SAFETY FIRST?

Readers – I’m excited to introduce a new blogger on this site, Denise Gonzalez-Walker. Denise lives in Seattle with her husband and two kids. She regularly blogs about education at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s Chalkboard blog and is a member of Seattle Mom Blogs. Here are her thoughts on childhood safety – and she is real expert, as you’ll see. Enjoy! — Lenore

 

SAFETY FIRST?

BY DENISE GONZALEZ-WALKER

 

My life is one of contrasts. On one hand, I’m the mother of two bright, active kids — a 4 year-old daughter and 10-year-old son. Both kids love to run, jump, climb and roughhouse. My son, in particular, gravitates toward “extreme” sports like BMX and skateboarding, and yearns to spend time outdoors on his own. 

On the other hand, I’ve worked for the past five years as a “child injury prevention specialist,” a.k.a. child safety expert, in a field populated with some of the most risk-averse people you’ll find.  While there’s definitely value to the work being done by these folks, I’ve sometimes found my own worldview at odds with my profession.

For example, constant supervision will always win out over unsupervised time for kids, from keeping toddlers within arm’s reach to always knowing where your teen is at.  Walking to school, or walking anywhere for that matter, will always be “unpredictable and dangerous”—the words a colleague recently used when describing her school pedestrian program. Swing sets will be yanked out of school playgrounds. Trees will be made off-limits to climbing. Etc., etc.

For parents like me, who believe in the Free Range philosophy promoted here, this can be a slippery slope. Sure, we all want our kids to be healthy, happy and successful. But how far should we go in protecting them? That is where both the research and opinions sometimes diverge.

I agree with Lenore—helmets, car seats, and seat belts are all simple to use and incredibly effective. But being scared to death every time your kid walks out the door is not as useful.  

Prompted by my own instincts as a mom and tired of viewing the world through the lens of risk, I’m leaving the field of injury prevention at the end of the month. As I approach this transition, I’m encouraged by the great ideas shared here on the Free Range Kids blog.

I’ve also started questioning how the Free Range philosophy fits elsewhere in kids’ lives. How much latitude do you give your son to choose his own path in school or on the playfield? My hunch is that those same anxieties driving parents to wrap their coffee tables with foam bumpers (full disclosure—I did it once, too!), later are reflected in the compulsion to manage our kids’ school and sports careers.

How much safety is too much — or too little? How much parental control? I look forward to contributing to this blog, sharing my ideas and learning from you.

Yours — Denise

 

 

25 Responses

  1. I can’t believe it. I just had an essay published called “Safety First?” in the VaHomeschoolers newsletter, here in VA. I wrote about why I think it’s valuable to let my 10 and 12y/o sons assume risk, how it adds context to their lives and lets them grow as individuals.
    Keep writing this good stuff. It’s important that we keep putting these ideas forward so we all don’t surrender to the fear some people are trying to push on us and our kids.

  2. For me, I think the tradeoff is one of intrusivity vs. risk. Helmets are minimally intrusive and go a long way toward mitigating an extremely dire risk. (I bike commute in Boston; I know whereof I speak.) But the risk obsession that FreeRangeKids speaks out against is intrusive, controlling behavior to mitigate remote risks — indeed, often this behavior, in mitigating those risks, introduces others! (E.g.: Damn straight my kid will never run into anything dangerous because she’ll never be more than 2 inches away from me! She’ll also never learn to do anything on her own. Hm….that sounds like a risk, too…)

    As for parental control in general, I spent the last five years teaching middle school, and here are markers of kids who’ve been too controlled, as far as I’m concerned:

    1) For sure, the ones whose parents have scripted their lives years in advance — especially because this often shades into “I’ll love you more if you go to Harvard” sorts of behavior. In the same bucket are the parents who set up their kids’ class schedules and extracurriculars out of regard for what the resume looks like, not the kids’ actual needs, talents, weaknesses, stress levels, etc. (He has to be in 3 honors classes or he won’t get into St. Oglethorpe’s Prep — who cares if he’ll be sleeping 3 hours a night and wreck his self-esteem.)

