Wandering toddler tragedy: It could have been me

Parents do all they can to protect their kids, but sometimes it isn't enough.

Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto

“Why didn’t they have a childproof lock or doorknob cover?”

Don’t pretend you didn’t ask yourself this question when you heard the heartbreaking story about little Elijah March, the missing three-year-old boy who tragically died after he walked out of a first-floor apartment in Toronto this morning at 4 a.m., wearing only a pull-up, shirt and boots in minus-30 wind chill. We all asked it because, as with any tragedy, we want so badly to believe that there is something—anything—we parents can do to prevent a horrific accident from visiting our own family. It’s not about blame, although some are already pointing fingers. The truth that’s so difficult for parents to accept is that we are all exposed, no matter how many safety measures we have in place.

When my husband and I adopted our then-18-month-old daughter, my strategy was to combine baby-proofing with behavioural training to ensure my kid was either physically protected or trained to identify what was off-limits or dangerous. I put knob covers on the two doors that exited our home, and installed three stair gates—one at the top of each of our two staircases and one at the bottom of the largest one so she couldn’t climb up, either. With three cats who needed to get to their litter boxes downstairs, and the ability to dash upstairs to escape a toddler who hadn’t yet learned “gentle,” I was forced to pay a premium for special gates with doggy-doors in them, but I did so gladly to keep her safe. I put a lock on the laundry room cupboard that held our home’s collection of cleaning products. I preached and nagged and taught and probably even scared the heck out of her a few times to ensure she understood exactly what the dangers were inside and outside of our house.

Did I succeed in keeping her 100-percent safe? Nope.

One day I was in my daughter’s room changing the bedding on her crib while she played behind me, opening and closing her dresser drawers. I glanced back at her every few minutes because I knew that the bureau was not secured to the wall. I finished my task and turned just in time to see her pull out the last of all the drawers, which was enough to tip it. It was one of those cliché slow-motion moments as I screamed her name, thankfully startling her enough that she stumbled backward, far enough away from the bureau as it toppled onto the exact spot where she had been standing seconds earlier.

Were we foolish to not secure that dresser? Of course. We never imagined a solid wood bureau could fall, never considering how its centre of balance would shift if all of the full drawers were pulled out at once. Even now I shudder at the thought of what might have happened.

On another day, I was in the kitchen, listening to my daughter bang on the metal gate blocking the stairs down to our basement because she liked the noise it made. I often reminded my stepson and husband to ensure the gate was firmly closed and locked, because they sometimes forgot. This time, it wasn’t locked. From the kitchen I heard metal clanging, then her tiny body bumping against the hardwood stairs, then nothing. Not a scream, not a cry, nothing to indicate she was alive. Thankfully by the time I got to her she had begun to scream, more from shock than physical harm.

Oh, and those doggy-doors big enough for only my cats? I found her halfway up the stairs one day, after somehow squeezing her little body through that tiny opening.

Am I sharing these stories to unload my guilt and provide an example of my bad parenting? No. I’m a good mother who could easily be classified as overly safety-conscious. My 1970s-era parents often find my precaution excessive. And even so, my attempts exemplify one very vital part of parenthood: Try as we may, we cannot possibly protect our children from everything.

Should we throw up our hands and do nothing? Of course not. Almost all parents use their good sense to protect their kids as best they can at any given time and no doubt Elijah March’s family did so as well. Childproof your homes and teach your kids about dangers, but know that some are not always avoidable. Sadly, sometimes catastrophe occurs, no matter how hard we try. Families who have experienced these so-called “preventable” tragedies deserve our kindness, support and empathy, not our criticism or well-intentioned suggestions on how an accident could have been averted. As a friend of mine observed: “Would’ve, could’ve, should’ve won’t bring Elijah back.”

Read more:
Parenting in a fear-based world>
Confessions of a free-range parent>
An open letter to the woman in the Safeway parking lot>

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