Bionic Mamas

you're not losing a vagina, you're gaining a son

Falling Lessons


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.

Can you find the toddler hidden in this picture?  Me neither.

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.

29 thoughts on “Falling Lessons

  1. Before I had kids, I once saw a toddler sticking his head under a metal fence (bars, not chain link; too low to get stuck under it) with a parent standing next to him saying “Yes! Ow!” At the time I thought it was cruel. Now I think any lesson that doesn’t end in (much) bleeding is a successful one. I do still say “please don’t step in the dog poop” though. My mom friends are far more likely to say “you’re fine, you’re fine” than “oh you poor delicate dear”. And we all carry band-aids.

    Bug tipped over the chair he was standing on, the other week, and got a remarkable array of bruises. We had just said “if you lean the chair will fall” and were remarkably unsympathetic. I let him cook with me, even if it’s hot enough to burn him (though not if it’s hot enough to really hurt him) and he cuts veggies with a real knife and uses a glass cup and all.

    As for rusty tools, that’s why DTaP shots were invented, I say.

  2. And I have no idea what to make of the sort of person who, say (I’ve witnessed this multiple times) dresses a toddler in a white lacy frock and THEN takes the poor child to the playground and THEN prevents the child from doing anything that might ruin the frock (ie, from doing anything at all). Naturally, attention slackens for a microsecond and the toddler attempts a run and falls and this is a Giant Disaster because the frock, OMG. What is the kid learning, apart from ‘moving is bad’ and ‘I am not as important as my clothes’ and ‘I mustn’t do anything fun – fun is for staring wistfully at.’? And then the parents all praise each other for how smartly turned-out their kids are. As far as I”m concerned, as long as the child has been washed recently and doesn’t actually have rats-nest hair, a small child with grass-stains and torn trousers and leaf-litter stuck all over is exactly and perfectly turned out for a playdate at the local park. FFS. Etc. Rock on.

    • And what is wrong with rats-nest hair, I ask?

      • I turned out all right, mostly.

        (Though really, I could have done with a lot more help with my hair — enforced self-sufficiency can go too far, too young — but that is a set of traumas and hang-ups for another day.)

      • Well, live rats can smell peculiar and startle passers-by…

        Mere tangles, of course, are a sign of a highly evolved parent-child relationship and a mind set on higher things. In evidence of this, I present my own hair, which has never not been tangled, but we all cheered up immensely when my mother stopped fighting it.

  3. Your garden is gorgeous! I am very jealous.

    Totally agree with you about the falling thing. We took Bub to the park with my folks and I just let her bomb down the slide head first – without holding onto her – and my parents were horrified. When they put her down it, they made a big show of slowing her and holding her hands…

    She falls off stuff all the time at home – our bed, the sofa, the footrest etc. She just gets up afterwards and grins, unless she’s properly hurt in which case she gets a cuddle. The only thing I’m a bit worried about is our open fireplace – we’ve got a guard up in front of it right now because every time we lit it over winter, she’d try and touch the shiny red and I had visions of her falling in head first.

    • Having grown up with a wood stove as our main source of heat (and stories of a cousin who died from fireplace burns), I enthusiastically applaud whatever it takes to keep small children away from fire. There is time enough to learn that lesson at a less impulsive, more verbal age. Fire is, as my mother would say, a good friend and a bad enemy. And damn, is it a lousy babysitter.

      • Ooo! We also had a wood stove as our ONLY source of heat during part of my life, and this one time, my mother set her hair on fire, and my brother put her out! He was, like, six. How’s that for child rearin’!

      • I burnt my arse on the woodstove when I was 11. An age, of course, when I was rather expected to know better than to get dressed in front of the stove and press my naked rear to it to hurry the warming process.

        Random anecdotage to no actual purpose.

    • Don’t be too jealous — only 4×6 feet of it is mine to plant, and the rest wouldn’t be half so lovely if it were entirely mine. It sure is a blessing to have around. Community gardens, FTW!

  4. I appreciate this.

    I think of myself as a pretty cautious mama in most situations. But, with LG at least, we have always negotiated a “safe” distance for her to roam on her own at parks and such. My friend A. has a daughter 2 years younger, and she’s always looking at LG saying things like, “hmmm…so by the time they are 6, you can let them go off like that…”

    Mostly it’s not me telling LG how far she can go but just feeling our way. She roams further every year….

    • The Bean seems not to have come with the “maintain reasonable distance” setting working properly, which drives me nuts. I try to be laid back, but I wish he had some instinct to stay within say, 100 feet of me when we are outside in public. We tried to test out the other day, see how far he would go and how long he would be out of sight, but eventually we had to give it up, as his limits clearly exceed ours. (Meanwhile, the other kid his age was happily playing in our immediate area, coming back to check every so often, just like the books say.)