    2) The kids who never get any down time. In the same bucket: the kids whose activities are always adult-directed, so that they never get to/have to figure out how to amuse themselves, define the rules of the game, adjudicate disputes without adult intervention, etc.

    3) The kids who call home for trivial purposes, especially if they do so repeatedly — “Mom, I forgot my lacrosse stick, can you bring it?” “Mom, I forgot my homework, can you bring it?” “Mom, I finished my homework and I don’t have anything to do — will you bring something fun by study hall?” In all of these the correct answer is “No, suck it up and figure it out.” (Possibly with some suggestions of productive strategies if the kid is really stuck, but again, I’m talking 15-year-olds here.) Kids need to learn how to take responsibility for their failings (and recognize that sometimes, the buck will stop with them), and how to amuse themselves quietly for an hour. Sheesh. But the number of parents who dropped everything to bring in that lacrosse stick…

  3. What is the risk of:
    – seriously hurting yourself climbing trees?
    – your life being poorer for never having climbed a tree?
    – damaging your relationship with your child when you ban tree climbing?
    – hurting the tree?
    – dying one day because you couldn’t climb to safety (from a flood or fire say)?
    – dying from the rock climbing you took up because you loved climbing trees so much?

    It’s all about balancing the risks, not eliminating them.

  4. I find that walking on the tight rope between fostering independence and self reliance on the one hand, and keeping them safe on the other is a great place of growth for me as a mother and a person. When my 7 year old walks 5 blocks to his friend’s house I spend 10 minutes with my heart in my throat until my friend calls and tells me he got there. I think as a mother you spend a lot of time in the “worst case scenario” mind space, but for me the freerange parenting style is not just about giving my son useful life skills, it’s also about trusting my own best thinking IN THE FACE of my fear. Motherhood is just one growth opportunity after another, don’t you think? (c:

  5. Cooking breakfast looks like this: My 2-yr-old wants to “help” so she pushes her stool into the kitchen next to me and hands me eggs (“fragile,” she says), unravels twist-ties on bread, and we talk.

    I turn on the stove. “What do you know about stoves?” I ask. “Hot. They can hurt,” she says. And she continues standing on her perch just a few feet away from it.

    I pull out a cutting board and chop some veggies. “What do you know about knives?” I ask. “Sharp. Don’t touch,” she says. And there she is, right next to me while I slice away (always with one eye looking for little fingers).

    And, of course, we talk about what we’re making and how it will taste and who’s going to eat it etc. etc. It’s not all safety talk. But she’s right there, close to these dangerous things, learning their benefits and their risks. Sometimes I worry that visitors will think I’ve got her too close to the stove or too intimate with the knives. But she knows the routine. I know the routine.

    And if she did get burnt or if she did get a cut? Well, we’d learn about how to deal with that too…run it under water, get a bandaid, go to the hospital. Life would go on. And we’d be back to cooking breakfast together the next day…

    Denise, I’m looking forward to hearing your perspective on Free Range Kids. Seems like it’s all about balance and risk assessment and communication. Your background in child safety, I think, will help us make our kids safe. Not paranoid.

    Happily Even After,
    Janna

  6. My son and I have recently started bicycling to daycare. We take back roads and bike paths most of the way, but we must cross two busy streets, with traffic lights. We ride a ‘hook-up’ bicycle, where he has one wheel, pedals, and non-moving handlebars attached via a long central piece to my seat post. We carry our stuff in saddlebags. Yesterday, we got to the last traffic-light crossing at a fairly high speed, and zoomed across the road because I could tell the light was about to change (crosswalk signals). He asked me to slow down, so I did. Last night we talked about not zooming across the road there, and I promised that I wouldn’t do it again. We got back on our bike(s) this morning, and we did not zoom through the intersection, and he had a very good ride. He is very shy about this sort of thing, so it’d be very easy to let him just say ‘oh, I don’t want to bike anymore’, but I encouraged him to get back on the bike, and we had a very good ride this morning.

    My eventual goal is to have him bike himself to middle school and high school after we spend years biking to elementary school (he’s starting Kindergarten in a few weeks).

  7. Hmmmm….

    I have three very small kids so I think my perspective is going to be a little different. I think it depends on your child as to how much freedom you give them. The age here is also important. A ten year old is fine to climb trees alone in the yard. A two year old is not.

