Bonnie Henry

Ron Medvescek/Arizona Daily Star

The worm was about an inch long, brown, crawling along a crack between the puddles — and utterly beguiling to the little boy fidgeting a few feet from me.

I had noticed him — the boy, not the worm — as soon as I sat down by a table next to the pool where my granddaughters were swimming.

He was blond, about 2, I’d say, spending his time wandering the short distance between his mother’s feet and the shallow end of the pool, teeming with kids, parents and grandparents. His mother, though chatting with another woman, seemed to be keeping a watchful eye, though she never hollered at the boy to back away, or got up to guide him from the water’s edge. Somehow, he seemed to know his limits. Besides, he soon became interested in something entirely new: me.

For reasons I couldn’t yet fathom, he began making eye contact with me, smiling, gesturing. Maybe I reminded him of someone else — a grandmother, perhaps? I smiled back, nodded my head, nothing more.

In today’s world, you never know how to react to kids you encounter while out and about at the grocery store, the pool, the playground. Some smile openly, wave a tiny hand, say “Hi.” Others look like they’d screech “Stranger danger!” if you so much as look their way. So I keep my distance.

But this little boy was not to be dissuaded, nor did his mom seem wary of what was happening a few feet away. “Worm,” the boy finally said to me, though it was hard to make out the word, what with all the hollering going on .

“Yeah,” I said, smiling, thinking that would be the end of it.

“Worm,” he repeated, holding up his two forefingers to show me an estimation of size, and gesturing that I should follow him.

And so I did. And there, a few feet away, was the worm, in all its glorious wonder, inching along the concrete. After making the appropriate oohs and aahs, I returned to my seat. Meanwhile, my new friend went back to treading the now-familiar path between mother and pool. All he’d wanted to do was share his excitement over that worm, and so he had.

Not long after, his mother gathered him up, pausing to also admire the worm on their way out, and I resumed my watch over my granddaughters, both excellent swimmers.

The pool and its sidelines were even busier now, and as I took it all in from a detached distance, I couldn’t help but notice the differences in parenting going on.

Some of the mothers arrived as human helicopters, their kids following close behind, seemingly in some sort of holding pattern as Mom sprayed on the sunscreen, adjusted their suits, admonished them to “not do this, not do that.” And so it continued throughout the afternoon, with Mom continually hovering, refereeing, soothing, scolding.

Meanwhile, other kids splashed, yelled, swam and played with seeming abandonment as their mothers — and grandmothers — watched with little interference from a distance.

Interestingly, the ages of the kids seemed to matter little in all this. Some of the “neediest” kids appeared to be older, even into their teens, while some of the younger kids were freer to come and go — within limits. Let it be stressed: No one was ignoring his or her child, nor the inherent dangers of water.

How easy it is to judge from the luxury of time the ways of parenting then and now. How was I? Did I helicopter or crash land? Probably a fair share of both. It’s truly scary, this parenting thing.

Still, I like to think I would have given my nearby yet unspoken blessing — and my kids would have felt unfettered in doing so — should they have ever wanted to show some stranger a worm.

Bonnie Henry’s column runs every other Sunday. Contact her at