Keeping Our Kids Strong Means Letting Them Get Hurt

by Jolynn Tumolo
Originally Published: 

When my daughter’s riding teacher calls mid-morning on Tuesday, I know the news isn’t good.

Erin rarely calls. Erin texts.

“Maya had an accident. She fell from the horse,” she begins. “Her arm … yeah, it’s broken.”

Inside, I crumble. Summer vacation began not even a week ago. Money is tight; vacation plans, absent. My husband and I agreed, though, that our 8-year-old should have something fun to remember her summer by. So we sprang for a week of pony camp held at the stables where my daughter rode practically every week for the past ten months. At least she’d have five days of fun surrounded by ponies and pals, we figured.

We were wrong.

As I maneuver quickly through windy back roads toward my whimpering girl some 20 minutes away, I replay our carefree conversation just two hours before. She and a fellow camper, Ana, were in the backseat, and the pair was feeling as high as two friends might feel at the crack of June on their way to spend the day with “their” ponies. The windows were down, and they squealed as they stretched their bare arms far into the breeze.

“Arms in,” I instructed, a mix of authoritarian and consensus-builder looking for buy-in.

“If your arm hits a branch, it could break. And wouldn’t it stink to have a broken arm at the beginning of summer vacation? You wouldn’t get to ride! You wouldn’t get to swim!”

Did I really say those words?

When I near the stable, I see a group of girls huddled by the barn. They turn immediately and point me to the house opposite the driveway, where I find Maya lying on the couch, a towel-wrapped bag of ice nestled next to her injured arm, another camper’s mother watching over her.

“My arm hurts,” Maya says quietly when she sees me.

Later, when someone asks her if she knew right away that her arm was broken, she says yes.

“It looked like my arm had two elbows,” she explains.

The next eight hours are a mix of hurting, waiting, fearing, disassociating, and even disbelieving (when, during registration process, a woman with intricately manicured nails tells me the next time I visit the ER I should bring along my daughter’s social security card, too, because it makes it easier for her to pull up her records in the computer). Maya tears up only when she learns she will need an IV—a needle inserted into her good arm—to administer the sedating medicine necessary to cast her. I tear up, inwardly, when I learn they will need to fully break one of the fractured bones in her forearm in an attempt to set it correctly and avoid surgery. For that, I leave the room.

Maya has always preferred stuffed animals to dolls. As she grows, she prefers live animals to stuffed. When she began riding, I was both enthusiastic and unnerved. Her first week-long pony camp the previous summer was uneventful. Lessons over the next year were, for the most part, incident-free. I looked for angst but never found it in the faces of the other moms who glanced up sporadically from their phones during their daughters’ lessons. One mentioned that she learned to ride as an adult but stopped after a horse threw her.

“They can sense fear,” she said. “It’s better when you learn to ride young, and you’re not scared of anything.”

Besides, so much good comes with riding: Outdoor time. Exercise. Responsibility. Focus. I like that Maya has a pursuit separate from school. I picture her, a few years down the road, shedding thoughts of friends and social pressures as she brushes a waiting horse and prepares to saddle up. I see the stable as a place she can connect with nature and, in the hard physical act of riding, find rest, her heels sunk deep in her stirrups.

So, I ignore the risk. I push thoughts of Christopher Reeve out of my head. I notice, but try not to dwell on, a humanitarian’s obituary that mentions a fatal fall at a recent equestrian event. When, during my daughter’s first such event, a young girl tumbles to the ground and instinctively calls out for her mother, I turn my head away in an attempt to stem the dread rising inside me. (The girl was shaken, but OK, and walked out of the ring on the arm of her instructor.) Because that very fall appears in a video my husband took of Maya during the competition, I haven’t watched it more than once or twice. If I pretend it’s not there, the threat of injury won’t exist.

But injury happens. During a canter a mere week and a half after winning a ribbon at her first horse show, just an hour into her second day at pony camp, Maya’s foot slips from her stirrup, she loses her balance and she falls, fracturing her right forearm in two places.

Thank God, my girl is one of the ones who heal.

That summer, the second question everyone asks when they see the purple cast covering the length of Maya’s arm (the first being, What happened?) is, Will you ride again? Her pediatric orthopedist answers the question for her when he confidently tells a colleague, “In my experience, girls who ride can’t wait to get back to it.”

Maya answers, Yes, she will ride again. And I begin to wonder, Should she?

Conventional cliché (is it wisdom?) demands she ignore creeping doubt and fear and get back on the horse. Persevere! Overcome! As her mother and number-one advocate, I feel like I am expected to encourage her in this pursuit of bravery and backbone. I—the one who demands she wear a coat when it’s cold, that she eat vegetables beyond those formed into stackable snack chips, that she get a decent night’s sleep so her mind and body are well-rested and taken care of—I am called on suddenly to reverse course in my maternal role and push rather than protect. I am, nonsensically it seems, expected to embolden her to repeat an action and, this time around, expect a different result. To put her precious little body at risk again because, well … Why should she get back on that horse again?

Eventually, the next lesson comes. Maya’s cast is four weeks gone. In its place is a flexible arm splint, which she will wear on and off over the next six months because she is at higher risk of refracture if she falls on that arm again. I make sure to wear my sunglasses so I can avert my eyes without her seeing my fear should she canter again. And she does. It happens naturally, toward the end of her hour-long lesson, sunshine, gnats and all. Erin gives her the go-ahead, and Maya taps her pony’s backside, grips his mane and suddenly makes beautiful strides beyond our summer of disappointment. I see her through the rising dust, and I am elated.

Afterward, we go out for pizza to celebrate. Then it hits me again: What if she falls at her next lesson?

Sitting in my Outlook in-bin is an email Maya’s second-grade teacher sent me the morning after her fall. The mother of a rider herself, she has taken the time to empathize, to share her experiences with her daughter’s injuries—including a kick from a draft horse only the day before. Risky for them, stretching for us, she comments. Then she goes on to tell me about kittens.

“Last summer as I raised kittens and watched them grow,” she shares, “I realized that soon they were trying to climb the fence I had so cozily protected them with. I wanted to save them from the dangers in the garage. But not taking the fence away actually became more dangerous because of falling off the top.”

It was a reminder, she writes, that we can’t shelter our children from pain. At some point, safeguards we put in place to protect them can end up hurting rather than helping. I don’t delete that email after thanking her. I keep it because I am sure, at some point, I will need it again.

Maya doesn’t fall during her next lesson—because there is no next lesson. Unexpectedly, she tells me she wants to take a break from riding to instead join the new Girls on the Run group at school, which begins that afternoon. I am conflicted, questioning, discerning. I’m relieved. I email Erin, and she responds that Maya’s decision is fine, and that she is welcome to rejoin lessons whenever it suits her.

I keep that email, too.

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