    I think there is a fine line here.

    I’ve never been much of a babyproofer for example.(I babyproofed the house, but they got in anyway!) My oldest just didn’t get into anything. But my next child gets into everything, and would have benefited greatly from some more babyproofing (as would I!). I give my kids a lot of free reign in my house, but I have had people not want me to watch their kids because of that.

    And for me with my three, I need to keep them close, because their judgments aren’t sound and I only have two eyes!

    And to Janna– I am glad your two your old gets that knives are sharp and stoves are hot, but I sure hope you keep them out of reach!

  8. Welcome, Denise! My dear friend is a “child injury prevention specialist” – and she was horrified when she found out we had a trampoline. So much so that she inundated me with statistics on accidents on trampolines, and I got rid of it. I still miss that thing, and my oldest is still angry that I got rid of it.

    How much safety is too much? When you are preventing your children from having safe, age appropriate fun and learning experiences because of the boogie man.

    How much parental control? There are so many variables. Location. Age of the child. Maturity of the child. Safety nets available to the child. When my 10 year old was 5, he was all about using the men’s restroom and having mom stand outside the door. My 5 year old? Wants to use the women’s restroom and wants Mom holding the stall door. If not in there with him.

    GOOD parents, whether they are free-range are not, know that there is no one-size-fits-all approach.

  9. Both Janna and Mindy bring up important points. Parenting is about knowing your kid and where he or she is developmentally. My 10 year-old son is easily spooked walking on city streets, so I don’t send him out on his own (plus we live on a busy state highway/street… not the most ped-friendly place to be!). On the other hand, he’s perfectly happy traipsing through the woods on his own. He knows what to do should he come upon a cougar, bear or other less scary wildlife. Is it risk-free? No. Can I control his experiences when he’s out there, meandering within a defined area on his own? No.

    That’s the other part of the equation–each parent has a different tolerance level for risk, both their own and their kid’s. I was reminded of this at a recent birthday my 4 year-old daughter attended at one of those indoor party centers. It was a slow day, so our group was the only one there. Yet some of the parents closely tracked their children’s every move through the benign bouncy play structures. Other parents, including me, lounged off to the side, counting the minutes until cake time.

    I think some of the best injury prevention experts, aka safety people, try to offer helpful information as a guide, not a mandate for parents. But sometimes, the safety messages come off as just that–as a rule that “good” parents should follow.

  10. Denise, I’ve recently learned about the growing academic field of children’s studies and the training of “playworkers,” people who specialize in inspiring children’s play without controlling it. Sounds a little squishy, but maybe well-intentioned. I thought I’d bring it up because it seems relevant.

    I also wanted to mention a PBS documentary, “Where Do the Children Play,” that I haven’t seen mentioned on this site. (Forgive me if it’s already here somewhere.) I thought some parents might want to look up this film, as well as the related Alliance for Childhood (allianceforchildhood.org). Here’s a description of the film:

    WHERE Do the Children Play?” is a PBS documentary, book, and outreach project about the
    vital importance of open‐ended creative play for the healthy development of children. This
    kind of play is disappearing from children’s lives because of unsafe neighborhoods that
    parents’ fear of “stranger danger,” even in safe neighborhoods; the seductiveness of
    electronic games and entertainment; an increase in teacher‐led instruction in preschool and kindergarten
    that is pushing child‐initiated learning and exploration out of the classroom; and children’s diminishing
    access to woods, fields, vacant lots, parks, and other semi‐wild play spaces.

    The documentary film was inspired by Elizabeth Goodenough’s book Secret Spaces of Childhood (University
    of Michigan Press, 2003). Goodenough, a scholar in the emerging field of children’s studies, noted that time
    outside school was increasingly filled with adult‐organized activities and indoor screen time. Children no
    longer had the space or opportunity to organize their own play or discover their own secret spaces.

