Monday, May 18, 2009

Keeping Kids Safe

A few weeks ago, I was hanging outside in the front with the kids. A car made its way slowly down our street and as I watched it, I remembered that I hadn't talked to the kids about safety issues lately. Especially with Morgan becoming so eager and friendly toward people with dogs, I thought I'd ask a question, just to find out what she knew:

"Hey Morgan. If you were playing outside here in the front yard, and someone you didn't know drove up in their car and said 'Hi, Little Girl! I've got some candy for you but you have to come sit in my car to get it.' What would you do?"

Without one moment's hesitation, in a confident, bright tone of voice, Morgan replied, "I'd take the candy!"

After the ice in my veins melted, we all had a Talk about safety issues. It's hard to do, to give the kids information that they might need without giving them nightmares, you know?

DANGER takes all sorts of forms--all the way from falling down the stairs or sticking a fork in a light socket to eating some poison (or peanuts) or running into the street in front of a car. All things I can imagine my kids doing (or they have done). If you have a big imagination like me, it's sometimes difficult to stop imagining the worst-case-scenario for just about anything:

Oh no! He's running with a spoon! There was water spilled in the kitchen earlier. What if I didn't wipe it all the way up? What if he slips and falls in just the right way that he gouges his eye out with a spoon? Even if he doesn't do that, he might grab onto the high chair as he's falling and twist his leg around it and then he'll have a broken leg and he'll end up with a cast all the way to his hip and then how will he be able to take a bath?

Yes, that's how my brain works. I could go on all night--don't get me started.

And while it is extremely tempting to wrap them in a bubble and protect them from every single danger that could possibly befall them, it's really not realistic or preferable. But you can't just let them wander around in traffic either.

One book that really influenced my thinking on the subject of safety is Protecting the Gift: Keeping Children and Teenagers Safe (and Parents Sane) by Gavin De Becker. It's been a while since I've read the book, so I'm going from memory here, but he offers some excellent practical advice on how to teach your kids about being safe without scaring the crap out of them at the same time. It's a thin line I'm very familiar with, dealing with the peanut allergy.

Here are some of the ways we handle safety situations with our kids. I'd love to hear more ideas.

Resisting the Temptation to Overprotect

One thing I really have to work on personally is not allowing my crazy overactive Mommy imagination get the better of me. One of my chosen parenting principles is to set as few limits as I possibly can on the kids (not that they'd believe this!). The reason for this is so that the kids can experience reality as much and as often as possible free from parental interference. Why is this important? I think that when we interfere too often, it can not only be frustrating to the child (and therefore the parent), but also prevents them from gaining knowledge that can only be learned through direct experience with reality.

This does not mean I am a permissive, anything-goes kind of parent. But rather, it means that I try to be cognizant of whether or not my interference is necessary. Maria Montessori cautioned against interfering with a child's work: "they should not be helped unnecessarily, nor interrupted, once they have begun to do something intelligent." And this is an application of the same principle--that unless they really need me, are about to get into something really harmful and irreparable, I try to stay out from between the child and reality.

But if the child is heading toward certain, irreparable disaster--such as running carelessly through a crowded parking lot--then of course I'm not going to allow him to experience the direct consequences of such actions. He could get really, really hurt. And he's too much of a value to me to let him get hurt. And I know that he would not want to get really hurt either, if he could possibly think that far ahead and express himself.

Sometimes, though, the danger level and/or risk of injury is truly low. If the baby is climbing up the staircase, I will watch him, maybe follow a few steps behind, but I won't prevent him from climbing (unless I need to do something else). He may slip and fall a few steps, but I know that it is really, really unlikely that any permanent serious harm would come to him from slipping down a few carpeted stairs. Would I allow him to climb the wooden steps to the balcony, which end at a concrete slab on the ground and lack risers? No--not at this point in his development. But when he's a bit older, sure.

Taming the Imagination Beast

Even though I can imagine dozens of terrible scenarios, I know that a rational evaluation of the actual risk tells me that the likelihood of such a damaging set of events would be pretty low. So I ask myself, "Could this terrible thing I'm imagining really, truly happen? If yes, is it likely to happen?" If the answer is "NO" to those questions, and if there aren't compelling reasons to stop whatever the kid happens to be doing (such as the baby needing me to physically be near him while he practices the stairs and I've got other things to do), then I'll default to "Yes."

Sometimes, these kinds of evaluations need to happen quickly, and I've made the wrong decisions on either side of the equation. I've been too cautious when it wasn't really necessary and I've let them do things that were more dangerous than my (or their) risk threshold. I usually make mistakes on the "too cautious" side of the equation, though.

And of course, I'm always on call for when Mr. Gravity was a little bit too rough.

