Sunday, January 20, 2008

Danger, Children! Danger!

I watched the video embedded below and was struck by how often I nodded in agreement. It got me thinking about the experiences that have informed my opinions surrounding child safety. Where are the lines for us, when we as parents try to balance providing a safe life for our kids with going too far and stymieing their growth?

I spent my time in the body of a first time-only child parent, and I paid my crazy-protective dues, like most other parents. While that waned a bit with the onset of my second child and my growing trust for the first, it waxed again with the diagnosis of my daughter's anaphylactic allergies and the vigilant lifestyle we had to adopt to literally keep her breathing. I didn't want to cloister my children or have them not experience the world, so I think I put some extra thought into how they would be taught to approach life. Fear of the unknown wasn't going to be fostered; we were going to be prepared for as much as possible.

To that end, I let my wee girlie play with knives at the tender age of three.

Ok, so she wasn't playing with them--I wrote that for shock effect. She was actually helping me chop things for cookdates, but it did look odd, maybe even startling, to other people. My reasoning was simple: as a professional chef, I had many sharp objects in and around the house. My knife kit was readily accessible. In fact, I obviously did not want her 'playing" with my equipment, so I taught her how to use it, how to respect it. It's a tenet of the Montessori philosophy as well, to treat children as being in possession of the physical and mental faculties they do possess. Children that young can absolutely be safe and productive in their pursuits so long as they are taught what to do and how to do it, and more importantly, when they know they are trusted to do it. In fact, it is part of the natural urges of the child to take that kind of initiative, especially during sensitive periods of her life, and try to master her environment. Montessori wrote "If the child is prevented from enjoying these experiences at the very time when nature has planned…the special sensitivity will vanish… (AM95.)"

I had been happily plugging along in my Montessori-soaked homeschool milieux, watching the kids really respond and thrive with that method, when we moved to Washington state. As the parent of three children by then, I felt relaxed and tolerant of the things children do. I allowed them a lot of freedom, and expected the calm and focus we'd had in SC in return. Not so much. The cross-country move really rattled our two year old, and with the birth of our younger son quick on the heels of our relocation, our little family was in an uproar. It took some months to return our house to "peaceful" and the children to "normalized," but we got there. Enter the C-family.

Relaxed and tolerant I was, but these folks--whose three children were each born within months of ours-- were well on the other side of it. My son in particular was not a graceful toddler, and physically he had a disproportionately large head (there was nothing medically wrong, he just had a big head for his little body, which has since grown into nice proportion), so he was forever getting hurt just walking around. He'd run into walls, trip over his feet, and let's not discuss the stairs. I was fully capable of letting my kids take supervised liberties with their own environment, but the C-family seemed to actively encourage danger, as far as I was concerned. Their children climbed cliffs like monkeys, raced bikes and scooters around the parks (at 2 and 4, I was scandalized!), and perched atop boulders higher than my head, all clearly out of reach of any adult. Their particular style of child rearing was based largely on the way the Niki had been raised within the Continuum Concept.

Much like our modern attachment parenting, Liedloff espouses full contact at all times while the babe is in arms, and then as soon as the toddler begins demanding freedom, to give it. With regards to young children and big pits in the jungle, she writes : "We act as though human nature were something to be afraid of; to constrain, modify or fight; to subdue and overcome. Somehow we have gotten away from believing that we evolved in a way that works. We believe that our nature has to be modified, opposed and controlled from the very beginning. Our nature, like that of every other animal, works fine the way it is. But we do not trust human nature. We distrust it in infants, in children, and in ourselves."

Something in me clicked in the first few months of knowing these people. I knew my limits for N-man were sound because he really was having a hard time, but I relaxed trying to protect him all the time. It was his big head and he needed to learn how to manage it. As I eased off, he got better, less clumsy.

Liedloff goes on to say "One is never do anything for a child that it can possibly do for itself, even if it takes a while longer. Because every time you do something, not only do you give the child the message that it's inefficient or incompetent, but you're actually preventing it from learning; from having faith in its own ability to accomplish and figure things out. Let them figure it out. If it gets up onto a sofa or a chair and it can't figure out how to get down, leave it there until it can. It will try one leg and try another, it will figure it out. Or you might eventually give it the next step, helping with one step but not the whole thing. Give the child the message from the very beginning that you expect it to figure things out for itself."

I already had it in my belief system to cultivate extreme independence in my children with their household tasks and their education, but I had not given them autonomy over their physical selves. They were so precious to me that I couldn't imagine not trying to keep them safe. What changed for me was subtle. I began to perceive their physical bodies as something they could protect better than I could. I had given them the skills they needed around the house and about their education, but I needed to let them figure out how to use their own bodies to ascertain their own limits. I had to learn to trust the child, again.

