Accidents Happen, but Parents Still Beat Themselves Up

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The Checkup

What’s the worst thing you ever did as a parent? What’s the judgment call you would give anything to reverse, the regret that keeps you up at night? We’ve all got them; it goes with the territory.

Some of the sharpest are medical, when a parent feels responsible that a child is sick or hurt. As a pediatrician, I have sat with parents who were beating themselves up over and over for the choices they had made: I took my eyes off my child for a minute, and something terrible happened: my child ran into the street, stuck his hand into the machine, fell down the stairs.

Whenever a child has an accident — and children do have accidents — there is a parent standing by to regret some or all of the choices and permissions that put that child right there at that moment, wishing, as almost every parent does, to shoulder all the pain and suffering. And when children get sick — and children do get sick — parents feel responsible and guilty and blame themselves for everything from infectious exposures to genetic propensities.

In my exam room, I also hear about the other regrets that parents never quite get over: I left her in that school where she was being bullied. I let him quit the team and he lost his friends. I pushed her into this gifted program, and now she thinks she’s dumb. I waited too long to have him tested when he was having problems at school. I told her she needed to stay on the team, and she’s had a terrible year.

There is no job in our lives that is as hard as this one; there is no job we care about as much. And try as we may, there is (you know this) no hope of controlling all the outcomes.

I don’t think that my parents’ generation spent nearly as much time and energy on regrets; if parents needed to move, then a child moved. I don’t remember agonies over which school for which child, and of course, bullying was a fact of life; no parents felt directly responsible for the social interactions of young children. And accidents happened, emergency room visits happened, stitches happened, sometimes again and again to the same child.

Of course, the surfaces of playgrounds were rock-hard, there were no seatbelts in the back seat and no one had ever heard of bike helmets.

I’m not in any way nostalgic for unbridled bullying, any more than I am for bicycle-related head trauma, motor vehicle deaths or, for that matter, measles, whooping cough and other vaccine-preventable diseases. Making the world safer for children is a great and good thing. And it’s wonderful if you can fit the school to the child and make the playground more pleasant — as well as safer — for everyone.

But even when you put down soft mats under the swings and get everyone buckled into their bike helmets, life doesn’t always go smoothly and we end up with regrets. And heaven knows, children who have managed to evade all the safety measures still come into the emergency room, and their parents have to hug them and take them home and keep going.

As a doctor, I can be particularly hard on myself, because I feel I ought to bring all of my expertise to bear on my own children. I let one of my children get pretty badly sunburned as a toddler — I’ll spare you the complex explanations of how and why — but I understood immediately that this in some sense negated my whole existence, that I had failed as a parent, a pediatrician and a person. I’ve had plenty of other regrets, but maybe none of them quite so overpowering, so complete and desolate, as that sunburn.

I took my sunburned child to the pediatrician, who had been one of my own clinical teachers in residency, Dr. Gerald Hass, who is now retired from his practice in Cambridge, Mass. But I called him the other day to ask: Does he remember the sunburn and the visit, now 20 years in the past? “I remember it as if were yesterday,” he said. “You came in in tears, and I think you left feeling a little better, that’s my memory.”

I asked him if he remembered that he very kindly told me a story about inadvertently spilling hot coffee on one of his own children, years earlier. “The little anecdote helped you,” he said. My son, he recalled, was doing O.K. “It was not a horrible burn, and he was obviously going to get better, but telling you that wasn’t as helpful as saying, well, I remember what happened to my own child.”

Of course we should all learn the appropriate health and safety morals: sunscreen, sunscreen, sunscreen — and, for that matter, bike helmets, seatbelts, vaccines, and take care with those hot liquids. But things will still go wrong, and you will beat yourself up and blame yourself, and if you’re lucky, the child will be O.K., and maybe it will help to hear a story in solidarity and sympathy, reminding you that all of us make a million tiny daily decisions and judgment calls.

We are none of us perfect, he was saying, senior doctors and junior doctors, pediatricians and parents. “Anyone who loves their kids must have this feeling that they betrayed them or they let them down or they feel they didn’t do the right thing or they weren’t careful enough, and that is so normal,” Dr. Hass said. “Fortunately, if the child grows up well, you can say, that’s in the past.”