Accidents Happen: Why Parents Still Need To Let Kids Take Risks

The only thing I knew for sure in my new life as a parent was that I would never be able to guarantee my child’s safety. To believe otherwise was pure arrogance.

When my daughter was a newborn, and I spent about half of each night awake with her, slowly and uncomfortably breastfeeding her back to sleep, I played a sinister game with myself called “What Would I Do?”

It was a simple game. All it entailed was imagining the most horrible scenarios I could—a murderer at our front door topped the list because, well, my imagination was rather stifled by post-caesarean exhaustion—and asking myself what I would do to protect my daughter from harm.

Would I take a bullet for her?

A knife to the gut?

A stranger’s penis in my labor-battered vagina?

Would I let myself be strangled, the room blurring as it faded to black, my baby screaming as I lost consciousness?

If I got the chance, would I shoot the intruder (you know, with the gun I didn’t have)? Cave their skull with a cast iron pan? Would I run them over with my car again and again until there was nothing but bloody pulp smeared on the driveway?

And then, worst of all, what if I had to make a choice: my daughter or someone else I loved?

Would I sacrifice my best friend?

My mother?

My husband?

These imaginings were powerful enough to render me gasping and crying as I lay in bed with my beautiful baby, and that’s because the answer was always the same: Yes, I would.

The knowledge of how much I’d give up to save my daughter’s life—my body, my family, whole chunks of my own humanity—tore me apart inside, and none of it was even happening, or likely to happen. Still, I was changed. My daughter’s birth had remade me into someone capable of once unthinkable violence and sacrifice.

Her birth toppled me in other ways, too. My husband and I had taken classes at our local hospital on everything from infant care to breastfeeding to babywearing, and yet, when we brought Benna home, my hands shook through even the most basic tasks: changing her diaper, clipping her into her car seat, and especially, wrapping her in the long piece of fabric designed to free my hands while binding her securely to my chest. Ha. She burrowed her face so far into the pockets of fabric that my hands stayed occupied, repositioning her, obsessively checking her breathing.

My father died suddenly at age 63, just a year before Benna was born, so I went into parenthood disabused of a narrative where we all grow old before we die. Having compulsively read about miscarriage after my positive pregnancy test, I’d white-knuckled my way through a high-risk pregnancy, and though I’d expected to feel relief once my daughter was safely out of my body—the place that had threatened her for nine months—all I wanted was to shove her back in. My body hadn’t exactly served her well, but the world? The world was a death trap. Even those imagined murderers, I realized, could kill me and then kill her.

The only thing I knew for sure in my new life as a parent was that I would never be able to guarantee my child’s safety. To believe otherwise was pure arrogance.

And yet, we live in a parenting culture exactly that arrogant, with more non-negotiables cropping up every year. No screen time ever. No processed foods or refined sugar. No meltdowns in public places, especially not restaurants or airplanes. No going to playgrounds alone, even if they abut your house. In fact, don’t even let them play on your locked, screened-in, Tefloned back porch unattended. I could keep going with this list for about five more pages, and that’s not even counting the contradictory expectations, like never putting your kid in daycare while also somehow contributing financially to your household, but I’m tired. I mean physically and existentially tired. Parenting and working full-time have stripped me of most of my available resources—time, money, a sizable piece of self-confidence, and a once far more unfettered empathy. Because parenting has also given me new clarity. I now see a hierarchy of problems, and I’ve got very little to give bottom-rung stuff.

The judgment of the Internet should really be bottom-rung stuff. We’ve all seen the judgmental meme about Harambe the gorilla and “the bitch” (mother) who wasn’t watching her son. And we’ve seen the wrath aimed at the parents of the poor 2-year-old boy dragged to his death by an alligator near a Walt Disney resort hotel. There were “No Swimming” signs, the Internet screamed! Idiot, negligent parents!