Look--I will be frank, I am still not down with my 7 year old walking the top of our play structure as if it were a balance beam, 8 feet off the ground. I have to turn my back when they are climbing the cedar trees, so high I could never hope to reach them. But when they do get stuck, I don't pull them out of their jam, I coach them out; I will make them feel secure enough not to panic, I will help them know where place their feet, and if the situation demands it, I will talk with them about whether they should be doing whatever it was they were doing. But likewise, when they accomplish physical feats I would never have expected / allowed / wanted, I will let them be proud; I won't chastise them or tell them they're out of line. It's hard for someone like me. It really is. But I believe that I am keeping them safer by letting them learn their own limits.

There remain plenty of things in their early childhood about which I am adamant in protecting them: the burdens of the adult world; hatred; contempt; cruelty; common bullies. I was shocked and mortified when my 6 year old daughter came home from a music class asking me about the two towers that had fallen in a big city. I continue to advocate for my daughter in group settings, to keep peanuts and treenuts well away from her. I joined forces with another mother recently regarding our children's karate class, when the Sensei had the children perform an amazingly inappropriate "game" that involved much larger children actually walking across the room atop the other students' prone bellies, without supervision or restraint. That was a good lesson, even for me, in what I am discussing. Most of the children knew this wasn't a good idea, but they were told to do it anyway. What should they have done-- obey their instincts or obey their instructors? We both contacted the Sensei and he permanently pulled the exercise.

I have a function as a mother, as a parent, as a protector. I just feel it is incumbent upon me to ensure I am not protecting them from themselves--too much.

Some cool links:

The Dangerous Book for Boys

The Daring Book for Girls

The Boys Book: How to be the best at everything

The Girls Book: How to be the best at everything


  1. I read Liedloff years ago, before even my 22 year old was a twinkle in my eye.

    At first, when the child finally arrived, I thought that Liedloff was a complete 'idjit.' But then I remembered all the things I did that my mother never knew about, like walking upright on the top of the monkey bars, and climbing to the top of an oak more than 100 years old. And I thought of the fact that I was relatively cautious and really, I was pretty aware of my limits. So I relaxed. And taught my kids the proper use of shiny, sharp, and pointy implements of destruction.

    It has paid off. I have never once taken either child to the emergency room for injury.

  2. Yep. About the only place where I really feel like I need to be hyper-vigilant is around water with non-swimmers. Other than that, kids seem to have a lot more common sense than folks give them credit for. Most of the time, anyway.

  3. I still remember the freakout over "yeah, good climbing" with Boyness 9 feet off the ground.

    The ability to protect themselves and to keep themselves from getting in over their heads isn't something that spontaneously emerges - you need to encourage it by letting them figure it out themselves, and the best time to do it is right from the start. From the moment your child learns how to catch his balance without your hand behind his back, he begins to figure out how to move his physical body safely through the world. It applies to everything from falling to a sitting position rather than tanking it on the ground as he practices walking to making sure that if he loses his balance on the top of the swingset, he can crouch, straddle, or grab in some way. If he hasn't learned to move his body safely and appropriately, you can't trust him to be safe on the top of the swingset. If he's proven his abilities on a more moderate scale, you feel better about it. Does that make sense?

  4. And FTR, "out of adult reach" doesn't mean we were off doing something else entirely. Just that we couldn't physically touch our child from where we were standing, often right underneath them.

  5. I try so hard to just let her be, I really physically do.

  6. thanks for linking to your blog :)

  7. Awesome post! I have had the experience of seriously freaking out other people by doing things such as letting my 17 month old dd slide down the (extremely dangerous) slide at waterfront park (parents are trying to get it taken out!) that is officially for children ages 5-12.

    It's her favorite slide. I went up the ladder a ways behind her the first time or two (I was very pregnant at the time...) to reassure myself that she knew what she was doing and now I usually just wait at the bottom of the actual slide for her or sit on the bench where I can easily keep an eye on her.

    This is a child who was climbing up staircases (higher than that horribly dangerous slide) when she was 7 months old.

    It is wonderful for me to hear your perspective of looking back to when you first saw a child testing his limits! I will forever be grateful to the online mama-friend who recommended that I read the Continuum Concept when I was pregnant with dd1. She also introduced me to the concept of EC for which I will also be forever grateful!


  8. Good post. Especially in our uberprotective society where kids are supposed to stay in a bubble indefinitely. You know, until they're tried as an adult.