  11. I am the mother of four kids ages 20 months through 10 years.

    They are good climbers because we let them climb. We have a 14 foot high old school steel playground slide in our yard which they have climbed from every angle. (not the 20 month old yet except for the one time he did) There are kids who come over that I don’t let climb the slide because I can see they can’t climb the slide. Others I don’t let climb the slide because i know if their parents saw them climb, said parents would freak out. Others I don’t let climb because they’re just too wild and they don’t know what to do at the top. We play it by ear. And we push the envelope whenever we can. And we turn away sometimes too because to watch is to sometimes freak out and sometimes it is the freak out which is the actual danger. I’m glad for this discussion, this blog and this chance to ponder life’s risks.

  12. I grew up free range on a farm in a rural community. My 3-year-old son doesn’t have that luxury. He does get regular trips to the playground to climb and jump and swing as he sees fit. I do not guide play, I just tag along to catch him if he asks me to and kiss his knees when they get scraped. Do I watch him every second? In our home, no. Outside, yes. I’m not a helicopter mom, but he’s still only three. Greater freedom will come with age. For now, he can experiment and climb and scrape his knees while I’m watching. I don’t have a coffee table, and if I did it wouldn’t be glass so I wouldn’t put bumpers on it. My son’s best friends have bumpered glass tables, and one of them still recently had stitches from the corner of the one table that wasn’t covered. Their parents aren’t coptering, either. For them, those bumpers are like a helmet or knee pads. They are safety gear that enables their girls to run and play freely in the living room. Frankly, I’m glad those bumpers are there. My son runs in their living room, too, while I’m in the kitchen chatting with my friend. To me, it makes much more sense than strapping helmets on their little heads indoors.

  13. Yeah. I’m on the fence with this too. I want to protect my kids from real danger without freaking out and drumming up false dangers in my mind. When you think about it, isn’t their more danger in keeping them sedentary (health danger) than letting them run free?

  14. Many of the risks that come with giving your kids freedom are acute–such as a skinned knee, split eyebrow on the table edge, etc. Stuff that maybe gives you a fleeting feeling of being a bad mom or dad, but quickly heals. If you are being thoughtful in terms of the freedoms you give your kid, and use reasonable precautions, such as seat belts and helmets, I think most of these risks are small potatoes compared to the danger of parking your kid on the couch for the summer.

    The risks of over-protecting your kids are more chronic. The effects may be subtle at first, but they will accumulate and stick around for a long, long time. Sedentary kids, whether overweight or not, face many health issues throughout adulthood.

    Even the experts are saying that kids today may well have a shorter lifespan than previous generations–not because of injuries or abductions (two major parent fears), but due to chronic health conditions.

    Likewise, in her book A Nation of Wimps, author Hara Marano makes a compelling case for the long-term psychological harm posed by what she called “death-grip parenting” that never allows kids to experience either physical, academic or emotional risk.

    Because physical injuries are more visible and dramatic when they do happen (little cuts can bleed a lot!), I think they tend to impact and mobilize people more than the serious problems created by the increasingly adult-controlled, liability-driven, structured world in which our kids are growing up.

  15. As a father to a two year old girl, I definitely consider myself paranoid. Perhaps it’s because I am the chivalrous type who also makes sure to protect and look after my wife, mother, grandmother, etc. So, my nature just adds to the paranoia I have for my little girl.

    I do agree that independence and common sense should be introduced at an early age; and the best way to accomplish this is to give children more freedom to think and act for themselves. When I was only seven and my sister was nine, we were often left behind at the Harrah’s arcade room in Atlantic City while my parents gambled. No harm came to us, as we knew not to stray and also knew not to trust strangers. Of couse, my parents would come check on us every half hour, but they still trusted us to be alone and responsible.

    I think back on how my childhood and do realize that the same type of freedom, or at least some of it to a degree, should be granted to my daughter. I remember how I often played in the streets unattended, but aware enough to watch for oncoming traffic, I remember walking home from grammar school which was about two miles from my house… and we didn’t even live in the safest of neighborhoods! Granted, my daughter is a too young right now, but I do intend to teach her how to think for herself and anticipate any consequences of her actions.

    Then, some other event catches me off guard and the paranoia returns. Recently, my ten year old nephew was approached in a men’s rest room at a local mall. My sister, who was tending to her baby daughter in the women’s room, let him go off alone with instructions to return to the women’s lounge afterwards.

