On a relaxed summer evening, a girlfriend and I are sitting on one of our porches, sipping out of Solo cups and watching our toddlers run around blowing bubbles. There’s an open pizza box on the table nearby and our husbands are catching up about cars over beers, each of us swatting away the occasional mosquito and reminiscing on a summer that we didn’t get to see much of each other. And then my friend’s eyes well up and she starts to say something and stops. Starts and stops.
“I need to tell you the most awful story because I can’t stop thinking about it,” she blurts. Her husband overhears her and chides us. “Oh, don’t. It’s the worst thing that could happen to a parent,” he manages, our mood deflated instantly despite the shrieks and giggles of the three little ones around us, the baby gurgling in my lap.
My friend then recounts to me the sobering and horrific story of a neighborhood boy, a student at their local elementary school and close friend of their nephew, who was tragically killed by a car while riding through an intersection, helmet-less.
We all try not to cry as she describes what she’s heard from other women closer to the family, a heartbreaking and ridiculously unfair story of a life snubbed out way too soon. My blood runs cold in my veins as I take a quick peek around again, doing my constant mommy-headcount to ensure all the chickens are in my orbit. One-two-three. All with me.
Freak accidents happen. Unthinkable tragedies unfold. Mothers bury children. These are the awful, unbearable, horrific truths we try to swat from our brains as we navigate through this life on the other side of our own youth. But preventable tragedies… the ones that didn’t have to happen if a different choice had been made… these might just be the worst.
No one can fault the parents. We aren’t them and we weren’t there. We have all made stupid mistakes, too. Of course we have. I’ve accidentally locked my babies in my car and needed the fire department to get them out. They’ve fallen and gotten lost. We also know how stubborn kids can be. How many times have yours refused a jacket on a snowy day, or quietly unbuckled his seatbelt before you’ve pulled into a parking spot? Mine have!
So, I get it. We all know children don’t have the whole picture. They have no realistic concept of how fleeting life can be, how dangerously we all flirt with the edge of our mortality on any given day. To know this with the depth we do would break and terrify them, would traumatize them permanently.
But…we have got to be scary. Mean, if we need to. We have got to be vigilant and unrelenting. We must have a hard-and-fast rule about helmets. No helmet, no wheels. The end. It’s just too important. There is no coming back from the tragic accident that they were not protected from. There is no returning to the moment in time to the moment you didn’t make your child put the helmet on.
How about we rally together as mothers? How about we call them out? Keep an eye on the neighbors’ kids and let the parents know we saw their child without a bike helmet outside our house just now? In an era of TikTok challenges and video games, the lines are blurred and the kids are even farther from a real understanding of just how dangerous their choices can be.
Put the bike helmet on them when they’re on training wheels and balance bikes, when they’re 11 and 14 and growing boobs or facial hair. Make them wear it on their way to the mailbox and right next door. Make them wear it until they stop their bikes and get off.
I say scare them if you must. Be so strict you hate the sound of your own voice. Bribe them, threaten them, cajole them or stalk them. Do whatever it is you need to do to make sure that no other mother is ever telling the heartbreaking story of your kid who didn’t make it because he fell from his bike and wasn’t protected. Be the mean, nagging, annoying mother who gets on their case about the helmets and never, ever gets off.
Because the last thing any of us wants to be is the parent whose tragedy is being recounted through tears on a summer night. None of us want to belong to the awful story that people cannot stop thinking about. Especially if it’s one we could have prevented.
How do you handle a kid who doesn’t want to wear a bike helmet?