Toddler Cliffhanger

Much of toddler drama never gets reported: the near misses, the close-calls, the mayhem and mischief.  Yet, these incidents, told by word of mouth and passed down through family lore, can be useful in understanding how childhood accidents unfold.

My brother, Christopher, was 3 when we visited cousins in Mesa Verde, CO, a national park renown for it’s Anastazi cliff dwellings.  The operational word in that statement for parents of toddlers is “cliff.”

We pulled up in our ’72 Chevy station wagon to a vista with a sweeping view off the rim of the mesa. My mother said to my father, “Maybe we should tie a rope around Chris.” (this was 1973, and absent child leashes, people did those kinds of things).  My father replied:  “I’ll just hold his hand.” And in a story about cliffs, toddlers and accidents, you might guess that he didn’t hold his hand, and you’d be right.

Here’s how the (near) tragedy unfolded:

Our two families pulled up to the vista point, and my father and uncle parked the two station wagons side by side.  In the days before child carseats, an older child sitting near the door, would open it, and the younger ones would scamper out.  The 9 cousins spilled out and raced over to the viewing area, where adults and children grouped themselves around a railing about 6 feet from the edge of the cliff.

The “wow factor” kicked in as we stood admiring the 50-mile view, and 800ft drop-off.   People can “focus lock”  on nature, on smart phones, or even in conversations with other adults, and stop paying attention to other activity around them.   Our group was relaxed and contented in spite of the peril right in front of us, because unless a big wind came along, we were in no danger at all.

Suddenly there was a simultaneous gasp, when collectively we noticed that my brother had climbed through the railing and was standing with the toes of his little Keds sneakers on edge of the cliff.  He was calmly staring at the vast horizon, oblivious that a mere hiccup could propel him hundreds of feet to the boulders below.

Death stalked our family that day.

It was a “shock and awe” moment:  Shock, that he was in danger of falling over a cliff high enough that it would mean certain death, and awe, as we were paralyzed with fear and indecision about how to approach him without startling him, or causing him to swivel and topple over the edge.  He was too young to understand how to carefully back up. Realistically that was his only option.  We’d gone from carefree tourists to horror-stricken bystanders, in a matter of seconds.

My mother had had this foreboding about visiting the Mesa Verde cliff, intuitively recognizing my brother’s need for restraint.  My father’s assertion that he would hold my brother’s hand reflects a “normalcy bias,”  the idea that things can be done in normal ways.  But in extraordinary situations, “normal” precautions are often inadequate.

The Swiss Cheese theory says that several little things can go wrong and end up as a huge problem, like stacking up several slices of Swiss cheese, sometimes there will still be a hole, all the way through the stack.  The “plan to hold his hand” failed because my brother was too quick out of the car, because he was sitting closest to the door, and other children’s bodies provided cover for him as he charged to the edge of the precipice.  In hindsight, it’s clear how we came so close to losing my little brother.

The Transition Protocol

Transitions are inherently chaotic. People are shuffling positions. Parents only have two hands and two eyes – and not in the back of their heads.  Children dart and dodge. They ignore commands. Toddlers  are brimming with volatile energy, especially after long stretches in the car.  A “Transition Protocol” is a standard plan to move from one location to another.   In this case, the Transition Protocol could have been used from the car, to the viewing area, followed by a “Supervision Protocol.”

Sample Transition Protocol

1. Pull into parking spot closest to destination.

2. PAUSE.  Do not allow anyone to exit the vehicle until your permission is given. Tell the children in advance what you expect, ie.  “There is a railing and a big cliff, and you need to stay behind the railing.  We need to stay together.”

3.  Evaluate weather and security situation.  Gather purse, backpack, sunglasses, and make phone calls or texts at this time. Put on make-up and sunscreen in the car, (not while walking across the parking lot.) or in a secure location, like a pool yard, or restroom.

4.  Slowly exit car. Give permission for older children to exit car, and remind them to remain standing next to the car.

5.  Unload strollers, blankets and other materials at this time.  Older children may help hold small items.

6.  Remove infants from carseats, (or remove whole carseat), and fasten infant into stroller or backpack, or hold in arms.

