I remember the day it happened. It was like a switch hard turned on. Within a 24-hour period, all three of our triplets began crawling, and we had unwillingly entered a different phase of parenting. We could no longer put them down on the floor on a blanket and expect them to be there when we returned. A few days before, we had booked a rental home at the coast for a weekend away. Since the time the babies were born, we rarely left the house, let alone attempted a night away. We had gone to this particular rental home before, and we knew we wouldn’t disturb others if the babies cried. If there wasn’t much we could do with three babies, at least my husband and I would be able to listen to the waves and enjoy the views while the babies were sleeping. It seemed like an ideal set up.
It didn’t work out that way. The day before we were set to leave, the first baby started to crawl. I honestly don’t remember which baby it was, and I’m not sure it matters, because all within the same day, we had three crawling babies. We had three fast, crawling babies. As soon as we arrived at the house, we saw the danger signs everywhere: a patio that was 10 feet or more off the ground, two sets of stairs, a hot tub, a cupboard full of poisonous cleaning products, and on and on. We spent a mostly-miserable weekend chasing crawling babies around, with no tools to barricade, deter or confine curious, excited newly-crawling babies.
When we returned home, we began frantically baby-proofing the house in all the ways that parents do, but this phase, too, eventually ended. After a couple years in a house that was sectioned off with gates, plugged up outlets, cupboards with trick locks, and bookshelves strapped to walls, we finally got tired of the work it took to live in this baby-proofed house, and I began to get rid of the baby-proofing. This caused some consternation with my husband. He was nervous that our children now had access to poisons and high ledges and sharp objects. After some discussion, I finally said, “At some point, our job as parents isn’t to deny access to danger, our job is to raise children to make good decisions and avoid harm.”
It was around this time that I heard one of my sweet three-year-olds, standing in a dress with ruffled bottoms sticking out from underneath, say to a sibling, “Get the f$%k out of my bedroom!” I screamed (reminding myself, of course, not to use the same word) and embarked on a weeklong investigation to determine where she had learned the word.
There’s a wonderful scene in A Christmas Story, a movie I have watched hundreds of times, where Ralphie uses the same word, and his mother demands to know where he heard it. Ralphie throws a school friend under-the-bus by wrongly implicating him, understanding that it would not be in his best interest to tell his mother where he really learned the word—from his father.
In my own version of this, I asked the babysitter, the neighbors, the preschool teacher, and family members whether they might have mistakenly used the word in front of the children. I finally realized that there was never going to be an answer to where she learned the word. It could have been on the street, from a preschool parent, while walking through a parking lot, at the mall, or a thousand other places. We live in a society were profanity is much more common than it was when I was growing up, and while it’s great to strive not to promote it at home, it won’t ensure kids aren’t exposed to it.
Which brings me back to the babyproofing lesson: the same way we couldn’t expect to barricade off the house forever and our job had turned to teaching responsibility instead, we couldn’t expect to eliminate exposure to profanity or adult themes. We’d eventually have to teach our children that they are going to be exposed to words and concepts that they need to be mature enough not to emulate.
I’m still not fully evolved however. I continue to have hiccups in this process. One of my children is an avid reader whose reading capabilities far exceed book topics that are appropriate for her age. I look at the books she chooses and help her to avoid subjects that are obviously too scary or mature. Her reading is so voracious, that it’s been hard for me to keep up, so I’ve mostly given up, or relied solely on book covers and jacket summaries.
It was a surprise, then, when she was reading a book and stopped to ask me, “What is a fortnight?”
“I don’t know,” I answered, “I think it means every other night or every four nights or something. Why do you ask?”
“Because Bob’s owner is trying to kick his drug habit, and he has to do check-ins every fortnight.”
The book, from the adult section, seemed innocent enough: A Street Cat Named Bob. It’s the story of a street musician who adopts a cat. Since she’s been reading the book, I’ve been told by her, “there are lots of bad words in it. Some of them are written out, but when they get really bad, they use things like exclamation points to fill in some of the letters.” We’ve also had some discussion about drugs and how rehab works (and that the occasional use of Benadryl will not necessitate a visit to rehab).
It’s all making me nervous, but we can’t baby proof their lives forever.