  5. I actually have a job in which I teach families to let children fall! I said to a father last week, “I think you need to let him [an eighteen month old] fall down a little bit so he can learn how to advocate for himself, assess his own “injury,” problem solve, and self soothe.” While some children who are always “protected” from bumps may grow up to seek more dangerous environments like you mentioned, others may become painfully afraid of taking chances (ever teach an adult to ski? way harder than teaching a child!), while others may hurt themselves when they do take chances because they never learned “how” to problem solve or coordinate a “fall.”

    I read an article on this a few years ago as well. This isn’t it, but this is a pretty good one!

    • Nice article! Thanks.

      I am SO adult #2 in that scheme, by the way. I think I may have just come that way from the factory, sadly. Nothing about the way my parents behaved at the ages I can remember makes me think they were overprotective when I was small. I do wish I were a bit bolder.

  6. Ah, what a lovely post. My husband tends to be more cautious, whereas I’m all about the “smashing fingers is how you learn to close a drawer without smashing fingers.” It’s hard to watch your child get hurt, but it’s also insane to try to prevent it all. I worry that I’m a bit too willing to let her take risks, but I guess that probably means I’m doing it right–worried but still standing my ground. My pediatrician recently saw Bun Bun and said that he was pleased to see her with so many bruises and scratches. He worries when he sees a baby in the summertime who is all pristine, because he knows the baby isn’t spending any time outside.

    Your community garden is so gorgeous! It looks like a perfect wonderland for a child. I have this crazy passion for the shade cast by garden plants and the little nooks under them. If I were a child, I’d spend all day hiding under a tomato plant with a good book. Uh, anyway, I’m glad he’s got that experience and that you have the wisdom to let him make the most of it. And hey, it’s not too late to tell the dirt lady what a fucking genius she is.

    • Fear not; Dirt Lady has been exuberantly praised. Possibly I freaked her out a little, in my exuberance.

      The biggest danger of the garden, really, is blood loss from the ravenous mosquitoes. At least the Bean will be guaranteed some good facial welts at his next peds appointment. (I have to admit that I’m glad he didn’t have too many bruises for adoption day; courts make me nervous.)

  7. We have a very similar perspective as you and have also had parents at parks make comments to us about how we should protect The Bean more. To each their own, I say. As long as he’s not getting seriously injured I would consider it a learning experience.

  8. I sometimes tell other parents nearby that we are “unattachment” parents just to see the horror on their faces when Curly’s attempting something dangerous (but not so dangerous that he’ll REALLY injury himself). Bumps and bruises, cuts and scrapes are all par for the course. I also ignore him half the time when he says “I can’t do this!” meaning “I’m trying to do something bigger kids are doing but I need you to help me”…because dude, if you’re too small to do it, then you are TOO SMALL TO DO IT FOR A REASON 🙂

  9. Mmm…playgrounds. I must have fallen a lot because I have a healthy fear of it now. My cousin just tells her kids to ‘shake it off’ when they hurt themselves, which looked a little mean at first, but now I think is brilliant.

  10. I am by nature a very very very cautious adult, and I can already tell I am going to have to fight my internal nay-sayers to allow E. room to explore and, yes, hurt himself. Thanks for the post reminding me how important that exploration is.

  11. It is hard to watch the turtles fall down (although given they each do it approximately 1,231,492 times a day, times TWO, you get inured pretty damn fast!) but I think I’m better at it than my wife. I’m very hands off. As evidenced by letting Tiny run down the run way and out of my sight to board the plane on Sunday morning. Dude. It’s a plane. How lost can he get? My wife was not impressed.

  12. P.S. Bug was cooking with me today on the stove and he totally burned his fingers. Just a little. Not badly enough to complain for more than five minutes, but, um… oops. Well, how else will he learn?

  13. When I was a kid, my parents pretty much let my brother and I figure the world out for ourselves. They were cautious with us – supervising, but at the same time giving us the space to learn. They knew pretty early on that my brother and I were quite different. He’s far more cautious than me, while I was always pushing the limits and usually not thinking things through before I did them. As a result, I often hurt myself… from scrapes and bruises to a greenstick fracture in my wrist. Dad often laughed at me because of the injuries I’d caused myself.

    As adults, the same holds true. I still don’t necessarily think things through. My brother does. He hurts himself through sport, I hurt myself through accidents. :p

    I do think that wrapping children in cotton wool is bad, don’t get me wrong. But at the same time, personality plays a part as well. To this day, if I proposed purchasing myself a motorbike or something, my father would be mightily concerned (and rightly so, I reckon I’d accidentally kill myself pretty quickly). Younger brother has had one for years, with Dad’s support. I’m 30, so I don’t know that it’ll ever change. I do, however, thank my parents for giving me the time and space to truly learn about the world.

    (And I’ve been reading your blog since before you fell pregnant, but I think this is my first comment, heh. Hi!)

  14. For the motherfucking win.
    (sorry to cuss in your comments)

  15. Yes yes a million times YES.

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