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The One Commandment

We have a rule in our house:“Don’t do dumb stuff.”

How else do you forbid all of the reckless or just plain insane things kids think up?

My husband and I like to think our overarching commandment covers such infractions as leaping from the headboard of the bed, jumping on the air mattress or doing somersaults next to the coffee table.

A subsection of the main rule is the codicil, “Don’t run in the house.” Perhaps if I had exercised my executive powers sufficiently and enforced that rule—with a severe punishment—my then-3-year-old wouldn’t have lost his first tooth—by knocking it out on the corner of the kitchen table while running away from his older brother. I might have avoided the emergency visit to the dentist, tooth (root and all) preserved in a container of milk, and the attempt to re-implant it. Maybe my husband wouldn’t have had to leave work and urge we approve the procedure, even though the dentist told us the chance was slim the tooth would take hold. We could have definitely gone without the return visit to the dentist’s office, when we were five minutes out the door, about to get in the car, and discovered the tooth had already come out of its socket.

That was an expensive rule to break.

More precise rules might include: “Don’t step into a basket at 8 p.m. on Christmas Eve and lean back.” That might have saved my son the gash on his head—sustained when he struck the sharp edge of the living room table—that slowly bled for several minutes while we debated keeping him up for an additional three hours to get stitches in the emergency room. (Thankfully, the bleeding did stop and we didn’t have to make this story much better by concluding it with a hospital visit on the worst night of the year except for New Year’s Eve.)

That would be a very exact rule—but perhaps Don’t Do Dumb Stuff covers it?

We don’t know exactly what my then-5-year-old son was doing on the playground when he fell and broke his arm; my husband’s back was turned (probably keeping an eye on the 3-year-old) when it happened. If my son had remembered The Rule, would he have been doing whatever it was that brought us to the orthopedist for the X-ray, the yellow cast, and the eight weeks of restricted activities just as summer was winding down and outdoor playtime was at a premium?

Alas, the weakness in The Rule, and the reason it isn’t a real rule, comes down to the definition of “dumb.” To a kid, it’s not so dumb to do a thing you’ve never done before, or you’ve done but you haven’t previously gotten hurt or broken anything or been punished.

In fact, it’s practically your job to do stuff grown-ups would consider dumb. Little kids are natural scientists, constantly testing their hypotheses to determine “What would happen if I do this?” Like any good scientists, they test their theories, and then they do it again and again until they achieve a conclusive result, good (fun) or bad (painful).

Risk—to their bodies and to valuable household goods—is a necessary part of the process.

Some of their experiments end in broken furniture, bleeding body parts and/or lost parental tempers (with perhaps a cry—usually mine—that “We just can’t have nice stuff!” thrown in for good measure).

On the other hand, good things can also come of the experiments: A kid who couldn’t swing from one end to the other of the monkey bars now can. Mixing chocolate sauce with vanilla ice cream until soft does yield something very much like chocolate pudding (a result my Aunt Jane demonstrated to me some 40 years ago, using powdered chocolate Quik).

We all hope our children will eventually learn to perform a few seconds of risk analysis before they attempt experiments that might kill them. We try to teach them not to do things that will lead to the most serious damage, like running into traffic or getting into cars with strangers.

The thing is that’s the risk we took when we became parents. We decided to raise children, and we don’t know how they’ll turn out, and whether they’ll break their bones, our precious heirlooms, our hearts—or all of the above and more than once.

Maybe we need a new rule: “Don’t make dumb rules.”                   

Reid Sullivan is editor in chief of Family Times: The Parenting Guide of Central New York. She lives in Syracuse with her husband and two sons.

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