My daughter gashed her forehead open, and it made me think

Yesterday, I was standing in the kitchen talking to my mother when there came a thud from the living room, where my four-year-old daughter Maya was playing. [Warning: this post describes a bloody injury received by a little girl.]

It was not a terribly loud or otherwise remarkable thud, but the crying that followed was unmistakably the sound of a frightened little girl, in a lot of pain. I raced in to find Maya rounding the couch, headed my way, with a deep crimson spot of blood taking up much of the real estate between her eyebrows.

I scooped her up and carried her to the kitchen, grabbing a dish towel from a drawer on the way. I sat her on the counter and dabbed at he blood so I could see what I was working with, and enough of it spattered down onto the counter that I was already pretty sure we would be heading to the ER for a stitch or two.

I don’t know what I was hoping or expecting to see, but it wasn’t this: a long slice yawning open in the skin between her eyebrows, deeper than I would have guessed possible in what I’d always taken for a mostly bony area. I was in essence looking inside the skin of her forehead, and, although I could see that this was not a truly serious, life-or-limb sort of injury, the sight of it was deeply disquieting, and I wish I could now erase that sight from my memory.

That said, I am in a reflective mood this morning, and I find I can say that I feel confirmed in my basic belief that there is probably much more of a downside than an upside to trying too hard to eliminate risk in a child’s life.

This isn’t my belief alone, of course. An increasingly large chorus of child psychologists and other authorities have been arguing that children need and in fact benefit from engaging in play that—within reason—presents them with risks to navigate. For example, writing in Slate in 2012, Dan Kois summarized the work of a pair of Norwegian researchers who had published a paper advocating that children must be allowed to engage in what they termed “risky play” or risk psychological damage that will affect the later course of their lives in ways that typical childhood injuries do not:

“Indeed [writes Kois], there’s a new school of thought suggesting that contra my monkey-bar concern, more challenging—even dangerous—playgrounds might be better for children than safer, simpler ones. Two Norwegian researchers, Leif Kennair and Ellen Sandseter, recently wrote a paper advocating “risky play.” They argue that children who aren’t given the chance to negotiate difficult physical challenges might grow up more fearful than children who risk (relatively minor) injury and make it through. The occasional broken bone, twisted ankle, or knocked-out tooth may be traumatic, but those injuries are “species normal”—that is, the kinds of injuries children have suffered throughout human history without any permanent damage.”

Maya’s experience yesterday afternoon is an interesting case study in this regard.

Here we have a girl who takes gymnastics lesson, regularly plays on playground structures that the little signs warn are for older children, rides a bike with training wheels that is probably a little too big for her, insists on climbing without assistance in and out of a high-sided, cast-iron clawfoot bath tub, and in general engages in all the other fate-tempting that children seem programmed to do.

And what brought her to the ER for the first time? We actually aren’t sure exactly what happened, but so far it seems that she fell off of one well-padded piece of living-room furniture onto another piece of furniture that—beyond being well-padded—was purchased partly in specific response to the common warnings about how dangerous actual coffee tables are to small children.

So of course I’ll keep making her wear a helmet on that bike, and of course I’ll step in when the balance seems to be tipping away from “species normal” to “catastrophic.” But otherwise I’m going to do my best to make sure that this accident doesn’t loom larger in Maya’s head than it should. I want her to get back on that bike, those playground structures, that balance beam.

After all, although she hasn’t yet 100-percent agreed with my career plans for her, scaredy-cats don’t make good rescue helicopter pilots.

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