Like probably all parents who read these stories and felt their hearts sink into their stomachs remembering the last time their toddlers ran toward traffic, or climbed onto a kitchen counter, or jumped head-first into a public fountain (um, today…), I want desperately to ignore these instances of virtual stoning and carry on raising my girl, but I can’t. I can’t ignore the pervasive lack of compassion for parents and the baffling denial of accidents because those anonymous commenters might just be my own neighbors, phone in hand to call CPS the next time Benna shakes loose from my grasp.

Or worse, the next time I make the calculated decision to let her go.

Have you ever seen a water-loving toddler near a body of water even as small as a rain puddle? MUST. SPLASH. And now that it’s finally summer in New England, a countdown of swimming days stretches before us, each one begging Benna to make the most of this brief, magical time. Lawn sprinklers lazily waving back and forth like a beckoning hand? Run through them! Overflowing water fountain at the playground? Make a mud castle! Oh, there’s a “no swimming” sign at the pond? It will be winter before we know it, and a car could hit us on the way home, and I have a swim diaper in my purse. Okay. Go ahead and live, my girl.

Empathy is really a product of imagination, and I can picture those parents at the Disney resort, their 2-year-old on stimulation overload and thrilled by a little wading area. On vacation, everything glistens with novelty and the promise of memory-making fun. Yes, the sign says not to swim. But he’s not alone—they’re at a resort, for crying out loud—and there are only so many years that a shallow pool of water will contain so much joy.

It’s not negligence or stupidity that makes parents say yes in these allegedly questionable situations. The lesson of arrogance is, after all, humility. Humility teaches us that our children are designed to test every rule, and our job as parents is not to stop them from testing—for what many-armed Herculean person could stop their children in every rule-breaking scenario anyway, and how many rules prove harmful, or arbitrary, or based on inequities we should be working to correct?—but to teach them how to weigh the risk of breaking rules.

The other day, at the playground, Benna made friends with an older child who wanted to show off her tree climbing skills to my rapt toddler. I’ve written before about why we should let girls take physical risks, but this girl’s father didn’t know I secretly approved of his allowing her to scamper up the knotted branches of the world’s most perfect climbing tree. As his daughter hoisted herself up, he looked around the playground in apprehension, and then apologetically explained to me that he hasn’t been able to stop his kid from climbing.

“She’s obviously good at it,” I said, watching her swing gleefully from a low branch.

“She is,” he agreed, “but you never know what people will think.”

What happened to that sweet boy at the Disney resort was a horrible tragedy. With shattering clarity, I can see myself at the water, watching helplessly as my child disappears beneath the surface. I think of this story every time I let Benna wade into the clear, warm, inviting water of the creek at the arboretum—no, there are no alligators there, but that’s the point: Drowning rarely happens via alligator. More common is the bathtub drowning, the pool drowning, the drowning at the family lake while relatives crowd the shoreline, watching helplessly.

Many parents understandably avoid news stories about children dying, and this year, with the migrant crisis in Syria alone, there’s been an avalanche of those stories. Many also avoid media that show atrocities against children, like when Game of Thrones aired the truly agonizing scene of Shireen Baratheon burning at the stake. I’ve sobbed my way through such stories and such scenes, futilely wishing with all my heart that they didn’t happen, but I still click, I still read, I still watch anyway. Part of me feels indebted to those children and their parents; I feel a responsibility to bear witness to their suffering. But I also look because within these stories are important reminders that the world can be dangerous and cruel to children—and such cruelty must be exposed in order to be fought—and also that accidents can happen even with the most attentive, sheltering, hovering parenting. None of us are immune. And none of us should be held to a literally death-defying standard of raising kids.

None of us should feel so god-like. It’s too great a power with which to imbue a human being. Just look at Donald Trump.

I’m not saying to be careless. I’m not saying don’t take any precautions. But if you want children to grow up capable of understanding and responding to risk, then you are going to have to let them take risks. That’s where life’s greatest happiness exists anyway, in the rewards of hearts open enough to love, to travel, to be wrong, to fall down, to fail, to be alone, to swim, to swing.

Amy Monticello is an assistant professor at Suffolk University. Her work has appeared in many literary journals, and at Salon, The Rumpus, and The Nervous Breakdown. She currently lives in Boston, MA, with her husband and daughter. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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