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Saturday, June 04, 2011

How an injured child sent me into an existential crisis

Saturday, June 04, 2011 By

We're at the Columbia County Library when a little boy - about 7-years-old - injures himself at the splash pad. There are tears. Some shrieking. His knee and ankle are skinned, and he is distraught.

"Nooooo!" he shrieks at his dad, who is trying to rinse the cuts with cold water. "Get away from me!"

It's all I can do to keep from snapping my fingers at him and giving him a time-out. But his father is gentle, less authoritarian than I am.

"Hey," he crouches down next to his son. "Daddy used to do this all the time. It'll feel better soon."

"GO AWAY!" he shrieks. His father complies, retreating around the picnic table to let his son deal with it on his own.

After about a minute, he cries, "Uhhhhhh! Help meeeee!"

These are dramatics I would not tolerate from Emerson. Our motto is "No tears, no blood" for the simple reason that hysterics solve nothing - and she is prone to the dramatic. But I am touched by the loving response from both of his parents, even as the boy continues to direct his frustration and pain at them. He barks. They soothe.

I offer them the Ziploc bag of ice in our cooler. The boys shrieks at them. They back off again. Shortly, he calms. They try the ice.

"Get it off me!" he yells.

They comply. I tuck the bag back into the cooler and go back to my book, surreptitiously observing. After a few minutes, he asks to go play, and runs off.

Although not the tactic I have chosen, I am impressed with the calm and love with which they treat their children. And it reminds me of a time when my brother, about 7 years old, hurt himself while riding his bike in our neighborhood.

His leg skinned and bleeding from a scrape that covered most of his shin - certainly a painful injury - he lay on the couch. My mother and sister and I crowded around him with ice, towels, and Bactine.

"I hope I don't die!" he cried.

We laughed, and his involvement in the pain was broken. He grinned sheepishly through his tears. "I'm not going to die?" he asked. We assured him that dying from scrapes was not so common in the 1980s.

So we coddled him, but I don't coddle Emerson as much. What is the best way to handle these situations? Different techniques for different children? Or a blanket approach to each child? I don't know about anyone else, but I sometimes feel like each choice I make - whether to soothe her after an injury or help her to shake it off, for example - alters Emerson's future in some way. And that's a daunting sensation. But maybe that's what parents are supposed to feel.

How can we ever know if we're making the right choices? Is it in how the turn out as adults, or how they behave as children? Their ability to handle the day-to-day, or their relative grace under pressure? Their personalities and manners, or their professional accomplishments? And, of course, how much "nurture" can change the "nature" of our children?

Still, every time Emmie does something out of the ordinary (such as beat a four-year-old in a foot race, then turn and scream "In your face!" and yes, she did just do that) I worry. Will people appreciate the quirky sense of humor I have accidentally passed on to her? Or will they see a smart-alecky brat who needs to be put in her place? (Like my fourth grade teacher - thanks so much, Mrs. Van Tone.)

And will this panicking child, in pain from the two quarter-sized patches of missing skin on his knee and ankle, remember that he was allowed to order his parents around, or will he remember the depths of the kindness and selflessness in their response?

Do we only ever find out while spending thousands in therapy? Or is private self-examination enough? Is self-examination, perhaps, even the whole point?

I don't know. Does anyone, really?


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