I took the Bean to the playground for half an hour yesterday. He came home with two bumps on his forehead, one of them scraped, a fair amount of grit on his face (I had already helped him clean out the stuff in his mouth), assorted tear-tracks on his cheeks, and a big smile.
In short, it was a successful trip.
I could have prevented all three big falls, and if I correctly understood the conversation the nannies on the bench were having about me, I should have. (If they weren’t talking about me — and I am 90% sure they were — they were talking about someone doing the same things I had just done.) They were particularly unimpressed with the idea of letting a young toddler climb the tallest piece of equipment alone only to watch him tumble from the highest platform to the middle one while I was on the ground, too far away to catch him.
If my goal at the playground were to eliminate falls and bumps (as it might well be if I had a parent employer to answer to), I’d agree, but in fact, I do not regret letting him climb up there, and I will do it again. He is a toddler, and falling down is his job.
My job is to keep him safe. When he was an infant, that meant making sure he was never going to fall and being there to catch him if he started to. (Not that I always succeeded: his very first successful proto-crawling was straight off the bed.) These days, as I see it, it means giving him the chance to make mistakes in a setting where mistakes aren’t fatal.
So I let him climb the tall equipment by himself. I guard the high drop-offs and stand ready to catch him if he goes flying off the end of a big slide, but otherwise, I am working on keeping my distance in the playground, letting him decide what he wants to climb up or dangle from. Most of the time, he moves in safe ways, and if I am surprised to find he is suddenly tall enough to lower himself down in a new place or strong enough to pull himself up when he changes his mind, that he can balance well enough to scale the steeper steps, he seems to know just what he can do. From time to time, he gets a little hurt, and if he doesn’t get up and carry on by himself, I pick him up and talk to him until he is ready again.
I read about a study some time ago on this topic, which I had hoped to link to here but can’t find. (And holy mother of pearl, did my attempts at finding it ever turn up nests of fear-mongering nonsense and ambulance-chasing slimeballs.) The gist was that going too far in keeping young children from ever being able to hurt themselves actually increased the likelihood of serious injury later in life, perhaps because children who don’t get hurt are less likely to develop an appropriate sense of personal vulnerability. A toddler with no such sense (or, as I like to put it, “a toddler”) may bump his head or even break a bone, but a teenager who hasn’t internalized the possibility of hurting himself has access to much more dangerous environments and might die.
Lest this post turn into “Tender Timebombs: How Taking Care Could…KILL YOUR CHILD,” let me say that I don’t advocate the kind of blindness to history that romanticizes the lives of two-year-olds who cook over open fires and so on (see: letters to the New Yorker editor in response to that spoiled children article making the rounds). I am glad that the playgrounds here have rubber under the equipment, and I did notice the maximum height the Bean could fall from and the material he would hit (3 feet-ish; wood) before choosing not to climb with him yesterday. At home, we are currently embroiled in another round of power struggles over his desire to climb into our windowsills: our windows are (per NYC law) barred, but not all windows are, and falling from that kind of height is not the kind of lesson you recover from.
Even outside, we aren’t always in playgrounds, of course, where physical risk tends to be mitigated (lest it be litigated, ya get me?); we also spend a fair amount of time in our community garden, which is beautiful and fun and not at all childproofed. There is a special box of dirt for toddlers to dig in (God bless the woman who pushed that addition through; I didn’t object at the time, but I didn’t Get It, either), but there are also rusty tools, unstable piles of brick and rubble, and more than a few shards of broken glass. Now that late summer is here and the plants are tall, I often can’t see exactly where the Bean is while simultaneously getting my own work done. So I don’t. He does his work of exploring and digging and climbing the uneven slate steps, and I do mine of watering and weeding and letting him go. I keep him away from the gate (cars being one of those one-time lessons), shut the shed door (lawnmowers, ditto), and remind him to be safe when he is near the bricks. I try not to worry, and sometimes I even succeed.
Trick Question! He was already back at the stairs.
The last time we were in the garden together, the woman with the bed next to mine was pruning her blackberry bush and consequently building a huge pile of prickly brush, which the Bean naturally found most alluring. She was worried about the Bean and clearly biting her tongue a bit at my not moving him away from it, so I did make him watch me put my finger near it and mime getting hurt. I expected that play to mollify her a little and have no effect on him whatsoever, but in fact he left the pile alone. I almost wish he hadn’t, since I still don’t know whether he understood me or not, and if he had pricked his finger, he’d have seen cause and effect. It’s not that I want my child to get hurt, you understand; it’s just that a pricked finger (or a bumped head or a scrape or two) is a very cheap way to learn a very valuable lesson.