“Look at those kids,” I said, gesturing at the boys with a nod of my head.

The boys, between eight and 10 years old, were down a grassy slope, near the edge of the Inner Harbour. They were throwing stones at a couple of seagulls who were floating safely out of range.

My wife watched for a moment, then turned away, shaking her head. “Pitiful,” she said.

And they were. These boys, these eight- to 10-year-old boys, couldn’t throw a rock to save their lives. They threw by drawing their hands back to their ears with their elbows pointed straight ahead. The results were… well… pitiful.

The seagulls, who were the ostensible targets of the boys’ efforts, eyed them with disdain. I’m sure I heard one laughing.

“How can they not know how to throw a rock,” I marveled. “Isn’t that sort of natural for kids?”

“Jacob! Joshua! What are you doing?”

A woman rushed down the slope and herded the boys away from the water. She gathered her composure and spoke in a tone that was reminiscent of the Super Duper Nannies on the Learning Channel. You know the ones, loving yet stern.

“One should never throw things at living creatures! In fact, you shouldn’t throw stones at all. What if you hurt someone?” She’d knelt so that her face was level with the boys’. “Or you might have slipped and fallen into the water,” she continued. “I’m very disappointed with you. I want you to promise never to do that again.”

The boys looked ashamed, or at least the older of the two did. The younger one was still clutching a rock and as mom turned to lead them away, I saw him attempt to sidearm the tiny missile toward the water.

“Good on you, kid,” I thought. It was his best throw of the day.

My wife took me by the arm and led me away. “None of your business,” she said.

My wife knows me well. I wanted more than anything to help this young mother understand that if she really wanted to make her children safe, confident, and capable of handling life, she had to let them live. Her sons needed to learn that if they stood on wet rocks on the shore they might fall in and get wet.

They had to learn for themselves that throwing stones at animals is stupid. Seagulls have been dodging rocks for a long time, so it’s tougher to hit one than it looks. Also, if you actually manage to hit one, you’ll likely feel bad about the whole thing. So why bother?

Finally, these boys needed to learn how to throw a rock.

I wanted to tell the mom all of this, but I took my wife’s advice and walked away.

Still, the episode came back to me the other day as I sat on the deck at our local recreation center pool. My three-year-old granddaughter was in the water for her weekly swimming lesson.

Sitting next to me was the mother of another little girl in the class.

“How did your granddaughter learn to get her face wet when she jumps off the side into the water?” the mother asked. “My daughter won’t jump if you don’t catch her and keep her head out of the water.”

I explained that when my granddaughter was two, I took her into the pool and she wanted to jump off the side. That time, and every time after, when she jumped, I let her go right under water before I pulled her up. The first couple of times, she was a little shocked, but I always got her up right away and made a big fuss about how brave she was. Now she expected to get her face wet.

The mother looked horrified. “Really?”

I shrugged. “I sort of figured that she needed to learn that if you jump into deep water, your head is going to go under. I just make sure that, right now, I get her to the surface before she swallows any water.”

And maybe that’s what grandparents are for; to step aside at the right times and let children experience life.

Another case in point: If my granddaughter starts running down a grassy slope behind our house while wearing her favorite pink flip flops, I ask her once if she wants her other shoes, pointing out that they’re better for running. When she says no, I let her go.

Sure, I know she might fall, bum over teakettle. So what? She’ll almost certainly survive the event and unless she has the learning curve of a pigeon, she’ll learn something about running in flip flops.

No one wants a child hurt. But in a world where parents can become immobilized by fear, maybe a grandparent’s role is to help restore a little common sense.

We grew up in a very different world. We were shooed out of the house and told to “go play,” the only clear directive being to come in when the street lights came on. OK, it’s not the best strategy these days, but there was some wisdom in the approach.

Children need to pet dogs, climb trees and explore new places. They need to get wet jumping in puddles and go tumbling down grassy slopes with such abandon that it takes a few minutes to gather up the flip flops that they shouldn’t have been wearing in the first place.

My job as a grandparent is to add a little wisdom to their world and keep mom and dad from over reacting to every perceived threat or potential danger. It’s also to make certain that my grandchildren are safe and to make sure they survive to learn life’s lessons with the confidence they gain from that survival.

Through it all, it’s my job to make sure that they learn how to throw a rock.

Tim Collins is a writer and freelance journalist living and working in Victoria. He also helps to raise a gloriously headstrong granddaughter who fancies herself a princess. According to Tim, she may be right.