My little nephew started crawling the other day. When I watched the video clip of him, I saw so much of L. at that age--same big, blue eyes, same wide grin, same fluff of hair. L. was an avid crawler. He started at 7 months and was so focused and purposeful about it that it was a sheer delight to watch him scoot in record speed across the floor. I worried, though, as soon as he perfected his crawl. Would he pry a socket cover off and stick his drooly fingers in the outlet? Would he find a stray cord, or some choking hazard lying unnoticed in some crevice? I got down on all fours each day and would survey the living room, scanning the corners for hidden dangers. One morning he poked at a covered plug in the bedroom, and I caught him feeling the edge of it with a curious finger.
"On no, no, no!" I said, maybe a little too abruptly. But I had recently read a parenting book that advised parents not to let their guard down, and rely too much on safety gadgets.
Make verbal corrections, the article advised. Teach your children about danger, and don't let a plastic latch do the job for you.
L. looked at me, eyes wide with surprise, and promptly burst into tears.
I felt terrible, although l learned quickly that L. would continue to cry almost every time we corrected him, and at times when we hadn't meant to correct him, but he'd misinterpreted our tone. But I was flooded with guilt, suddenly, for making my small baby cry; for having inserted that sharp-edged-with-fear tone into my voice. I gathered him onto my lap, and felt like crying myself. How could I keep him safe? How could I teach him about crossing the street, or hot stoves, or bathroom cleaners, or chokable toys? How could I do it?
I'm so sorry, I whispered to him. I'm so sorry I have to protect you from the world.
Yesterday, as I sat in the carpool line waiting for T.'s school to let out, a line of about six cars turned into the little park near T.'s school. They parked cars all akimbo, windows down, music thudding out across the parking lot. Boys emerged--high school boys, all long legs and torsos. They weather was balmy--a preview of the spring to come, and they proceeded to strip down to their boxers in front of everybody as they donned lacrosse gear. They were loud and obnoxious and filled with self-conscious coolness, the way high school kids often are. And their cars were too nice for them, I thought. Too fast. Too big.
In the past week or so, two local high school kids, at two different schools, lost their lives in cars. One girl was killed when the driver--a fellow teenager who'd had too much to drink--hit a tree. Another was killed when her older friend (another teenager) lost control of her SUV and smashed into a guardrail. Maybe they'd been talking, the music pumping. Feeling invulnerable the driver gunned the accelerator, and the SUV spun out of control.
"Why are these kids driving?" Scott asked me that night, when we heard the news.
I don't know why they are. But I know there are no easy answers, no formula you can follow that will guide your child safely through life to the other end. You can teach your child everything you can about safe and responsible driving, and they can still end up lifeless, trapped underneath a horrible mess of mangled metal and guardrail. I do know now, with a son who is caught halfway between childhood and the teenage years, that the plug covers and baby gates and cabinet latches and stove guards really did give me a false sense of security. That was the easy part of this parenting business. I know this now. There are no safety gadgets to steer your child through those teenage years; the times when winter lets up for a day, and the siren call of spring seems close by, and your child is itching to be free, to drive himself to lacrosse practice, or home from school or a party; when she's thrilled to push her foot down a little too hard on the accelerator pedal and feels that adrenalin rush that comes from speed and youth.
I would childproof the world, if I could. Instead, in the end, all we parents have are hopes and prayers and words, just like the parenting book said.