Accidents are a normal part of family life

We got a new puppy back in November. She’s adorable, white, fluffy, playful — and resistant to potty training. I thought it was particularly cute one day last week when, after finding another little surprise, my 5-year-old daughter magnanimously declared, “Accidents happen. That’s OK.”

She was quoting a song from an Elmo potty training movie I bought years ago when my kids were still learning to use the bathroom. Apparently the words stuck because she can often be heard applying this merciful message to both herself and those around her.

It’s a good motto to live by, really, because accidents do happen in families. (Like, all the time.) The sooner we can wrap our heads around that reality and accept frequent accidents as a normal part of family life, the happier we will all be. Personally, I don’t really enjoy the feeling of my blood pressure rising on a regular basis over that proverbial glass of spilled milk, and I’m sure my kids don’t like to see their mom freak out multiple times a day either.

Don’t think it’s that bad? Let me give you some examples. Off the top of my head I can come up with some pretty good ones from just the past few days, and I’m proud to say that I didn’t lose it even once. (This may be the single greatest accomplishment of my life thus far.) Why? Because I expect and accept that these things are going to happen. All the time.

First, there was the morning my 5-year-old daughter decided to walk around the house carrying an applesauce cup, despite me telling her a thousand times a day that all food stays in the kitchen. Of course it spilled, and of course she slipped and fell in it, and of course it was while wearing a brand new dress for church, which was starting in just a few minutes.

Then there was the afternoon my 11-year-old son and his friend were playing who-knows-what, and the intricately hand-painted toy machete my husband brought home from a medical mission in Haiti many years ago ended up in two pieces after an unlucky fall from the upstairs balcony.

And we shouldn’t leave out the morning I discovered someone had an accident in the night, and it got all over everything (including the comforter). Naturally, it was the day I already had mountains of laundry staring at me from every bedroom in the house.

And how about the day my husband accidentally backed into my car that was parked in the driveway instead of the garage. Twice.

Let’s not forget the night my 15-year-old daughter was doing the dishes, and a slippery dish fell from her hands and shattered on the kitchen floor.

But my favorite was the day the puppy jumped into a wet paint tray and then tried to get me to play a game of chase!

Wow. And that was just a few days. (I’m sure you have similar stories of your own. Tell me we’re normal. Please!)

You know, sometimes these accidents really are inconsequential (if not irritating), and it’s not too hard to talk ourselves out of overreacting. But what happens when these accidents start to hit a little bit closer to home? Sure, it’s just stuff, but sometimes it can have serious sentimental value. Even irreplaceable value.

Like just yesterday when an unnamed child accidentally broke the back off the personalized hardwood chair my husband received as a gift from his department after five long years of specialized surgical training. That one hurt. But at least it can (probably?) be fixed, unlike the six months of video footage that was lost when my sweet husband accidentally left our video camera at the Hungry Bear restaurant in Disneyland last year. That one cuts a little bit deeper now, doesn’t it?

From spilled applesauce to lost video footage, it can be easy when we are “in the moment” (and not the good kind) to lose sight of what really matters and put our love of stuff over our love of the people in our lives. To keep cool in heated moments, I suggest having a little arsenal of questions and statements running in the background to avoid saying things you may later regret. Here are five of my own:

  1. Accidents happen. That’s OK. (You knew that one was coming.)
  2. Do I really want to let this ruin my day?
  3. Will saying hurtful things to my loved one make this situation better or change the outcome?
  4. Have I ever made this kind of honest mistake? How do want to be treated when I do stupid things and already feel badly about it?
  5. Will I even remember this in five years?

I’ll never forget the day I was cleaning the top of the fridge for my mom, and I accidentally dropped the beautiful white ceramic bowl with “lace” trim that was only used for special occasions. It was one of her wedding presents, and as I watched it shatter into a million pieces, I remember how awful I felt — not my mom’s reaction. Yes, I knew she was sad and disappointed by the look on her face, but she didn’t yell, criticize or otherwise belittle me when she easily could have. She knew I felt bad enough without her saying a word!

Now I’m not suggesting that I don’t say anything when accidents happen, especially if the accident happened because kids were misbehaving. (As in the case of my daughter and the applesauce.) What I’m talking about here is simply how we respond. And if it’s a real, bonafide accident, the natural consequences of the accident are often enough of a lesson that we don’t need to say a word. Even when our small children (or puppies) don’t understand or feel remorse for the accidents they cause, we can still ask ourselves if it’s worth ruining our day, or, worse yet, our relationship with our child.

Accidents happen. All the time. It’s not personal; it’s just family life. And that’s more than OK.

QUESTION: What are some of the minor (or even major) catastrophes that have happened recently at your house? How did you respond? What questions or statements do you use to help you deal with the inevitable accidents of family life?

CHALLENGE: Expect and accept that accidents are going to happen at your house (all the time), and plan how you will respond when they do.

One comment

  1. Martin

    Whew! Allyson, this is a relief, and I am going to make sure my wife reads your column ASAP.

    Why? Oh, no reason. Still, I wonder if she has seen the car yet today. Oh, what? No, no — it’s fine. I mean, probably fine. After all, she always wanted a convertible. And now she’s got a convertible mini-van! How unique, right? Yeah, let’s look on the bright side of this: we are going to be the coolest family on the block! Until it rains, that is. Then we will be somewhat less cool. Or dry.

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