    While my nephew was in the men’s room, a man approached him and said, “C’mon… are you done? I’ll take you to your Mom now.” My nephew who is smart and level-headed replied, “I don’t know what you’re talking about”, even as the man persisted and aggressivley pressured him to come along. Thankfully, my nephew was able to run out of the room and into the women’s lounge!

    That experience left my sister rattled, as well as my parents. Reflecting on it, I derived at least a positive thought… my nephew knew the right thing to do. He acted on instinct, common sense, and kept my sister’s instructions in mind. That in itself is a relief, and that is how I hope most children would act in a similar situation.

  16. We recently went to an art event at a local art museum, where the kids were building sculpture from scrap. They had hot glue guns, that only kids over 8 were allowed to use without help. My 7 year old (who uses my glue gun at home with supervision) couldn’t resist poking the sculpture to see if the hot glue was dry, and singed his finger. I could see the fear in the eyes of the volunteer: Here’s a mom who is going to freak because their precious little snowflake got hurt. My response to my son “Now you’ll remember that the glue is hot, right?” Son responded “Yes” and continued enjoying his sculpture. Lesson learned.

    Son came home with a big scrape on his nose from day camp yesterday. Turns out he fell off some big rock while hiking. I asked “Will you pay better attention next time?” Son: “Yes” Me: “Did you have fun?” Son: “Definitely!”

    The little nicks and bumps of childhood are rarely as traumatic as parents make them out to be.

  17. Excellent blog! I grew up riding my bike to the library, school, walking to the store, etc. I only WISH my kids could do this– we live in a fairly rural area and they can only hang out in the development unless they get a ride. Every day I wish we would have picked a house closer to an area they could walk to and hang out with their friends.

    I do send them to outdoors camp and try to give them as much freedom as possible.

    And, I let my son walk to the busstop by himself and I don’t meet him at the bus in the afternoon.

  18. It seems to me that protection that includes coercion actually makes children less safe. It sets the stage for kids to get sneaky in order to get what they want, rather than helping kids learn about what they want (is it the right thing to want? how can it be done safely and without violating anyone’s rights?). Doing things without good advice and maybe supervision by a trusted friend could end up with consequences a kid would rather not face and we parents would rather they not face too.

    Armed with knowledge is important, imo, and before kids have created that knowledge for their selves, they count on us parents to help them do stuff safely. That might include babyproofing and lots of participation and availability and interruptability on the part of parents and/or other trusted helpers when kids are young but it is so worth it as they grow up knowing how to protect themselves and taking more and more responsibility on themselves.

    Great communication is a huge part of this. We parents need to be a trustworthy source of information. If we get caught lying, in word or deed, our credibility will suffer with our kids, and then they might not come to us for the help they need to stay safe.

  19. I’m really impressed that you’re changing your career to reflect how your personal life has changed. That’s wonderful! I’m starting to think the same way (albeit I’m not in Safety), so I hope it works out for you.

  20. I’ve recently started having issues with my husband (and his family by proxy). I grew up in suburbia (northern Long Island), they grew up in a city (Buffalo). We currently live in a VERY quiet subdivision filled with families with kids, at the furthest end of a cul-de-sac. I have been letting my just about 3 year old (next week) play out on the porch by himself while I’m listening to him through the open front door, but doing some small tasks in the kitchen (out of visual range!!!). He has wandered into the front yard and I’m not freaked out by this. I asked him once to go out the front door and then around to the back yard, down to the veggie garden to get some lettuce for some snails he had put in a bug house. He completed this activity fantastically while I just waited for him on the porch. I’ve watched as he’s walked across the cul-de-sac to a neighbors house to play with their 5 y.o. son. I’m not afraid of any of these things. He knows to get out of the road (“go on the grass”) if a car comes. My only scary moment came when he just walked through the door after being at the neighbor boy’s house for a little while (every other time I’ve had to go over and drag him home), but they were going out this time. So he’d walked across the circle unobserved, but nothing bad had happened. My husband on the other hand had a complete break down when I let my son go out on the porch without me (I haven’t told him about the walking home unobserved incident – I think he’d have me committed). When my son asked to get some more lettuce from our garden for his snail, my husband insisted on watching him out the window the entire time. I just don’t understand what the fear is. There aren’t vicious animals in our yard or our neighbors yards (it’s not fenced), there are no wandering sexual predators in our yard (in fact there are no sidewalks on our street so there are no strangers). My in-laws all feel the same way. When you hear them talk about the dangers (what if, what if, what if!!!!!) and I talk about probabilities and possibilities, I come away sounding like the most neglectful and disinterested mother. So I ask, is it unreasonable to let my 3 year old son outside, out of visual contact for brief periods? How young is too young? We’ve just started to address strangers with him and I know he doesn’t completely understand the concept of good strangers and bad strangers, so maybe that’s a serious consideration, but he knows to stay out of the street unless I say it’s ok.

