My grandson cut his finger yesterday. It was the kind of cut that only comes from a nice sharp pair of scissors in the hands of an 11 year-old boy who’s not sensible enough to open a pack of sausage biscuits without a weapon, and not patient enough to make sure his fingers are out of the way before he begins the assault. I’m pretty sure he learned a lesson. And the blood loss only made him a little sleepy, so I think he’s okay.
It’s funny, when he was a toddler we had the whole house child-proofed. Or so we thought. We had outlet covers, cabinet latches, doorknob covers, folding gates, swing locks, electric beams, silent alarms, magnetic force fields, and four pairs of eyes watching his every move. Not that it did a lot of good, but it made us feel better and kept a few people employed at the child-proof products factory.
We did everything we could to make sure he was safe. But he had a way of finding the weakness in any situation. Most kids do. Take the coffee table, for instance. I built it myself, with rounded corners, soft edges, and non-toxic finish. And I made it out of soft pine so it wouldn’t be as hard as steel. Thank God.
You see, our little angel had a way of venting his frustration more physically than verbally. Whenever he got upset, he’d slam his forehead into the couch cushion. It was funnier than it should have been, and reasonably safe. Until one day when the couch was full, so he smacked his head into the coffee table instead. We were sure he’d knocked a few screws loose. I think he hurt his head, too.
He was the kind of kid who didn’t miss a thing – he watched, and he learned. I remember getting a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach one day as he sat in his car seat studying my every move as I put the key in the ignition, started my truck, put it in gear, and drove down the street. It was like seeing an escaped convict sneaking around the house with a camera and notepad.
Finally it occurred to me that all this child-proofing really wasn’t necessary. All I had to do was take one of the wheels off his walker. He got plenty of exercise, but stayed in a small circle in the middle of the room. You just have to be creative. Okay, he broke the walker and I was too lazy to fix it. What can I say? Some of mankind’s greatest inventions came from destructive toddlers.
The thing is, none of it really worked anyway. The folding gates were no match for his Little Tikes car, and he figured out pretty quick that if he smacked those doorknob covers just right with his plastic hammer, they’d split open like a sun-dried tennis ball. And the cabinet latches were such a pain we just emptied the cabinets and put everything in the pantry. We put the bad stuff out of his reach, but a determined toddler can make a pretty effective ladder out of boxes and pans.
The only thing worth the money was the outlet covers. They worked. They worked really well. They fit so tight, you couldn’t get one out with a jackhammer. Oh, I finally figured it out. But guess who was standing right behind me the whole time? I came into the living room the next day and caught him slipping a screwdriver in sideways as he uttered a few words that would make a sailor blush. Monkey see, monkey do.
It wasn’t the only time he got me in trouble. He spent a lot of time in his high chair because his playpen was full of stuff we’d taken away from him. By the time he was three, it was filled with toys, old shoes, mangled outlet covers, a baseball bat, and a complete set of steak knives. So when we needed a break from chasing him around, we put him in the high chair. How could he get into anything from there?
Well, his high chair sat next to the microwave cart. He couldn’t reach the microwave, but as it turns out he was able to reach my bottle of Jim Beam. He carefully removed the label, as if that somehow made it legal, then knocked down a couple of shots. Well, okay, more like a thimble-full. But at that age, it doesn’t take much. All I can say is thank God his mother hadn’t yet discovered Jagermeister. It’s more expensive and the hangover would have been a lot worse.
Now I know some of you are probably shaking your head, wondering what kind of grandparent would leave liquor where a child could reach it. In my defense, he wasn’t in his high chair when I put it there. I guess I could have measured his arm and made sure nothing was within reach, but kids’ arms stretch. It’s a medically-proven fact.
Also, think back to when you were a kid. Did your parents child-proof the house? Did they hide everything you weren’t allowed to play with? Mine didn’t. Instead of outlet covers, my mom had a flyswatter. It served pretty much the same purpose. Later in life I learned it had another use – swatting flies. But it kept me out of trouble. For the most part.
I still have a pretty vivid memory of the day I found two metal suitcase keys on a chain and decided they were the perfect size to fit into each side of a 110-volt outlet. Oh, they didn’t stay there for long. Neither did I. Mom found me on the other side of the room with crossed eyes. The outlet was burned and the fuse was blown. We never did find the keys.
The point is, I survived. And so did my grandson. We all did. There may have been scrapes and bruises, maybe a few cut fingers or broken bones. But despite what we’re led to believe by an industry that thrives on making parents nervous, the overwhelming majority of us come through childhood with a full set of arms, legs, fingers and toes, and two functional eyes. Go figure.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t try to keep kids safe. I just think some people take it to an extreme. It’s one thing to cover outlets and block their access to household chemicals. That’s prudent and responsible. It also feeds their imagination as they try to devise ways to get around those safeguards. And believe me, they will.
But sometimes we’re so preoccupied with safety that we forget to let them experience the magic of childhood. Kids learn about their world by exploring, and sometimes that means making a mess or playing with something that’s not an officially approved toy. Sometimes it means taking a fall, and some of those falls hurt. It’s all part of growing up.
I think as adults, we need to spend a little more time sitting at the kids’ table. We need to remember what it’s like to build a fort, to play in the sprinkler, to make up new games, or tromp through the woods. It’s amazing what a good old-fashioned pillow fight can do to rejuvenate your youth. Try it.
And in the process, we’re teaching our kids that it’s acceptable to have fun, within established boundaries. We’re teaching them that play isn’t just for kids. We’re teaching them to use their imagination and explore new things. And that means taking a few risks. More importantly, it means letting them take a few risks.
Nothing in life is completely safe, including life itself. We can shield our kids from the obvious dangers. But if we try to shield them from everything we’ll just breed a generation of grumpy adults with no sense of adventure. And looking around, I’d say we already have enough of those.
Copyright 2011 – Dave Glardon