Monday, January 28, 2013

Keeping Your Kids Safe Without Smothering Their Development

It was just yesterday.  I was in the grocery store with Katelynn and Kaleb.  We were at the check out counter and the kids were standing just next to me.  The cashier handed me the credit card slip to sign and my frequent shopper card.  I signed the slip and put the card back in my purse, then turned to check on the kids.  To my horror, Kaleb was gone.  I whirled around scanning the area. There was Katelynn but no sign of Kaleb. I called out his name, fear rising in my voice.  No answer.  Other shoppers looked at me with concern.  Then I remembered seeing both the children checking out cookbooks around the corner from the cashier. And sure enough, just around the corner was Kaleb, checking out the books, entirely oblivious to the fright he had just caused his mother. I grabbed his arm and pulled him away, scolding him about not wandering off, relief calming my fearful adrenaline rush.

I remember another similar situation when Katelynn was three.  She thought it would be fun to play hide-and-go-seek with her mom at the department store.  She slipped away while I was looking at a bin of children's swim suits.  Of course she did not answer my calls, thinking that this was a fun game to play.  Eventually I found her 10 feet away in the dressing room.  Of course we had a serious mother to daughter chat about safety after that.

Do these instances sound familiar? What parent has not had a scare like this, especially if you have more than one child.  In the wake of the terrible tragedy of six year old William Yau's disappearance and death, we are all acutely aware there are dangers that lurk for our children.  Parents are being admonished never to take their eyes off their children and never to leave their children alone unattended. Some articles like this one from the Star entitled "Beware of Lurking Predators"  would have us become paranoid parents, putting our child on a leash to keep them safe.

I'm going to be a contrarian voice here.  Something needs to be said about freedom for children.  There must be a balance between fear, safety and independence. If we go further down this path of vigilance, I believe we will have kept them safe from danger, but we will have damaged our children in another way.  We will have retarded their ability to assess situations, their ability to think through decisions, their ability to solve problems, and their ability to trust their own judgement, and quite possibly their self-esteem.  Here are some disturbing trends from other societies where vigilance has probably gone too far:
  • Depression and anxiety - over protected children grow up feeling that the world is a scary place and that they are not capable people.  Psychologists report a rise in children with these problems that point to over-parenting as one of the factors.
  • Taking bigger risks to feel grown-up - kids that aren't allowed to take smaller risks at younger ages attempt bigger risks as teenagers with their bodies, with drugs and with alcohol. Social workers and psychologists report this trend from interviews with such youths.
  • Low self esteem - Not allowing a child to do things independently sends a signal that they aren't capable.
  • An inability to launch- More and more children don't leave the home after 18, unsure of what they want to do with their lives.  Perhaps they doubt their ability to live life on their own.
  • A Dangerous Naivety - Children who are never allowed to do things on their own lack important knowledge to navigate more complex situations later on in life, making them more vulnerable to danger and predators.

So far all the responsibility of keeping a child safe seems to be pointed at the parent.  As if only the parent is able to keep a child safe.  I disagree. Each child must be part of the process.  Each child must learn how to keep themselves safe. If we don't involve our children in this process, that is when the damage I mentioned above will happen.

One Size Does Not Fit All
One of the things we often engage in when a child is hurt or goes missing is blaming the parents.  However, we don't know the cognitive level of the child, his or her personality or experience. We don't know the details of the situation.  We need to come to the understanding that there is no one size-fits-all for when it's appropriate to give more responsibility or freedom to your child. A parent needs to think about the following:
  • The child's cognitive ability-  How much is your child able to understand and how well are they able to articulate themselves, make decisions or assess a situation?  Some of us have children who are ready at 6 or 7 to use the stove, for example.  Other children lack the ability to understand how to use the stove safely. So, we don't allow them to do such things unsupervised.  
  •  Experience - Has your child any experience with the "risky" situation?  Experience does help a child to learn what not to do and what they should do.  For example, if your child has never been around horses, it makes sense that you would want to be there supervising them until they have gained enough experience.
  • Self-Control - How well is your child able to delay gratification?  How well are they able to resist temptations?  How well can he or she follow instructions?
It's a Gradual Process
At some point we have to let go. We have to let our children play on their own, cook, solve disputes with others, etc.  But of course it's not done all at once.  We can start by allowing them to observe us in a variety of situations.  Don't shoo them out of the kitchen or exclude them from other adult activities.  Let them observe you and talk to them about what you're doing and why you're doing it.

