. OK, she's not exactly stuck, at least not in the physical sense, but she is very reluctant to move either forward or backward. And I am not exactly helpless, but I'm not wearing any socks. And at 5 feet, 8 inches tall, I may, in fact, be large enough to get stuck myself.

Packing for the beach today, I was sure I'd thought of everything: camera, sunscreen, drink boxes, changes of clothes, a magazine to read in the very unlikely event of downtime. But I hadn't thought of socks. Who brings socks to the beach?

Well, here is a piece of advice for any parent with a child who balks at loud noises: Bring socks to the beach.

Why? Because the next noise that spooks your child may, in fact, be the public bathrooms at said beach, and you will find yourself searching for a bathroom with less boisterous plumbing. And this search may lead you to a fast-food chain with one of those indoor playgrounds that look like something out of Jules Verne's imagination. The same child who has to be bribed with ice cream to enter a public restroom stall will beg to climb a 10-foot ladder into dark tunnels that tangle around one another before dropping off at ravine-like angles.

And so, even though she's only 3 and she's never done this before, you will purchase socks at the food counter (no bare feet allowed in the play area) and send her on her way.

Then you will notice that the tunnel she's chosen has a quirky little section made of something that looks like mesh, and if your daughter is like my daughter, she will look down through the mesh with the same look of apprehension she gave to the noisy toilets. And you'll look down at your bare feet in flip-flops and wonder what ever made you think you had the smarts, the resources to be a parent.

In my case, I am evaluating my foreign policy and have decided that I have one strategy: cheering.

"Look at you, Pumpkin. You're doing great," I begin. "Keep going. You can do it! There you go, just put your hands out first, then crawl across." I am all but performing aerial splits by now.

But it isn't exactly working. Several older children squeeze past Laura. "There you go. Follow them," I holler.

Finally, Laura begins inching across the mesh. Then she disappears.

Now I resort to cheering in the general direction of the tunnels, cocking my head in every direction to get a glimpse of her. My heart feels like a nervous little dog, wagging his whole back end inside my chest.

All parents know these moments are going to come along: moments of sitting on the sidelines, watching, cheering, unable to help or knowing better than to interfere. We've imagined the first day of preschool, the first breakup with a boyfriend, the day she moves away.

But what we may not have realized is how furtively these moments can creep up. One minute you're taking a potty break, the next you're watching your firstborn take on one of the biggest challenges of her tiny existence. And something inside you is stretching, stretching, like the saltwater taffy you can watch being pulled at the seaside shops.

"Laura?" I call. "Are you coming?"

Another little herd of kids enters the tunnel Laura is presumably in, and 20 seconds later, they shoot like gumballs out of one of the slides.

Then I hear a little girl talking with Laura. "Here, turn around. Like this," she says.

"That's it, Laura. Follow her," I yell.

More children pop out of the slides. Not Laura. Not Laura. Still not Laura.

Then, there she is, bright white socks, skinny legs, face as pink as birthday cake frosting.

I clap and shout and hug her and, ridiculously, blink back tears. She wants to do it again, of course. And I tell her "OK," because this time, I know what I'm in for. This time, I'm ready. But first I'm making a quick trip back to the food counter. This time I'm wearing socks.

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