Safety vs Independence

I recently posted an article from One Step Ahead on baby proofing your home as the start of a conversation about child safety. Today’s post is a reprint of one I wrote on February 8, 2006 when I was working as a nanny. It shows where I’m coming from as I think about safety for my own child.

Safety vs Independence

When I interview for nanny positions, I talk to parents about my thoughts about safety as a child-rearing value. For many parents, safety is their primary value, and it’s definitely what they want their nanny to value most. And I don’t. Safety is not my primary value – at least not directly. I am concerned with safety. However, I think focusing on safety leads to an attitude of fear, which at best is cumbersome, annoying, and limiting. At worst, I think approaching safety from an attitude of fear (which happens naturally when you make it most important) is unsafe.

Instead, my primary value is independence. My goal is to teach children how to take care of themselves and how to be competent as soon as possible in as many areas as possible. Ultimately, I think this makes them more safe.

One example: Many parents are super-conscious of toddlers and stairs. They put baby gates at the top and bottom of stairs and don’t let the child’s feet get anywhere near the stairs until the child is three years old. This is based on focusing on keeping them safe. However, accidents are still prevelent. Kids learn to climb over the gates. Parents forget to close the gates. Pets knock the gates over. Then, you have kids on stairs who have no idea what to do with stairs. My approach is to teach kids how to go up and down stairs as soon as possible. And “as soon as possible” is as soon as they can crawl. This means that by the time a kid is 18 months old, they’re pretty competent at going up and down stairs. Now, I’m not opposed to baby gates! Put up the gates. But, when those accidents happen, stairs are not an alien environment.

Another example: I dine out with children in my care about once a week. If the child is old enough to stand, instead of putting her in a high chair, I sit in a booth and let her be on the seat between me and the wall. This gives her more range of motion, the ability to look around, easier access to the table, and doesn’t make her feel restrained. All of those are great for independence. It also increases the risk that the child will fall off the seat. Once (only once), this happened. The little girl was about 13 months old, and she slipped down onto the floor. It was no big deal – I picked her up and hugged her, and she was fine in about 20 seconds. This highlighted the fact that valuing independence may lead to more mishaps, but I think it’s a great trade-off, especially in little areas like this where the possible mishap is slight. Even those little mishaps are great learning opportunities for how to deal with pain, disappointment, surprise, etc., and the benefits in independence and growth are great.

This applies to gazillions of situations. A few bumps and bruises will happen while learning. I think that letting kids freely get bumped and bruised, though, leads to a lot less tragedy than trying to shelter them from every misstep.

Instead of safety, I focus on competence, preparedness, and independence. The parents I work for and with are usually delighted with the results of this approach!