I'll give an example.  I have recently allowed Katelynn to put away the dishes from the dishwasher.  Now, the first thought that would go through your head is that she might drop a dish and cut herself, or she might injure herself with a knife.  I could just do it myself because I think it's too risky, but instead what I did was have her watch me put away the dishes.  As I went, I talked about how to handle breakable objects and sharp objects like knives.  Next, I watched her put the dishes away a few times, giving pointers about unsafe practices or behaviors.  Now I don't need to watch.  She knows how to do it herself and now she can earn an allowance doing it.  She has learned that she is able to do something on her own and that I trust her to do it. 

Yes, it will take time effort and patience when children make mistakes, but if you keep showing them and allowing them to try with your supervision, eventually, they can do things on their own.  In the process they have learned more about safety, more about how to make decisions and to anticipate danger and take action to avoid it.  Practice is what our children are sorely lacking and lack of it is what makes them vulnerable or easy targets.

Talk about Safety with Your Children
 Talk about strangers (And the fact that they can talk to strangers, especially when they are trying to get away from someone creepy!), about good touch and bad touch and what to do if they become separated.

Take a first-aid course. Saint John's Ambulance offers them.  Katelynn and I are taking one soon. I figure I need a refresher course too.  Help your child memorize their address, and your mobile number.  Role play so that they get some practice handling these situations.  For more excellent ideas on safety tips to discuss with your children check out this article, "Balancing Fear and Freedom in Raising Safe Kids:

Another article "Predator Proof Your Kids" has suggestions on how to talk to your children about how to keep their body safe from unwanted physical attention:

This part of the Free Range Kids website (the heading entitled: "You are raising your kid in New York City. Is it harder to be a free range parent in the city?") had some pretty good tips about some of the things we parents fear most.   Just scroll down a little to find that section. Many other sections are very good.

I might also add that we need to get out more and get to know our community.  Do you know your neighbors? What are their names?  Do they know your name?  The name of your child? How often do you talk to them?  Have you tried shopping in any of the shops nearby? In fact it's nicer to shop in the smaller stores because the same people are there day after day and I bet those abductors that were mentioned in the Star article "Beware of Lurking Predators" are less likely to be in a place where they would be easily recognized as a stranger, not to mention any strange behavior on their part.

We've experienced the benefits of being regular customers in smaller shops near our home. It was not so long ago that the aunty in the flower stall next to the photocopy shop I frequent allowed my kids to sit and watch some T.V. while I ran to my car to get something I had forgotten. She even fed them a snack and gave them a flower.  Getting to know the people in our community means that you've got more eyes to see and more people to help.  

Teach Your Child to Think for Themselves
Spend time helping your child learn thinking skills and give them opportunities to practice them.  There are many situations where children need to assess a situation, make a decision or come up with a creative solution quickly to stay safe when you are not around.

 I just read in the paper yesterday about a family whose teenage son went missing.  Eventually it was discovered that he had lied to his parents.  Instead of going to play football in the nearby field with his friends, they all went swimming.  Unfortunately, they picked a bad spot and the young man was swept away by a strong current and drowned.  His traumatized friends told the parents that he never showed up to play football.  It was only later when his body was found that they owned up to what had really happened.  Maybe if this young man had taken the time to assess the situation and think about whether it was really safe or not, he might had turned down his friends' suggestion.

Teach decision making skills, cause and effect, problem solving and planning.  When there is an opportunity for decision making, problem solving and planning, involve your kids so they get some practice flexing those muscles. Newspapers also have many stories where you can apply these skills to the situations reported.  Discuss how these skills can be used in those situations, and of course, use them in situations your family is involved in.  Talk about what happened afterwards and whether you would do anything differently.

Are these strategies fool proof?  No! Bad things sometimes happen no matter how careful we are, but it doesn't mean we lock up our children away from the real world. If we've worked with our kids in these areas, I believe we don't have to live in constant dread of your children being hurt or snatched away.  We can then allow them more freedoms, and we don't have to always be hovering. At the same time, we've done what parents need to do - equip our children to one day get along without us.

More Related Readings:

Another excellent article about balancing safety with risk: "Over Protected Kids: How to Let Kids Take Risks"

 Free Range Kids Website:

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