THE BLOG
05/30/2014 03:40 pm ET Updated Jul 30, 2014

The Playground Skill I Want to Learn From My 4-Year-Old

Mark Joyella

Yesterday, after dropping by my wife's job at CNN in Columbus Circle, our 4-year-old daughter jumped eagerly in the Time Warner lobby: Can we go Central Parkkkkkkk? My New Yorker's instincts told me this was a very lousy idea. After all, it was 3 p.m. and we had to get back to Brooklyn. And nobody wants to be stuck on a rush hour F train forced to tell a 4-year-old we can't sit down. Seriously. That sucks.

But admittedly, there was another fear squashed way down deep inside me: I knew she wanted to explore and find a playground. And playgrounds, if I'm fully and completely honest, scare the crap out of me.

Off to the park we went, and while climbing on rocks, a playground I never knew existed rose out of the ground to invite us. I was toast. We spent the next two hours there. She had a fantastic time, and I did my best. I pushed her on the swings, explored a rather cool area with tunnels and ladders, and sat happily as she made friends in the sandbox. It was amazing to watch. She settled in with another girl named Emma, and the two of them started building a sand castle, working together to make it perfect. It grew to such a height that it even attracted the attention of a pair of boys "on holiday" from the UK. They added a train bridge.

In the space of an hour, my daughter was able to do effortlessly what I never -- as a child, or as an adult -- have been able to pull off: painlessly making friends. In fact, the longer my daughter laughed and played with Emma, the more I felt awkward not seeking out her father, who, as luck would have it, kept his distance, watching his daughter from a just-at-the-limits-of-acceptable-parenting distance, and aside from a regular glance at his daughter, kept his focus firmly on his cell phone.

Had he been standing closer, and had he been more involved, the pressure on me to introduce myself -- to simply talk -- would have been crushing.

I don't know how my daughter does it. As a kid, I was screamingly shy. I did a little better in college, but as an adult, aside from workplace banter, I've been remarkably inefficient at making adult friendships. I just haven't got a clue how it's done. So I watch my daughter, and marvel. She literally walks up to kids her age and talks to them. Just. Like. That.

I, on the other hand, would agonize, plan, run it through in my head and settle inevitably on inaction. Yesterday, when I was finally able to get her to leave the sandbox, she said she needed to run back and talk to Emma. She ran over, asked her if she lived nearby and if they could meet again for a playdate. I was stunned. It was a concrete effort to take a chance encounter and build on it. I guess, maybe, that's how friendships are created?

Watching her, I wondered where she got that kind of confidence, those guts. That fearlessness. I don't know if maybe I had it once, and lost it, but I did promise myself: I won't let her lose it, and if at all possible, I'll try and learn from my daughter. If she can do it at four, there's no reason I can't make a Dad friend, too. What kind of example would I be to my daughter not to have healthy friendships and let her see them?

I just hope she'll be patient with me. I haven't a damn clue what I'm doing. And those playgrounds. They're so intimidating! Any nice Dads up for a playdate?