    When did the outside become so scary? *sigh*

  21. Safety Third.

    I don’t know what group or organization came up with this motto but I find it brilliant. Safety “first” is ok when you mean “step one”–putting on your helmet or your goggles or looking both ways. It’s not OK when you say “safety first” and mean “safety is the ultimate priority.” It should be third–the tertiary priority. First needs to be doing what you’re here to do, and second needs to be learning to do it better the next time.

  22. I don’t know if you’ve ever had the opportunity to read the article, Safe and Insane, by Philip Wylie.

    It implores EXACTLY this over-protective attitude parents have today. It was published in the Atlantic Monthly – in 1948.

    Sample passage:
    “The past fifty years of what we call civilization have utterly ruined childhood. The automobile, by restricting children to the yard or the block, by conditioning their very impulse to chase a ball, and by hooting at them like a beast whenever they appear on the margins of its sacred raceways, has taken away their last rights. The city itself is, of course, no place for children. Today the millionaire’s son is as much immured as the child in Victorian slums; perhaps the chauffeur drives him to and from school, but he is walled in by the hooting iron and is altogether cut off from Nature.”

    Another passage:
    “The life of a child ought to be a process of adventure, experience, and exploit, graduated upward to suit his rising consciousness – which, as I have said, follows the unfolding pattern of all instinct. In this process, if he is to become truly adult and thus mentally and emotionally secure, he must make contact with the evolutionary experiences of his forebears, for only thus can his emotions mature and only thus can he get a biological sense of those fundamentals of human life and society which sustain civilization even at its most citified summits. But instead of aiding and abetting this procedure, we have done everything we can think of to shield and protect our children from the facts of life.”

  23. Determining risk has two parts to it. The first part of risk is severity, or “If this bad thing happens, how bad will this be?” The second part of risk is likelihood, or “how likely is it that this bad thing will happen?”

    As a society, we have learned to focus on the first part of the equation. We have completely missed the second part.

    I spend a lot of time teaching kids and adults to ask that second question, and to apply the basic risk management formula to what they are looking at.

    I make my living teaching kids to take risks. I have no problem teaching kids to climb 20 feet up a piece of fabric, dance on a 1/2″ wire, stand on there friends shoulders, walk on a big ball or any number of other such things. I can do these things because I can ask that second question, and put the first question into perspective.

    I have a powerpoint presentation up on calculating out risk that may be helpful to some of you.

    http://community.simplycircus.com/powerpoint/Simply%20Circus%20-%20Risk%20Assesment.ppt

  24. what charities WONT! tell you, investigate before you donate.. before funding ANY charity. please visit. mrmcmed.org (learn how charities misspend research dollars) and pcrm.org, read what the march of dimes spends (30 million a year) your money on, thank you for your time. ps.. also, crt-online.org

  25. was reading and thought i would just share a thought or two.

    a paper was sent home with my son, age 6 and in kindergarden, it was rules for recess. to my surprise the kids are NOT allowed to run on the black top or mulch, only in the grassy area. as a matter of fact listed under activities NOT allowed are tag, chasing and piggy back riding. they are also NOT allowed to push each other on the swings, twist the swings, or swing on their stomachs.

    WHAT?! those activities were what recess was about when i was a kid!

    i won’t even get into how the other day at our “winter” party (also not getting into that) i had to ASK if i could take pictures of the kids during the party.

    great site, i will be back often. i am glad i caught you on dr. phil the other day to even have heard of your site.

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