During a recent visit to my parents’ house, my two younger daughters were playing upstairs on their own while the rest of us hung out in the living room. At some point, the six-year-old wandered downstairs, leaving three-year-old Sophia by herself in what had been, years ago, my childhood bedroom.
A few minutes later, we heard a scream accompanied by a loud, strange, rhythmic noise. I charged up the stairs, moments ahead of my wife and parents. There, I found that the noise was coming from the treadmill that had taken up residence in my old bedroom. Sophia had stepped onto it and accidentally turned it on, and it was moving fast. Sophia was lying between the end of the treadmill and a wall, the treads still moving, rubbing away her skin. I scooped her up and held her, but her agonized screams continued.
We assessed her wounds—deep scrapes on her face arm, back, and tummy—and were soon in the car on the way to urgent care. The doctor there saw no signs of organ damage, so we discussed how to care for her wounds and how often to change the bandages. We headed home, all traumatized in our own way, believing the incident was finished but for the recovery, which, we knew, could take a very long time.
At home, new symptoms popped up randomly, all requiring medical attention. Vomiting raised concern about concussion or internal damage (thankfully, there was none). A facial wound became infected, and the infection was creeping ominously close to her eye. A mysterious leg pain began, intensifying a day later, making it difficult for Sophia to walk, stretch out her leg, or lie down comfortably. Those first few days after the accident were a whirlwind of doctor’s visits, emergency-room trips (three of them), and a brief hospital admission. In our moments of relative calm, we were tasked with changing bandages twice daily, each time sparking a fresh round of screaming from the pain.
We still had two other children to care for and our own emotions to manage. Our other daughters coped in part by making get-well cards and buying Sophia small presents at a local store. They expressed their fears and sadness explicitly and implicitly, and tried to play with Sophia when she felt up to it, though she hardly acted like herself during those first few days.
If I had a time machine and could return to those moments before the accident, I certainly would have ensured Sophia was playing in a safe environment. But no, I would not have changed my parenting decisions, and I would not have been standing guard while she played.
Meanwhile, my wife and I cycled through a mix of worry, sadness, fear, and anger. Every glance at Sophia’s battered and bandaged body, every time she complained of the pain or didn’t act like her normal joyful self sent one of us into tears. We anticipated months of recovery and worried about long-term disfiguration or disability.
We wanted to point blame, and put most of it on ourselves. How could we not have been watching her? Would we have been more vigilant 10 years earlier when we had only one child (and were a decade younger and that much more energetic)?
If you’ve read my columns, you’d know I believe that kids should be given a wide (though age-appropriate) amount of independence and freedom—to play, explore, make their own decisions, direct their own lives, and live with their own mistakes. We’re not the first parents to have our ideas and ideals reality tested. Stuff does happen: a skinned knee, a conflict with a friend, a bad grade at school. Kids must learn to deal with setbacks, and we adults should not constantly jump in to save the day. But there was our three-year-old, damaged and disfigured in an incident no one should have to endure.
In the end, our guilt and self-flagellation passed quickly, even as the trauma lingered in us. A three-year-old can play on her own in most situations without a grown-up hovering. Whatever guilt remained was less about our parenting style and more about safety: We should have unplugged the treadmill, but it just never crossed our minds. Shame on us for that.
Five days after the incident, Sophia turned the proverbial corner. After about 18 hours off her feet and in obvious intense pain, while we waited in the emergency room again (this time waiting for our daughter to be admitted), Sophia hopped off the bed and gingerly limped around. By the time we settled her into a room, her limp was barely there and her playful personality started to peek through again. She was released from the hospital after only a few hours, and we all breathed a deep sigh of relief.
My wife and I thought carefully about when and how to return to my parents’ house, and after a week we did—after consulting with a friend, a child psychologist. Sophia was upset at first, but we assured her: Grandma and Grandpa had made the treadmill safe (by unplugging it), but she should not play on it again. When we brought her up to my old room, we showed her that the treadmill was no longer functional. “Treadmill scary. Treadmill turned on. I fell. Daddy got me. I was hurt. Grandma and Grandpa made it safe,” she said.
And that was that. For the rest of the visit she played as if nothing had happened. It will be months before her skin is fully back to normal, but the pink splotches are barely discernible now. As for us, we remain committed to raising our kids with the same independence they had before.