Learning lessons the hard way

My son is incapable of walking down the stairs in our house.

He can slide down them. No problem there. Run down them for sure. And his favorite: A couple of quick steps and a jump to the landing, repeated as he rounds the corner for the final launch down to the living room.

Never mind that there’s a rug that refuses to be secured to the floor at the bottom, waiting to slip uncontrollably under his feet. Or that there’s a glass door waiting to inflict some sort of grievous injury

Or that there’s often a booby trap of toys or shoes or dirty clothes waiting to hitch a ride up the steps to the place where they belong.

Or, for that matter, that he has been reminded, scolded, cajoled, threatened and even begged to “please, please” just walk down the stairs.

Sometimes, he doesn’t stick the landing and ends up crumpled up against the wall. Most of the time, he jumps right back up. Occasionally, he ends up in tears.

It’s a lesson he’s determined to learn the hard way.

As I think back to being 7 years old – no easy feat, mind you – I tend to remember that I couldn’t walk down the steps either. Perhaps, it’s some sort of genetic trait, passed on like blue eyes, through the Farmer clan.

Warned to not play on the steps – and ignoring the good advice just as my son does today – it took a real fall, all the way from the top flight to make the point.

Standing at the top of the stairs, which led to the basement, I was being oh-so-cool at my own birthday party. I kicked one leg over the other to do my best Steve McQueen and lean against the door at the top of the steps, showing my best devil-may-care stance.

Then I was gone in a flash. Turns out the door I went to lean on to demonstrate my cool wasn’t closed. It was like I did a trust fall down a flight of steps, landing in a heap at the bottom.

I don’t remember much more about that birthday party.

It seems part of the human experience that some things can’t be learned from books, from parents or from other do-gooders. The only way the message takes root is through experience, scars earned and carried for a lifetime.

I don’t want the boy to fall down the stairs. I’d like to protect him, keep him safe from that fate. But ultimately, he makes the decision – every time he goes up or down – whether to heed my warnings or just have at it.

My son bounds around his world of bikes, rollerblades and tire swings with carefree abandon.

And I, as a parent, have to accept that I cannot protect him from every hazard he will encounter.

But that doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t try, that we all shouldn’t try to keep our kids safe.

When my kids returned to elementary school on the Monday after the shootings in Newtown, Conn., I was relieved that there was a police car there.

The police presence was largely symbolic. For that day, it was enough.

You would think that after Newtown, Virginia Tech, Columbine and all the other mass shootings, we would have collectively learned our lesson and that the scars we carry would remind us of lessons learned the hard way.

But as the National Rifle Association becomes unhinged, as at least one Maine legislator thinks the best way to make schools safer is more guns and as people line up to stockpile rapid-fire weapons and ammunition, I worry that we haven’t learned anything.

Military-style guns combined with large-capacity magazines don’t make us safer. They put death too easily in the hands of people who should never be given that power.

It’s terrifying that we can so brazenly tempt the fates again and again.

That we sprint for the top of the steps, take two steps and jump without any regard for the rug that will eventually slip out from under our feet.