"Moooooom! I fall off back a booooooat!" Lamb bawled to me when I reached them. My heart dropped into my boots. My hands started sweating.
"What?!!" I asked. Tom told me later my eyes were as big as plates.
"He fell in the water," Tom said, observing my heartstruck reaction and smiling to reassure me. "He's fine, but he's pretty chilly, aren't you, Buddy?" He handed the sopping bundle to me and I raced Lamb to the camper. Tom said they had the motor cut so Lamb had been standing next to him on the back of the boat, "helping" Tom fish; in the span of three seconds Lamb had stumbled, tripped, and fallen over the edge, head first. Tom had immediately yanked him out by his life jacket and stripped off his sodden clothes and wrapped him in a coat to keep him warm. And although my breakfast was lurching in my stomach, I observed that Lamb did seem fine, if a little wide-eyed and chilly. I held him in my lap in front of the heater and squeezed his clammy feet. Soon he was recounting his mishap with horrifying delight. "I fall off back a boat, Mom!" he'd said proudly, beaming.
It took me a while to let my reaction to the accident fully form. For the next few hours I kept thinking, "Maybe Tom should have been paying better attention. They should have been sitting down. Next time I'll keep Lamb with me." But... really? I can't insist that Lamb is only ever under my supervision. Tom is a careful and conscientious dad, and even though it would be easy to blame him because he was in charge of Lamb on the boat, he wouldn't put Lamb in harm's way any more than I would.
Any more than I do. If I'm honest, I'll admit I do. Every day.
That feels a bit weird, admitting that I let my kid do dangerous things. It feels weird admitting it to myself, even. I'm not saying I let the poor thing play in traffic or keep knives in his toybox or jump off the roof. But I do let him do things that aren't "toddler-safety approved," things that I know make other parents cringe. I let him push his chair up the counter while I'm cooking, for example, knowing full well that he might fall off the chair, or burn his hand on the stove, or poke his finger with my knife. But he doesn't. And I'm convinced that he doesn't get hurt doing those things because I don't protect him from being hurt. I warn him: "This pan is hot. Don't touch it, or you'll burn your fingers, and it will hurt." But those words mean nothing to him until he reaches out a finger to poke the hot pan and it does burn his finger. Now he understands my warning. And the next time he's playing sous chef, he asks me, "Is this pan hot, Mom? Is the stove on?" before he goes near it. And when Tom tells him, "Don't touch the woodstove, it's hot," he pulls his hand back, because he understands hot and burn. Now he has experience from which to form a judgement. The same goes for the boat, now: he has a respect for the edge of the boat that he couldn't have had before, and he knows that if he's not careful, he could fall in.
Am I calling other parents bad parents for being more cautious with their kids? Of course not. Keeping out kids safe is our job as parents. And the thought of our kids getting hurt, or worse, is the stuff of our nightmares from the day our babes are conceived. I'll be the first to admit that it feels terribly wrong sometimes to let my own son get hurt in these small ways, or to let him experience fear I know I could save him from. It goes against everything I feel as his mom. But I'll also be the first to admit that I can't keep him safe from every danger, I can't control every outcome. Heck, I can't even watch him every second to be sure he isn't taking a risk. (Even as transcendent as our love for our children is, we are still human, still so infuriatingly limited in our power.) But I can help him develop trust in my warnings, and I can help him develop his judgement through experience.
A good friend once complained to me that her inlaws were so worried about her baby falling that they refused to let her play near the single step on their patio. They lifted Kaitlyn up and down the steps each time so she wouldn't fall. Her husband followed suit, proud to be keeping their baby so safe, and even going so far as to suggest that my friend was being a negligent mom because she didn't ferry Kaitlyn up and down the stair. That single step isn't the only step in the house; there is also a steep flight of stairs off the entry. To Kaitlyn, both stairs are the same: a place where someone will hold her or catch her if she ventures there. She'll walk off the one step onto their concrete patio without hesitation, unprepared for the drop or to stop herself from falling, and someone will have to swoop across the patio to catch her before she lands on her beautiful face. And she'll walk off the top of the full flight of stairs with the same disregard for the consequences because she knows that she will be protected. She can't understand the danger until she's experienced danger, and isn't falling off one step and learning to navigate it far better than a full-story tumble? Whether or not her inlaws or DFS agree, I say let her fall off a stair, so she can protect herself from the rest of the stairs.
I still feel a little funny telling you all of this, especially since modern parenting information seems to be all about how to prevent the "experiences" I'm advocating. But if we bought every safety device, every table bumper or baby gate or yard mat, if we kept our kids in a squishy bubble of harmless toys and equipment, if we made sure they never injured themselves... we would be relieved of our own nightmares as parents (they would be safe!!!), and we would be failing them. We can't protect them, not entirely. We can only teach them.
So, I let Lamb climb a short ladder in the yard, so he can be scared when he feels wobbly at the top. I let him "wash dishes" with me even when there are poky forks and sharp cheese graters under the suds, so he knows to handle them with caution. I let go of his hands in the shallow end of the pool so he knows what it means if he falls in the water without me. I let him stand on a chair to help me in the kitchen. I let him stir hot food on the stove while I hold the handle of the pan. And when he backs down the steps to the tallest slide in the park because he feels like he is going to fall, I'm reassured that these "unsafe" experiences are keeping him safer than any warning I could ever give or boundary I could ever impose.