We all want our children to be safe, right? Of course we do. In fact, this simple drive is so much a part of being a parent that most of us wouldn’t even think about it before jumping in front of a train to protect our little ones. And, as it turns out, most of us are so interested in keeping our children safe that we are even willing to endanger them to do it. Sound crazy? I agree.
Now, contrary to the tenor of that last statement, I don’t think I have ever actually met a parent who is intentionally attempting to put his child in harm’s way in order to play the hero and save the kid at the last second… But many parents I meet unintentionally edge their children toward more dangerous situations by the manner in which they approach keeping them safe. And nearly all of us could benefit from looking seriously at how the most common methodology for keeping children safe regularly works against our intentions.
We’ve all seen or done it before: The kid goes running toward the street, and whether it is a busy street or not, and whether or not it is necessary for the child’s safety, there is an eruption of shouts, and lightning-quick parental body blocks, and launching ninja limbs coiling and retracting a flailing kid body. Generally, this slow motion action sequence is followed by some serious chastising, maybe a dash of shaming, a generous heaping of overblown fear-ranting, and likely some form of punishment. And because we are motivated by our own fear, and clouded by the notion that fear is what our children lack in this particular scenario, we attempt to instill that fear into them.
This method is problematic for a few reasons at least:
- First, if we succeed in giving our children “a healthy dose of fear” (as I’ve heard some parents call it), about the street, or anything else for that matter, we may succeed in keeping them clear of that particular thing, but we are just as likely to create or empower a deeper fear in them that they are unsafe in the world. On the one hand, you could argue that this would serve them just fine, as the world is likely to be unsafe a lot and putting children on notice to that effect is better done sooner than later. However, the research is pretty clear that high stress environs impede learning and development. Likewise, the common reading of such data suggests that the best environment for proper development, and that means physical, emotional, and intellectual development, is one that promotes a sense of safety and security in the child. This is the premise on which Attachment/Connection/Natural Parenting founds their basic ideology — create a secure, bonded space for the child and the child will thrive. The opposite is also true, such that, if we rely on fear to motivate our children then we lose the benefits that our connection with them has on their development.
- Secondly, fear tactics generate interest. Period. Even if the eventual effect of such intensified interest is still avoidance, the mere fact that we’ve energized the relationship between the child and the unsafe activity/thing may wind up meaning that the child explores that heightened interest before abandoning it. I can vouch, too, for the kid who is almost uncontrollably enticed by prohibition — some of us want to do it just because we’ve been told that we “can’t”. And though that may not be the best thing on which to base all of our parenting choices, it is worth noting if we want our children to stay safe when we aren’t standing there watching them.
- Further, it would serve us all well to remember, that the dominant drive for children is to explore anything with which they come into contact, whether it is a stuffed animal or a blender. If we are thwarting that drive, and using fear tactics to justify it, then we may create a blockage to the drive and resistance to our methods at the same time. When combined with heightened interest in the prohibited activity/thing, this creates a triple bind, which is what I generally blame when I see the boy who is hell bent on running into the street at all cost to life and limb (and running from his parents!), especially when it is obvious that the boy has turned the whole thing into a delicious game to which only he knows the rules.
- Finally and perhaps most importantly, there’s a good chance that relying on fear tactics will undermine our children’s trust in us in later years. When they realize that we have overstated the need for concern around one thing after another throughout their lives, they are going to question our ability to see the world clearly. Or at the very least, they are going to question just how much they need to heed our concern — which could easily wind up being the most dangerous scenario of all.
Because Natalie and I wish to avoid all of the above, and because we believe that we all attract the things and experiences on which we focus, we have dedicated ourselves to a wholly different approach. Rather than imposing fear from the outside, mandating what choices they make, and ignoring their natural impulses, we have sought to work with our children to create healthy understanding about safety, and self-regulating approaches to keeping themselves safe.
The basic idea goes something like this:
- We don’t ever jump up and shout, “Look out, you’re going to get hurt!” Instead, we generally kept one parent on safety duty most of our daughters’ early lives. We traded off, but someone was almost always watching. Then as they have gotten older, we have kept a more distant, but still watchful eye out for them. This means we have usually known when they were headed for a potentially dangerous situation well before they did. And because we were ready, we could easily discuss the situation calmly, ahead of time, and without lurching body parts. In our minds, it’s the parents’ job to watch out until the kids can.
- Our approach is also geared toward what we want to see happen, not what we most fear. So we say things like, “Keep yourself safe,” and “I want you to stay safe…” instead of the more fearful version above or others like it. As the girls have gotten older, one of these phrases is often enough to cue them toward looking for how best to manage their safety. They investigate and anticipate trouble, and avoid it on their own. With younger ones, and as necessary, we give more information about the potential danger, but we do what we can to still speak of it in terms of what we would like to see. For example, “This pot is hot, so keep yourself safe by playing over there while I am cooking. (Child requests more information.) The pot gets very hot while I am cooking. And if the hot pot touches skin, it can hurt, and cause a burn. I want you to stay safe, and for your skin to stay healthy and happy, so I would like you stay over there while I am cooking…”
- If we have to give more direct information about the hazards of a particular thing/activity, then we do so without relying on terminology or examples that generate fear rather than simply neutrally inform. So blenders can cut fingers. Cars can accidentally hit people. Knives can poke skin. Hot tea pots can burn hands. We give them the right kind of information, without watering down that information with blood and gore.
- The other thing we do, which is as important as all the rest combined, is let our girls safely explore. If we want them to stay safe before they can keep themselves so, then we protect them. And as they have aged, we protect them less and less, leaving them more and more room to explore on their own. So for each girl, when they were each first walking, we gave them lots of information about roads (and continued doling out more information as they understood more), and we let them each safely check out the road, and the cars passing on it, and how to keep themselves safe around it. I remember standing in a puddle in the middle of the road with 3 year old Bella, and letting her check it out as long as we were safe, and then ushering her across when the first car appeared down the block. I also remember letting each girl in turn hold my wrist as I cut vegetables with a kitchen knife.
- Finally, and honestly, we have had to be brave. We have been “more attentive”, but in the end we have also been willing to be “less attentive” in order to trust our girls and their safety to them. This is an important step for all of us, because until we trust them with it fully, they can’t be the ones keeping themselves safe — functionally or intellectually. But it’s also important because, letting them go tend to their own safety in every aspect is what we are all practicing — (almost) every parent will have to let go completely, and (almost) every child will have to take the reins completely, otherwise we haven’t done our jobs as parents.
When it comes right down to it, for safety sake, there are three main parts to this approach. 1.) Protect them as long and as much as it is necessary — be willing to go the distance in this respect, and don’t try to rely on them before they are ready for it. 2.) Inform them as soon, as fully, and as positively as possible about protecting themselves. And 3) Say what you want to see — that is them “Stay[ing] safe!”.
I will be honest and say that it did feel like a cumbersome switch in our approach at first — changing the way we spoke, etc. — but once we saw it working, we were hooked. Now we don’t even think about it. And so far we haven’t even had one kid get run over yet… ;)
If you want more ideas on this subject — here is great post from Natalie to check out.