Safety from Bad Guys and other Unsafe Situations

As my regular readers are no doubt aware, Bad Guys and Good Guys are popular topics of conversation around here. Usually, these discussions remain in the realm of pretend (although the older kids each have active imaginations enough to dream up demons in the bedroom and other Bad Guys, but that's a different post).

But yes, there are real Bad Guys. And while I don't think there's any point to scaring kids unnecessarily--the risks are there, but they are very low--I do think it's important to talk about how to handle things in the very small off-chance they have a real encounter with a real Bad Guy.

De Becker handles this so well in Protecting the Gift. We use many ideas straight from his book.

These include:

Don't tell kids: "Don't talk to strangers."
Huh? Isn't that the first thing we learned? The reason for this is simple: because if the kid needs help and can't find his parents, then he will likely need to rely on strangers for help! The trick is to help them identify which strangers will probably give them the help they need.

If you get lost, find a Mommy and ask her for help.
Why? Because statistically, there are many more Bad Guy Men than Bad Guy Women. It's true. Also, any Mommy worth her Mommy badge would probably stop and help a lost and scared child. I've done it once. Not that men wouldn't, but again, you're playing the odds here.

If you get lost at a mall or other public event, do NOT ask a Security Guard Peopleguy (or any other man in an official uniform) for help. Always, always find a Mommy. Why? Because sometimes Bad Guys pretend to be Good Guys in order to trick people.

If someone tries to get you to leave where you are, make lots and lots and lots of noise and do everything in your power to stay. where. you. are.
(This is good advice for anyone.) Why? Because Bad Guys do not want an audience--they try to get their victims away from others first. So don't leave--and be obnoxiously loud, too. That will make Bad Guys really uncomfortable.

If anyone ever does something to you or with you and tells you not to tell Mom, then you always, always tell Mom.

Those are some specific suggestions I remember from De Becker's book--there are lots more. Yes, it's scary to contemplate, but it's nice to have a plan. Which brings me to:

Focus on the Control You Have

Anything that is scary is even scarier if you feel out of control. So when our kids feel scared of something, we try to empathize with them that yes, that is a scary thing, but then I try to turn the conversation toward "But here's what you can do...." And I always reassure them that the chances are small, too. For example:

Thunderstorms sure make loud noises. Here's what you can do: You can help me find my special flashlight just in case the lights go out. I don't think they will, but if they do, then we'll be prepared. And you can tell me if you hear the tornado siren, because then we'll know to go to the basement to be safe. Also, why don't you listen to the weather radio with us?

Getting lost from Mommy in a store would be a scary thing. Let's think of a plan just in case that happens. I don't think that would ever happen, because I keep a very close eye on you, but it never hurts to have a plan. Here's what you do: Find a Mommy. How do you know who a Mommy is? Look for a woman, especially a woman with children. What should you tell her? Tell her your name and say "I'm lost. Will you help me?"

Explain things in a way they can understand. This is obvious, but I'll share a story of a time when I didn't do that very well. When Ryan was a toddler, I began to teach him to watch the street for cars. I told him what I was taught: "Look both ways!" He'd quickly turn his head side to side and then proceed. And then I realized that there's quite a bit of non-spoken context to "Look both ways!" that needed 'splainin'. So now we say this: "Time to check to see if it's safe to cross the road. Are there cars coming this way? [look and point] Cars coming that way? [look and point] No? Well, then, is it safe to cross? Yes, I agree with you. It is safe. Let's go!"

Help set their expectations by giving them information. We did take a field trip to the Fire Station a couple summers ago and it was very educational. One of the things I liked about our tour was how one of the Fireman Peopleguys got dressed in his fire gear right in front of the children. Another Fireman Peopleguy explained about every piece of the equipment, from boots to emergency oxygen doohickey. Once the guy was dressed in his full mask, they turned it on so he sounded like Darth Vader. And the narrator said to the kids: "Doesn't he look different? But do you think it's still Fireman Jack? Yes, it is! You all saw him get dressed, didn't you? Talk for us Jack! Wow--he sounds different, doesn't he? Now take off your helmet Jack." And the guy took off his equipment and showed the kids that yes, it was still really him; he was the same guy. And then they both told the kids "If you see someone wearing this mask and there is a fire in your house, don't hide from us! I know we look big and different and sound different, but if we are in your house in an emergency, we need to know where you are, so don't hide. We'll show you our faces as soon as we get you outside." It was so well done. Hmmm....think we ought to do that again one of these days.

