A few weeks back, while taking a walk along the river with me, my nine-year-old son paused to pick up a round flat stone. I watched as he cast it into the water and then as he expressed grave disappointment. ``What's the matter?'' I asked. He told me that it hadn't skipped. ``No,'' I said, picking up a stone of my own. ``You have to throw it a certain way, like this.'' @bodytext-noindent = As he watched, I crouched a bit, drew my arm back at an odd angle, and flung the stone out over the river. It came down flat and spinning, skipping briskly across the stillness. Five times. ``Wow,'' he said. ``How did you do that?''
How I did it was clear. But I had to think for a few moments to remember who had taught me. And then I recalled a bright summer day long ago, when my own father had converted me, in a twinkling it seemed, from a mere thrower of rocks to a bona fide stone skipper.
In the next moment, I was standing behind my son, wrapping his fingers around a flat smooth piece of shale, drawing his arm back to show him the required motion. ``Now snap it,'' I said.
He threw as I had shown him and the stone skidded boldly forth, leaping three times before sputtering out in a series of skiplets vague enough to boost the self-esteem of any novice.
``Wow! Fifty!'' he exclaimed. And who would have had the heart to debate this?
The things I have taught my son are mostly unremarkable, though important for functioning smoothly in our cultural landscape: brushing teeth, opening a twist-cap bottle, tying double knots, putting gum wrappers in his pocket if he doesn't see a trash can nearby, washing hands after using the bathroom.
I also taught him how to shake hands with a modicum of sincerity. I found myself deeply conscious of the import of such moments, especially the handshake. Several years ago, while a volunteer in the Big Brother program, I saw two of the ``littles'' being introduced to the program director. When he extended his hand to greet them they stared dumbly at it. These boys, aged 9 and 10, couldn't shake hands because they didn't know how to. The most instinctive and social of gestures in our society was a mystery to them.
I have a friend who spends much of his time worrying that he is having no influence over his 10-year-old, other than setting acceptable limits on his activities and behavior.
``You'd never believe he was my son,'' he recently lamented. ``I say one thing and he does another.''