My Bad Parenting (near) Disaster
15 seconds. That’s all it took. I turned my back for 15 seconds. And it almost cost my family dearly.
In 15 seconds, my 20-month-old daughter was able to walk surreptitiously from the living room of our home, out the front door, and make it down to the 5th step of a 19-step flight of stairs. It was the scariest moment I’ve had as her father. (So far)
We live on the second floor of a walk-up brownstone in NYC. Like any kid her age, Sabine likes to climb, and she always wants to climb up and down that flight of stairs that leads to our apartment. Sometimes, under close supervision, we let her. But she has always shown a healthy fear of navigating down the steps on her own and insists on latching on to me or her mom.
After running an errand Tuesday morning, I returned home and the plan was to walk in, pick up the trash, and walk right back out. That would have taken only a moment and not required me to take my eyes off Sabine who was standing in the living room, entranced by an episode of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. When I walked in, I asked my wife a question but then followed her to the back room of our apartment as she was answering me, leaving Sabine unattended. Problem is, I didn’t close the front door of the apartment, since my original intent was to walk right back out anyway. In the 15 seconds it took for me to hear my wife’s answer and come back up front to pick up the trash, Sabine had bolted out that open front door. I walked out to see her standing perilously on step #5 with another 14 steep steps in front of her. There was nothing to break her fall but the hardwood floor below.
My frantic reaction startled her, she lost her balance, and started her tumble. I dove down the steps and had her in my arms before she even fell down a full step. This all happened in a split second, but if felt like we were in slow motion.
Sabine was unharmed. I might be scarred for life. My wife spent more time trying to comfort me than comfort Sabine. I was shaken by those terrifying few moments, and later by the thought of what might have been. To think, I got there when she was already on step #5. She was on her own as she made it down step #1. Step #2. Step #3. Step #4. We were lucky.
I was upset that I had made such a potentially grave mistake. It’s one that parents make often. A young child in the United States is treated every six minutes in an emergency room for a stair-related injury. That’s nearly 100,000 kids under the age of 5 taking a tumble down stairs every year. 75% of those kids end up with injuries to the head or neck. Three percent end up hospitalized. Many kids are injured while actually being carried down stairs by an adult, but the majority fall on their own. (No reliable research exists to tell us how many deaths occur from stair-related falls, but we know deaths happen.)
Injuries from stair-related falls have dropped over the years thanks to increased awareness and safety measures. Researchers are still calling for better-designed staircases and wall-mounted stair gates. None of that is as effective as good old fashioned adult supervision.
Some of the most exciting and memorable moments in parents’ lives are when their child starts crawling and when their child starts walking. Parents also remember the horror that follows. Once a kid gets mobile, life changes. Every electrical outlet must be covered. Every little item on the floor becomes a choking hazard. The kids want to climb onto things which means they can also fall off things. They can open the refrigerator, turn on the stove, fall in the toilet, get into the cabinet where you keep the cleaning supplies, run into sharp table corners, and want to reach up and grab for anything. I actually walked into the kitchen once and Sabine had a butcher knife in her hand. I’m still not sure how she did that.
Child safety advocates tell us the key is to create a safe environment, i.e. childproof your home because it’s impossible to watch your child every second. True, but that’s not what happened with me. My mind was on my day ahead: errands to run, phone calls to make, emails to send, people to see. I left it up to Mickey Mouse to keep an eye on Sabine. It’s a common refrain that we all need to slow down. This time, in the rush of life, I forgot my first and most basic responsibility is the well-being of a little girl who depends on me to protect her. No one should never be in that big of a hurry.
I made a mistake. I beat myself up about it because it was an avoidable, potentially devastating mistake. I was almost that parent whose story begins with, “I only turned my back for a second …”
I turned mine for 15.