I was standing with Rob on the playground when his son Thomas took a tumble. Rob laughed, briefly, more like a quick guffaw, but he laughed nonetheless.
I do the same thing. It might sound like a horrible trait for a preschool teacher, but my automatic response to seeing a person fall is to laugh. The same goes for getting hit in the head. I don’t know what it is, but my mother does the same thing. And I now have evidence that it’s not just a bizarre family trait because Rob did it too. Of course, he followed it up by comforting Thomas, but his initial response was a laugh.
Preschool is a place where bumps and bruises happen. We go to great measures to make sure the school is safe, but kids still scrape their knees, bump their heads, pinch their fingers, and pick up splinters in spite of our best efforts. In 8 years, we’ve only once had to an injury severe enough to send a child to the doctor. Kenji fell on his chin while walking on a flat, dry, debris-free linoleum floor. I saw it happen, laughed, picked him up, saw the blood, realized it was beyond a band-aid, and sent him off with his mother for stitches. There is absolutely nothing we could have done to prevent that injury. It’s just part of life, like most injuries.
Fortunately, the overwhelming majority of our preschool falls are of the “walk it off variety.” Children are built for falls. They’re remarkably flexible and low to the ground. Heck, most of them don’t even have fully developed kneecaps, which is what allows them to spend hours on their knees without pain.
During these first two weeks of school, Thomas has wanted to flip our outdoor “rocker” over to reveal the secret stairway on the underside. This is a heavy piece of wooden equipment and when he asks to turn it over I make it clear that it’s fine with me, but he’ll have to do it without my assistance. Each time he’s started to flip it, his struggle attracts friends who join in the effort. Soon this heavy piece of playground equipment is standing precariously on its end, an obvious danger to all around. This is why I discretely keep a hand on it lest the kids loose control and crush someone. Once the flip is complete, revealing two small steps up and two small steps down, the obvious danger is behind us. On both Monday and Wednesday Thomas then proceeded to fall down the steps onto the pavement.
He fell pretty hard, and indeed I laughed. In both instances, his initial response was to look at me. If a child is hurt badly, he rarely looks for eye contact with an adult. When a child is really hurt his eyes pinch shut and he cries into the ground. That’s when you need to worry. When I see a child fall (or get bumped, pinched or otherwise battered) I wait first for the eye contact, which nearly always comes, and seems to ask, Am I hurt? If I’m wearing an expression of pained concern, the answer will be, Yes, you’re hurt. But if I’m laughing (which I really can’t help) the answer is, I don’t know, are you?
On Monday when Thomas made eye contact with me I waited a beat, then said, “You’re not supposed to fall down the stairs.” He smiled, answered, “I know that,” got up, and brushed off the front of his Carhart overalls. On Wednesday, I said, “You fell down the stairs again.” This time he laughed, “I did.”
In both cases we took a moment to investigate his palms and his knees for any obvious sign of injury, but there was nothing. (He was wearing Carharts after all!)
Naturally, it doesn’t always go this way after the eye contact. Often children decide they really are hurt and go right ahead a cry, which is a perfectly normal response to a fall. Even if it’s just a run-of-the-mill injury, there’s still pain to deal with and there’s nothing like a good venting to get the endorphins flowing. And, of course, it can be a little frightening to fall. That alone can call for a good cry. The goal is not to end the crying, but rather to help them move beyond the injury and on to what’s next. We don’t want to discount their experience, but neither do we want to allow them to wallow in it.
I’m not a big fan of whisking an injured child off into a quiet place, but would prefer to keep her right where she is to attend to the tears and the injury. Not only does it help keep things in perspective in a way that suffering in private can’t, it’s also instructional for the other children to see how these things are handled. Our first order of business is always to check for signs of injury, which if at all present are typically manifest in the form of a “bloody owie,” meaning anything we can point to as evidence of a fall. More often than not, the search for the bloody owie is enough of a distraction to stem the tears, but if that doesn’t do it, the application of first aid measures usually does.
I don’t want to leave the impression that I don’t take injuries seriously, but at the same time it wouldn’t be childhood without a few scabs and scars. I just don’t want us in our parental concern to make more of injuries than they deserve. It’s all about perspective. It's just part of life.
At least once a week, I find myself sitting around with children comparing formerly bloody owies and discussing how we acquired them. I love how matter-of-factly they talk about their experiences, compared to the high emotion that is part of the actual experience of being injured.
It’s in these moments that I tell the kids, “If you have more than 3 bloody owies then you’re not being careful enough. If you don’t have any, you’re being too careful.” Then we all count our owies. On a rare occasion a child will say, “I don’t have any owies,” and I’ll answer, “Then you better hurry up and get one.” He almost always nods in agreement.