How and When to Bring up the Subject

The incident a few weeks ago was an exception to how we discuss safety issues. Usually, we work our remarks into our every day activities. If we're going to be going somewhere really crowded, I'll review the Find a Mommy rule: "Hey, who remembers what to do if you can't see Mom or Dad? That's right: Find a Mommy. And don't forget to tell her your name and our names. It is pretty crowded here, so I just wanted to make sure you'll remember. However, I'm not worried; I'm going to hold your hand just like this. That way we'll make sure to stay together."

I like how our pediatrician handles the issue of body safety. Starting at about age 3, during their yearly check up, she'll just casually say as she's examining their private parts, "I'm going to look down here. And it's okay for me to do this, because your Mom is right here with you, and I'm just checking to see that everything's healthy." Once she might have said something along the lines of "If someone else asks to check your private areas, then you be sure to tell your Mom, okay?" I like how she says it because she addresses the issue and then moves on. And then I can follow up on the whole "your privates are only for you" issue later.

Ask open-ended questions, such as "What would you do?" when those conversations do take place. I try to use this technique anyway, because I'm interested to see what they're really thinking and it will often help me identify gaps in their information or strategies. Plus, getting their cranial juices flowing helps make the solution more likely to "stick" in their heads. When they are taking an active role in the process, they will be more interested and engaged than if it's just another one of those Mom Lectures.

This is a topic where I'm sure we can generate tons of great ideas for how to handle all manner of safety issues. Let's hear your strategies in the comments!

Gavin De Becker's website
Free Range Kids


LB said...

Another great parenting post.

I love Gavin DeBecker's The Gift of Fear, I didn't know he had written one about/for kids and teenagers. I must get it.

Also, taming the imagination beast and focusing on the control you have are the two very important bits of advice for me right now, so thanks for the reminder.

Kelly Elmore said...

Another bit of De Becker's advice that I liked for kids and for adults is about not being afraid to be rude. Better to be rude and be wrong than to be polite and end up a victim. For me, this means, it is okay to say no forcefully to a man in a dark parking lot who offers to help with my groceries and won't accept my first no. Probably he's just a kind of pushy nice guy, but he should take no, and if he doesn't it's okay to be rude. For Livy, this means that if a grown up is talking to you and you feel uncomfortable, it's okay to leave and run to me. I don't care if you are rude, as long as you get away when you feel scared. This idea was incredibly freeing to me, as I was raised in an over-polite Southern family where hurting anyone's feelings was to be avoided at all costs - even my own safety.

Raman Gupta said...

Bruce Schneier has some commentary related to this here:

One quote: "When I was growing up, children were commonly taught: "don't talk to strangers." Strangers might be bad, we were told, so it's prudent to steer clear of them.

And yet most people are honest, kind, and generous, especially when someone asks them for help. If a small child is in trouble, the smartest thing he can do is find a nice-looking stranger and talk to him.

These two pieces of advice may seem to contradict each other, but they don't. The difference is that in the second instance, the child is choosing which stranger to talk to. Given that the overwhelming majority of people will help, the child is likely to get help if he chooses a random stranger. But if a stranger comes up to a child and talks to him or her, it's not a random choice. It's more likely, although still unlikely, that the stranger is up to no good."

Amy said...

I like the "find a mom" trick a lot. Samantha has just recently figured out that other women are mommies to other children, so I'm going to point it out even more in preparation for the "find a mommy" advice.

We have not introduced the idea of Bad Guys to her yet. She is 2.5, and I think it is more important for her to develop an early feeling of trusting people, especially since she is cautious by nature. With a fearless child, I might do it differently.

Rational Jenn said...

Thank you for your comments, everyone. Kelly, I had forgotten about the It's Okay to be Rude part, so I'm really glad you brought that up. We have had many a conversation about rudeness and how it is not the thing to do to one's friends or family members--but yes, it's okay to be rude to a Bad Guy.

Amy, I'm not really sure how we got started on Bad Guys and Good Guys around here. I think it must have been a natural development from Ryan's interest in Spider-Man (around age 3). Then one day, years later, he asked "Are there real Bad Guys?" and we told him yes, but not that many--because as Raman pointed out many people will probably help a child, because most people are GGs. I think our particular obsession with BGs and GGs is very Ryan-specific--it's just something he is interested in, and takes many forms--armies, battles, his interest in policeman peopleguys, etc.

I have no idea how people who do not live with Ryan (or a child like him) would introduce the idea of BGs, but I'm sure it will come up eventually! And I think you're right, Amy, that different kids will need different tactics here. The naturally cautious kids (like yours and Ryan) will need one approach, and the completely unafraid kids (like Morgan) will need a different one.

As an amusing aside, Morgan has picked up on much of this BG/GG talk. Many times it will come up and she will very solemnly refer to King George III, who is, in her mind, the Ultimate Bad Guy. We have to keep reminding her that he died a long time ago. :o)