[Note: This article was originally written for a parenting blog.]
My cell phone vibrates, and I look to see who’s calling me. A picture of my 23-year-old son peers at me from the screen. He doesn’t call that often, so my thoughts immediately start scurrying into dark corners of my mind.
Without any cheerful greeting or preamble, he says, “I thought I should call someone so you’d know where I am. I’m on my way to the Emergency Room. I had another bike accident, but I’m not hurt as bad this time.”
It has been about ten months since I had received a similar phone call from him, also on the way to the Emergency Room, also following a bicycle accident. In that previous accident, he had broken his jaw.
This is getting to be a habit I don’t particularly like. Sure, I’m glad he stays in touch, but I much prefer the kind of phone calls where he has a question for me about cooking or needs help with his resume.
“Were you wearing your helmet?”
He hadn’t been wearing one last year. And though it might not have protected him in that particular accident, he had learned his lesson about wearing a helmet—I hoped.
“Yes. And it was a good thing, too. My head left a big dent in the car’s window, and my helmet is cracked. But I think my head is fine.”
Feeling relief, I close my eyes and let out the breath I had been holding.
I’ve been thinking about helmets, safety and parenting a lot recently.
In early January, when I went downhill skiing for the first time in a decade, I didn’t even consider wearing a helmet. However, after I took a hard fall in the morning (my fault) and was sideswiped from behind in the afternoon (a reckless teenager’s fault), I realized how foolish I was not to protect myself. Next time (if there is a next time), I’ll wear a helmet.
In February, my local newspaper reported that the brother of Minnesota icon Garrison Keillor had died from head injuries suffered in a fall while ice-skating. I remember thinking, with a combination of worry and frustration, “Do we have to wear helmets while skating now? What next?”
And then, in mid-March, there was the Natasha Richardson accident. The award-winning actress fell during a ski lesson on the beginner’s slope—on the beginner’s slope!!—hitting her head. She seemed fine for several hours, but soon she was in the hospital, and she died a day later from severe head trauma.
As a parent, and as a sports participant myself, these stories scare me. How can I even consider letting my children participate in potentially dangerous sports? How much should I insist on protective wear? What are the standards these days? When is protection not enough—or too much? As a father, do I err on the side of allowing too much adventuresome behavior?
When my children were young, I always insisted that they sit in their child car seats. As they got older, I required that they always wear seat belts. It was a simple rule, and no amount of fussing, arguing or crying on their part could sway me. It’s still a rule in my car. And now they’ve made it a rule in their cars, too.
When it came to helmets for bike-riding or skateboarding, however, I wasn’t so strict. I insisted they wore helmets when they were younger, but, as they entered adolescence, I wavered. I’d remind them to wear their helmets, but I wasn’t adamant. And I didn’t impose consequences if I learned later that they went without helmets. I regret now that I hadn’t been more resolute.
Wondering about my teenagers’ current perspectives, I discussed the issue with them this week. They told me that they’d wear a helmet if they expected to be doing tricks on a bike, skateboard or snowboard (i.e., “grinds,” “grabs” and “360s” using half-pipes, rails and ramps). However, for routine occasions, they found helmets to be “uncomfortable” and “awkward.”
“If you board to McDonald’s with your friends, it’s not cool to have a helmet,” said my 15-year-old son.
How can we make it “cool” to wear helmets? Should we pass laws requiring helmets? For all children? For all adults? (Different states currently have a variety of laws when it comes to requiring helmets for bicycles, motorcycles, skateboards and skates. No state currently requires a helmet for skiing or snowboarding.)
What are our responsibilities as parents to protect our children as they get older? At what age do we start to turn the responsibility over to them? What did you (or will you) say when you talk to your child about safety, helmets and head injuries?
Have you had the concussion discussion with your child?