7.  Remove toddler last from car seat.  Toddlers have the most potential for a range of unpredictable behaviors combined with volatile mobility.  An adult or trained teen should hold the toddler’s hand, or toddler should be fastened into stroller or backpack,  shopping cart, carried or held with a leash.

8.  PAUSE:  TURN and LOOK AT THE CAR.  Say out loud:  “Have we forgotten anything?”  Use Situational Awareness to determine energy sources that may intersect your walk across the parking lot.  Quickly scan the area and notice: other moving vehicles. people getting into cars, people walking down the lanes, weather.

9.  Walk mindfully through the parking lot.  Keep your head up, not looking down into purse or bags. Avoid answering a ringing phone, as talking takes up “attention bandwidth” leaving less available  attention to be paid to the present surroundings.  Coach the older children to pay attention. Be prepared to correct them if they start running or horsing around during the transition.

Tragedy Averted

No one read about the three year old toddler who fell off Mesa Verde in 1973, because it didn’t happen.    My cousin, Cathy who was my same age, 13, the oldest of her 4 siblings. and a gymnast, sized up the situation and made a surprising decision.  She crouched down, slipped one arm and one leg through the rails, and crept ninja-style, up behind my brother.  Like a frog’s tongue zapping a fly, she whipped her arm out grabbing hold of the back of his shirt and in one fluid motion, yanked him back from the brink of annihilation.  To this day I doubt any of the rest of us had the presence of mind and the dexterity to do what she did -and succeed.

My traumatized aunt put her hand over her heart, said she felt faint, and left to lie down in the car. I remember seeing her stretched across the front seat, holding a handkerchief to her forehead.   My mother remembers her knees going weak.  Father scooped up my oblivious brother and held him for the remainder of our visit on the mesa. It is a haunting moment to this day.

Lessons learned

1. We needed a protocol.  My brother was too fast to manage without some plan to get to him when the car doors opened.  And he was too small to be easily seen in a group of older children.

2.  Better Situational Awareness would have alerted us to the fact that the railing was very close to the cliff, and we were not within the “reactionary gap” if someone decided to climb through the fence.  (A reactionary gap is the space between the caregiver and the child that must be within close enough range,  that if the toddler made a dash for the cliff, or street, or other danger, the parent would have enough time to reach them first.)

3. Car seats help contain children so they  can’t automatically bolt from the car. The problem is some toddlers  know how to unlatch their own carseats.  Then the parent needs to train the child to wait for permission to unbuckle herself from her carseat, or wait for the parent to do it.   It might help to announce that you’re almost at the destination, and warn the toddler in advance not to unbuckle the carseat.  “Maya, we are almost there.  When I stop the car, don’t unbuckle your carseat.  Wait until I say it’s ok, (or wait until I can help you.)   Do you understand?”

4.  Children slip through parents’ hands all the time.  They yank, and dash.  Asking a toddler to “Hold on” to the baby stroller or shopping cart, is unreasonable.  Parents can’t assume that the child will be motivated to hold on when given a reason to run off, like seeing their cousins further ahead.

5.  My brother needed to be on a leash in public, so says my mother.  He was active, curious and would forget “the rules.”  Don’t be afraid to use a leash on a toddler.  They have become much more acceptable and attractive, and are either part of harness, and now kiddie backpacks.   Leashes are seen for the safety helpers they are, and not just a “control device”  by  an over-anxious parent.  A mother using a leash on a 3-year-old is pre-cautious, and responsible.  She is not treating the child like a dog, but rather as a valuable treasure who she doesn’t want to lose track of, even for a moment.

Several years ago, a young girl, age 8, fell into the Grand Canyon.  When her mother saw her walking too close to the rim, she called her over, took her little face in her hands, and warned her not to go too close to the edge again.  Within minutes the girl had fallen over the edge, impaled herself in a tree further down the cliff, and died.  The question I had at the time was…”Did she understand what the words “too close” actually meant?”  Subjective commands aren’t always comprehended in a way the parent intends.   I hear people giving the same type of instructions to their toddlers, and if the words don’t register- and they often don’t –  the result is catastrophic.  Safety Protocols can fill the gap.

Susan Reeve

Toddler Awareness Project

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