A few summers ago, we built a pond. Our sons were then 16 and 12, and our daughter was 10. They grew up in Montessori classrooms that were beautiful, carefully prepared communities where they learned to concentrate, read, collaborate, and master difficult tasks. Their teachers instilled a deep reverence for the natural world. They were good readers, hard workers, respectful kids we enjoyed spending time with.
Nonetheless, adolescence is not easy, for parents or kids. It has been extraordinarily difficult to find tasks that engage adolescent minds and bodies. Our boys were growing so fast, they spend the bulk of many days eating and sleeping. At some point in most conversations about road trips, or bike rides, gardening, or trips to the parks and festivals that used to thrill them, one of the boys will usually ask, “do I have too?”
So, we decided to build a pond, together. Like most amateur projects, building a pond was much harder than we expected, and took weeks longer than we predicted. It’s finished now, full of fish, tadpoles with little legs, and aquatic plants. It’s a simple design, like a Beatrix Potter illustration, except instead of a peaceful kitten perched on the edge of the water, we have a rowdy spaniel and a Labrador puppy. Our dogs enjoy the pond by barking at the fish, lapping the water, and occasionally falling in. Some nights the chorus of frogs is so loud we have to shout to hear each other talking.
It was our oldest son’s idea to build a pond. When we moved into our home he pointed at a recessed area of our tiny backyard and said, “that’s the perfect spot for a pond.” At the time, we thought his idea was ridiculous. We revisited his a pond idea for reasons that only make sense if you surrender to the peculiar logic of teens. They said they had always wanted bullfrog tadpoles, and they had identified a spot for hammock-poles.
Pond-building procedures are incredibly tedious. We read all the pond-building and water gardening books available at our public library, sketched plans and ideas, bought a third shovel and took turns digging until our arms, legs, lower backs, and feet ached. Spreading mulch is a dirty, miserable job, especially in July. The low point was losing hold of the wheelbarrow in the front yard, watching a full load of mulch fall into the grass. The high point was watching our middle son set his rake aside and persuade his big brother to take phone-photos of him. He stood on a stone in the middle of the pond, striking the yoga balancing poses he first learned in his primary Montessori class. He was covered with pre-teen sweat and dirt. “We don’t want to forget this moment, mom.”
We made three trips to a local quarry. Altogether, we hauled more than 2000 pounds of rock home in our mini-van. On our third trip from the drive-on scale to the quarry office where we would pay for our rocks, I noticed the sign on the door, “No sandals or children in the quarry.”
“Oops,” I said. “At least we all have tennis shoes on.” My kids were covered in dust, still wearing work gloves. “Good thing I didn’t see that sign. I needed your help.” It was an honest mistake. I did not intentionally break the rules, but I do also know that three kids were engaged in work that was incredibly difficult because their labor was essential. They knew I could not haul that much rock without their help. Breaking the rule was worth it.
Purposeful work is as motivating for teens as it is for three-year olds.
We toted the rocks into our backyard, one or two at a time, washed them with the garden hose, and began stacking, arranging, and re-arranging. My husband installed a filter, built a waterfall around the pump, and installed three small lights. Then we added goldfish and tadpoles. It was a fine, fine moment.
Several weeks later, grandma called. She was at a local garden shop, looking at fish. Could she buy one fish and put it in our pond, she wondered. She wanted permission, and she wanted to make sure her fish was different, so she could distinguish it from the others. “That way, I’ll have my own fish to look for when I come over.” Grandma’s fish is the only black and orange koi. When she comes, she knows who to look for.
Our oldest son says he’d like to build a small bridge, a task he mastered in his elementary Montessori class years ago. Building a bridge would be an appropriate task for a young man getting ready to leave for college. He is now the tallest member of the family, already venturing away from us in ways that are both wonderful and, for us, a little sad.
One Saturday evening during pond construction, my freshly-showered, exhausted husband said he had recently paused in the hallway, in front of the shelves that remain full of children’s story books. Our kids have outgrown bedtime stories, but we have not yet put the books in storage. “I read those books every night for years,” he said. “I feel like they are part of me.”
This summer, while cleaning the filter, our daughter said she thinks we should have “pond day” at the grandparents’ house, when she’s a mom. We should gather at the beginning of every summer, she said, to clean and re-build. “That,” I said, “is a great idea.” When they are grown, we hope our children and grandchildren will stand beside our pond, step on the stones we hauled, walk across the bridge we have not yet built, and feel like the pond is a part of the life of our family, hard work, imperfect, alive, and growing.