Teachers Come in All Sizes

01/06/2011 08:52 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

I was one of those people who always dreamed of having children, even when I was a child myself. Naturally, I had a lot of expectations about being a parent. Many of these expectations turned out to be false -- like the idea that having a child would be like having a part of me break off and develop into another me. I quickly learned that, apart from some obvious genetic similarities, my kids came to me as strangers I had to get to know. The next big surprise, and this was even more shocking to me, was that my kids would be teaching me things.

My son Jake, who turned 13 this month, has been one of my greatest teachers. He taught me a profound lesson when he was not yet two. I had recently quit working outside the home to be a "stay-at-home mom."

I took Jake to a "mommy and me" program at a preschool. Jake really enjoyed it, and we were walking back to the car about a block away. I had the whole rest of the day planned out to the minute, a habit I had acquired as a Deputy District Attorney and a working mom. The next stop I had planned was the library. On the way to the car, we came upon a puddle. This was apparently the most interesting thing Jake had seen all day. He wanted to stare at his reflection; he wanted to poke the puddle with a stick; he wanted to stamp on it and make splashes. He did not want to get in the car to go anywhere, including the library. I begged with him and pleaded. I even tried some bribery. I felt that if I didn't manage to get Jake into that car and to the library, I would lose control of the whole day and my child. I was obviously a failure as a new stay-at-home mom.

But Jake was mesmerized by the puddle, and nothing could pull him from it. Eventually, I sat down on the sidewalk next to him and watched him play. After a while, I too had a few splashes in the puddle, much to Jake's delight. Wow. We were having fun! Despite the fact that I had planned to have fun elsewhere, we found the fun on the sidewalk, on the way to the car. I can't tell you how long we had fun there, but it was a long time. And during that time, I learned my first great life lesson from Jake: be flexible enough to change plans when you find fun along the way. And sometimes, the most unexpected event can be the most fun of all.

When Jake was older, probably about eight, he told me he knew the meaning of life. With great assurance, he said, "The meaning of life is to have fun." I thought about that for a while before I realized he was absolutely correct. The world is full of wonderful gifts: nature, family, intellectual challenges, new people and adventures, and it seems downright unappreciative not to really enjoy these blessings. Yes, we work hard to accomplish goals and to preserve what is good for others to enjoy in the future, but what good is all this work if we don't enjoy ourselves? What are we saying to the next generation if we pass on a world without joy in our hearts?

I have to be honest to tell you that Jake and I still battle over timetables -- my insistence that it is time to do homework or clean up the pile of clothes on the floor vs. Jake's insistence that it is time for any one of his many interests. This is OK, because it all gets done.

Has Jake learned anything from his parents? Samuel Clemmons, otherwise known as Mark Twain once said, "When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years."

I expect Jake will appreciate some of our wisdom around the age of 21 -- that's about when I realized what I had learned from my parents!

As my son begins his teenage years, he will be defining himself as a man. I have no idea where this journey will take him, but I look forward to sharing his discoveries with him. I thank my son for teaching me to be present in the moment, to experience real joy wherever I find it, and to value fun. I have a feeling that that my son will continue teaching valuable lessons to me, and many others, throughout his life.