I was struggling to push my son up the mountain trail, bumping the stroller into roots and rocks, when he asked me a 4-year-old's thoughtful question: "Are you learning a lesson, Mom?"
At first, I laughed when he said it.
I'm learning a lesson all right, I thought. I'm learning this old pile of junk stroller is not meant for off-roading. I'm learning what big obstacles small rocks can be. I'm learning that I should make the 4-year-old walk next time, even if he does complain that his toe is hurting.
I didn't say any of that to him, but I apologized for the incessant jerking and jostling he was enduring. He didn't complain, he just held on tightly and chirped his support as I soldiered on.
"Are we stuck mom? Oh, you're getting us there. Good job," he said to me.
Nobody really wanted to come on this hike with me. I agreed to bring the stroller for the youngest one, but there was no appeasing the older two. They were perfectly content to stay inside, fight, watch TV, argue, eat cereal all day and drain batteries. But, it was the first day of spring break and I said we had to get out of the house. I told the kids they could play electronics if they came on the hike with me, so finally they agreed.
By the time we got on the trail, it was cold and storm clouds were gathering. My children must have sensed that shift in the weather because it shifted them too. As I was falling behind, trying to lug the equivalent of a wheeled rectangle with a child up the hill, I heard my two older kids start to bicker.
The older one told the younger one we needed to hike to get exercise, to stay healthy.
The younger one told the older one she never exercised like he did, and she was already unhealthy.
So the older one reminded the younger one that she did better in her skiing lessons than he did. And he retaliated by listing off all of the sports and activities that he did better than her. He told her she's going to get fat someday from not doing as many sports as him, and she fell silent.
They were both upset, taunting and goading each other. I chimed in every once in a while from down below, but I could tell they were spiraling out of my ability to assuage the situation. In times past, a tit for tat such as this has sometimes ended in fisticuffs. And I did not want my children trying to shove each other off of the top of the mountain.
Just then, I caught up to my kids, and the younger one was asking me for water, which I did not have.
I asked his sister, the older one, if she would share hers. She frowned, then thought for a second, and pulled a package of Sixlets candies out of her pocket.
"Here," she said to him. "This is for you. And you can have some of my water."
At first, he was so stunned he didn't know what to do.
His jaw dropped and his eyes widened. He knew how mean he was being to her. He didn't trust that she would actually be so kind to him after he had been so rude to her. So he took a step back and raised his hands like a defense, waving them back and forth and saying, "No — but thank you for offering."
He had a funny kind of half-smile on his face while his sister reasserted her offer. We were all standing there, except the one in the stroller, watching their interactions. Finally, he accepted her gesture, took a drink of water, and clasped the roll of candies in his hand.
Then, the most amazing thing happened.
Immediately, my middle son turned to his younger brother and offered him half of the candy. My 4-year-old accepted it without hesitation and ate it in one bite. Then we started walking on again, and the older two got farther ahead again as I slogged behind.
I heard my son tell my daughter, "Can we restart what we were saying about that competition?"
Suddenly, they were friends again, laughing and running ahead together, being kind and thoughtful to one another. Amid the fun my daughter turned to me and said, "Look how we've changed! I'm so glad I offered him my water."
From her action, everyone wanted to be kind. My middle son offered to help pull the stroller over the bumps in the road, my daughter let my youngest son wear her coat when it started to rain and he was cold. When she got cold, my middle son immediately took off his thin jacket — under which he was only wearing a T-shirt and shorts — and offered it to her, draping it on her shoulders when she resisted. There was no more bickering, only concern. They were working together instead of competing.
The whole thing was a sight to behold. On the way back down, even pushing the stroller was an easier task. The rocks didn't seem as sharp, the roots were much more manageable. And the best part was, as it turns out, I did learn a lesson that day.
We all did.