The decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body. ~Elizabeth Stone
As a child, my parents were unflappable about safety. I played, unsupervised, with a posse of neighborhood kids, rode in seat-beltless cars, skated near fragile ice over frigid pond water, and walked to and from school (gasp) alone! My parents weren’t lacking love, care, or responsibility, but were reflections of the Mad Men era – a time when smoking, littering, and a laissez-faire attitude toward child rearing was the status quo.
I’m not suggesting that we take up smoking, littering, or neglecting children, but besides the obvious risks, there were surprising benefits to a hands-off style parenting style. I learned to test the ice, fight my own battles, leap joyfully (and safely) from rocky outcroppings into the ocean, and navigate my personal threshold of fear. Because I was allowed to play both sides of a limit, I developed an internal compass that has pointed me toward (mostly) good, safe decisions since.
Was I merely lucky?
In the United States, accidents (still) kill 12,175 children a year — more than all diseases combined, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control based on hospital records. Car crashes were the leading cause, except for infants under 1 year of age, who more often died of suffocation, and those ages 1 to 4, who more often drowned. ~ The New York Times.
Modern American parents have tipped the balance on child safety. We’ve got car seats, bed rails, safety harnesses, child-proof latches, GPS child locators, baby monitors, electrical outlet covers, baby gates, anti-scald devices, window guards, edge bumpers, swimming pool alarms, nanny cams, toilet lid locks, and a dizzying array of other products that have, industriously, made a significant dent in the number of injuries to children by preventable and tragic accidents.
They have also scared parents to death, and created a new kind of beast; the emergence of the term Helicopter Parent (for parents who hover, like helicopters, close to their children, whether or not they are needed). George Carlin, in true Carlinesque style, makes fun of them, lamenting ‘the bull*** of ‘child-worshipping’ parents who are over-managing and over-scheduling their children right out of the joy of childhood.’
In other words, we might be out of whack.
Danger is real. Precautions and common sense attention to safety are needed. Hyper-vigilance, however, can be paralyzing to children and parents alike. We must work to find a balance between keeping children safe, and allowing them the space to grow into confident, independent and empowered beings. For caregivers, this practice means looking at our own fear. The unnspeakable fear that something bad could happen to our children.
Freedom with Supervision
Allowing children freedom doesn’t mean letting them play in traffic. It means creating safe spaces in the yard, in the park, in the house, to make their own choices, decisions, and yes, mistakes. This is the foundation of learning how to be safe, and developing the critical skill of problem solving and self-reliance. Over-parenting leads to emotionally fragile children, who may end up believing that they can’t survive without a parent’s help.
Choice with Limits
Allowing children to make choices doesn’t mean that they can choose never to eat another vegetable. Allow children to make meaningful choices – the kind that empower, feed and humor them. Let them be in charge of their art, their music, their clothing, and their games. It’s great way to dissolve power struggles, and engender confidence at the same time.
Responding to Toxins
We are lucky to live at a time where we have access to information about what’s contained in the products we purchase, where and how they are made, and what harmful effects on humans and the environment might be associated with their use.
Since I’ve started paying attention, I find myself feeling continuously compelled to push myself toward better, healthier, and more informed choices. All I had to do is pay attention.
New legislation called CPSIA (the Consumer Product Safety Information Act) has regulated testing for lead and phthalates in all children’s products. Other toy, clothing and product information is widely available on websites like HealthyChild, HealthyWorld, and Mindful Mama. These informative sites have a wealth of information, articles and discussions about healthy choices for families and the environment.
Keeping children safe while still encouraging healthy development can be simple if we let it. It’s about informed choices, thoughtful consumerism, and finding that deliciously sweet spot between terror and complacence.