Friday, February 20, 2009

Danger! Curve Ahead

One of the best things about having a baby is watching them grow up. Not just in a physical sense - I particularly like watching them learn stuff they didn't know just a minute ago. Last week Darcey figured out how to jump. I know, it's one of those things that we've all been doing for so long that we don't even have to think about it, it's completely second nature. Which is why it's so fun to see her concentrate, squat down a little, then sproing up in the air, getting about one inch off the floor and then almost falling when she lands. She breaks out in this massive smile like she just discovered the double-helix formation of DNA strands and is waiting for the Nobel people to give her a call.

There's a downside to all this learning, though - the smarter she gets, the more trouble she can get into. For a while it was sufficient to put anything dangerous and/or messy onto the counter, where she couldn't reach it, like the knives, the salt and pepper shakers, the kleenex. But she figured out how to climb from the stool to the bar, from the bar to the counter, and so I'd walk into the kitchen to see her standing on the counter, perusing the china in the cupboard, or holding a banana in one hand and a lime in the other, or dumping the salt shaker onto the stovetop.

This is a picture no parent wants to see:

Don't worry, the stove was off or I wouldn't have taken the picture. Probably.

She got incrementally smarter this week, and slightly more lethal. One of Darcey's favorite things to do in the whole world is color on the walls. We've been under an Ink Embargo for about two months now - no pens, markers, or crayons. (Yes, I know crayons don't have ink, but Ink Embargo was such a great term I had to use it. Or Marker Moratorium. I haven't got a good word for the crayon situation - Crayon Crackdown? That might work.) The gym day care workers have passive-aggressively confronted me about her artistic tendencies when I've picked her up: "Darcey sure loves to color on the walls, doesn't she?" Better their walls than mine, is my opinion.

Anyhow, she is fascinated by the junk drawer in our kitchen, where the still-legal pencils are kept along with any accidental contraband that makes it's way into the house. If there's gold to be found, it's there, along with the checkbook, old keys, screws to who knows what, paper clips, scissors, the stapler, Box Tops we'll never turn in, all the same stuff that's in your junk drawer probably. From a toddler's point of view, that's a treasure trove.

For a while, Darcey would pull the drawer open and reach her hand in, grabbing whatever she could blindly, as she isn't tall enough to see in. She could only reach anything in the first three inches or so of space, so most of the good stuff was still tantalizingly unavailable. Then she got smart, and the household got a little more wary. She pulled the stool over and stood on it, opened the drawer, and voila! The world was her oyster! She stood there for a minute, staring and drooling like a member of Congress looking at the stimulus bill - she just could not wait to get her hands on all of that great stuff and consequences be darned. She'd have rubbed her hands together greedily and cackled, but she's not that Congressional.

So that's how I found her with a screwdriver in one hand and double-A's in the other, preparing to, I don't know, fix the smoke detector or some such. I'd rather think that than the alternative, which is all the ways she can harm herself - chew on the batteries, stick the screwdriver into the electrical outlet, write a check for some telemarketing charity that will never let her off the mailing list.

I realized that if we charted learning and danger, it would be a lovely bell curve. We start out knowing nothing, at the same time being completely unable to do anything more dangerous than cry really loudly or have blow-out diarrhea in public. But as we start to learn we can achieve more and more dangerous things, without enough brains to know just how dangerous we're being. Brad and Noah (now 11 and 8 years old) are perfectly smart enough to ski like madmen down incredibly steep hills, but also do incredibly dangerous things, like weaving in and out of trees. We continue to get smarter as teenagers, but that only allows us to do even more dangerous things, like drive a car, join the army, skateboard, have things pierced, get pregnant, wear prom dresses that are really going to embarrass you 15 years later. In short, we get smart enough to DO things without being smart enough to forsee consequences.

At some point, our intelligence moves from just skill-acquisition to fear-acquisition. That's when the danger curve heads back down. You know you've reached that point when you're doing something that you did back when you were 17 and all of a sudden you think, "Oh my gosh, what the heck was I thinking?! I could be KILLED doing this!" For example (and you may have your own moments of realization, these are mine):

Driving alone cross-country in a 13-year-old car without a cell phone or AAA.
Accepting a ride from a stranger when said car breaks down. Twice.
Staying up until 4 a.m. at a party, and then driving to Irvine for a free KROQ t-shirt.
Riding any traveling-amusement park ride, you know the kind, they set up in the mall parking lot and are gone before anyone can sue them for negligent homicide.
Participating in a ropes course, where the only thing between me and plunging to my death is the bolts holding the contraption together.
Getting married at age 19 and having a baby by 21. Maybe that never would have killed me, per se, but the older I get, the younger 19 is.

If you need a further example of people at the very top of the curve, who are smart enough to be in college but not smart enough to avoid a sport called "pond-skimming," check out this video:

Yes, that's my brother Tim, who in all respects is a very intelligent person. I think he's at the very top of the curve right now, and this might have been just the incident that causes him to think very carefully about the potentially life-threatening college activities he chooses to participate in. Our mom has already forbidden him to do anything else that requires signing a waiver.

I think my intelligence has gotten me to the point where I can forsee consequences fairly well, and am substantially safer because of it. I don't speed much, I rotate my tires, I own a carbon monoxide detector, I don't eat raw cookie dough. I wash my hands frequently. I eat my steaks medium-well. This all probably makes me a very dull person, but it also makes me a dull person with a potentially long life span. A long boring life is better than a short, go-out-in-a-blaze-of-glory life, in my opinion.

As I see it, my job is to keep my kids safe long enough for them to learn how dangerous life is. They really are incapable of seeing what's going to happen if they jump off the top of the swingset or ride down our street in a wagon with no braking mechanism. It makes parenting a job requiring constant vigilance and a lot of very high places to hide things. Now, if you'll excuse me, Darcey's been quiet for far too long. That can only mean trouble.


rachel said...

That was great, Emily. See, you definitely have a gift for this. I can't believe that was really Tim on the video. Wow.
Oh, and I still eat raw cookie dough - I just can't help it. you know me - just living on the edge. :)
I really like the comparison of the drawer to congress and the stimulus bill.

Drake Steel said...

Interestingly enough I wanted to do a newsletter article on all the times I and other old people almost got ourselves killed. I was talking with 2 other guys of our age about this concept and the look on their face was sheer horror. After questioning why they reacted, they both looked at me if I was clueless. The problem was that not only had there been many incidents that could have killed them but they can't let on to the kids just how breathtakingly stupid things they'd done.

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