As we brushed the sand off our boogie boards and loaded them into the minivan, the sun hung low in the sky preparing to kiss the Pacific good night. Our shadows stretched out long on the asphalt as our whole crew stole one last glance to what was the capstone to our glorious week long vacation in San Diego. Wed have to make the long drive home tomorrow, but I knew the kids would sleep well tonight.

We reveled in our salty, sun-kissed exhaustion right up until all eight of us showered off and the hot water petered out at the hotel. Thats when we saw them. Little sun burned backs. Three of them. Not rosy. Not “a little color.” Im talkin the kind of burns that make passersby say “Ouch” out loud.

Argh! I knew we shouldve reapplied! I knew it was a mistake when that one took off his rash guard! Did the sand slough off all that spray? I never should have trusted that new sunscreen brand on sale. I shouldve stuck with my tried and true favorite!

But thats not the worst part. After we had been home a couple of days and the burns had simmered down to golden tans, a neighbor asked my eight-year-old son, “So, how was your trip to California? Did ya have fun?”

“Not really,” he mumbled. “My back got burned!!” and in a flourish, he whipped off his shirt to reveal the peeling remnants of his clash with the California sun. The neighbor gave him the sympathy he craved with a stage caliber performance of shock and horror. But inside, I wilted.

“Not really” he says? What about all the late night giggles in the hotel room, all the sand castle moats that were no match for high tide, all the roller coaster rides we screamed on again and again and again so we could keep making silly faces when the camera involuntarily snapped our pictures? What about the moment when Mr. “not really” got downright misty when he saw the entire world of Star Wars built purely out of Lego bricks. I believe his exact words as he gazed across the manicured acre of starships and alien droids were, “This is the happiest day of my life!”

Eight days! Eight days of getting six small children not only to the beach, but to Sea World, the zoo, Legoland and other so-called happy places on earth. Eight days of eating out, eating in and eating churros. Eight days of cousins, souvenirs and petting dolphins. The days of work preparing to leave, the days of recuperation when we returned–the inside of our minivan too gross for words…and all that money! (Fun aint cheap you know, especially times eight!)

Howd eight days of fun in the sun get blotted out by a little sunburn? How did all those memories evaporate just like that? And he had a salty smile plastered to his face that entire day at the beach. The sunburn was the very last thing to happen. It was just the punctuation mark, not the whole sentence.

Thats when it occurred to me just how important punctuation is, not only to good grammar, but to parenting too.

In a childs eyes, can a whole days fun be wiped out if I loose my temper at bedtime? Does it matter how cheerful I am at breakfast if Im nothing more than a sarcastic waitress by dinner? Does it matter how awesome the science project turned out, if I completely lost my patience with my student during the last 24 hours before it was due?

I know I can go from Mary Poppins to Cruella deVil in the short time it takes to put breakfast on the table to getting them out the door. It doesnt matter how fluffy my pancakes were if my last words are, “How should I know where your backpack is??!!! Ugh! Just find it!!”

Punctuation. I put so much work and sweat into each day with my children. I try so hard to be a deliberate mother. Id hate to see any of my efforts be swept away by bad punctuation.

I guess what Im trying to say is, I need to be sure to kiss my children goodnight. I must take the time to listen to their concerns in those precious minutes before sleep. I must be sure to keep my cool when we are running late so that our time together in the car can be a positive punctuation mark. And most importantly, I must, must, must reapply their sunscreen every 2-3 hours especially after swimming and/or excessive exercise.

Read more by Margaret Anderson at www.jamsandpickles.wordpress.com.