I have been trying to organize my thoughts about keeping children safe since I heard the story of a boy who climbed toward, then fell into, a gorilla exhibit at a zoo. This has happened before and, sadly, could occur again. What’s done is done whether we like it or not and regardless of whom we blame and to what degree we blame them (if we blame anyone at all). So the question remains, exactly how do we keep children safe?
There are people who complain about “helicopter parents” who do everything for kids. There are people who complain about “free range” kids who are thought to have the run of the area where they live. I suspect that most of parents fall somewhere in between these two parenting models. I have definitely met free range parents, who by the way have great kids. I have not yet met a helicopter parent, though I have worked with children and families in varying capacities for close to 20 years. I suppose they may exist or they may be parents who have children with some special needs. As long as you are not enabling harmful behaviors, I wouldn’t worry about that label anyway.
Back to the point, how do we keep children safe? Start by recognizing your limits and your child’s limits. If your child is a runner, find ways to prevent running or allow it within a safe boundary. Think about the what ifs because, unfortunately, your “not a runner” may become a runner at any time. I have been known to scout a location before scheduling a play date to be sure there is a fence that closes with a latch that is taller than my child so I had more time to get to the gate before a kid could run. This won’t prevent an “escape”, but will buy you more time to get to the child if necessary.
I once had a student who ran quite often, if angry. (I had a few different runners, but this particular student ran due to anger.) Now, you cannot always stop someone’s feelings, but you can provide replacement behaviors that are more safe. However, this takes time, energy, and consistency. It does not happen overnight. So a runner may run even though you are implementing a (soon to be successful) solution. Sometimes they run off though you are looking right at them and some kids are faaaast.
Most parents have more than one thing on their minds. Dishes laundry, schedules, groceries, dinner options, traffic woes, and other issues cloud my mind at any given time. Plus, having more than one child can cause even the best multi-tasker to miss a potential issue when considering a situation. Maybe you are at the park pushing a child on the swing, then, seeing that adorable smile on her face you feel like you have to take a photo. So you do, but as you go back to the swing, your precious little one falls off and gets hurt. We cannot be by a child’s side 24 hours a day. We don’t always anticipate things that may happen. We cannot protect them from everything. There are no guarantees, but we can try to minimize issues brought about because they are young and not yet ready to make big decisions.
If you have a runner, climber, or other similar normal behavior in your child, practice following directions regarding safety well before you have to be in a certain situation. Practice safe versus unsafe and remember that it may seem like it takes forever for a child to catch on. That is because they have different priorities than we do. Also, kids do not always notice the danger involved in certain decisions. Their brains are not yet completely mature which means they cannot always think about the future possibilities of current behavior choices. It is not that they don’t know it is that they can’t know the long term repercussions of some actions.
Some people leave children at home with a sitter if they must go out. Others use a toddler carrier or bring along help. The problem is that not everyone has a village of support nearby. If you see a child doing something that will injure himself, act. Call the parent, call a security guard, call 911. I hate to say you ought to pick up the child without permission, but in extreme circumstances, that might be appropriate. I would certainly prefer that you pick up my child before he jumps into shallow water, if no alternate is available, instead of letting him hurt his legs.
Parents cannot plan for every possible situation. We may not always have help. I get that. I have been there, too, on many occasions. All we can do is our best. And before we say “don’t judge”, why don’t we make an appraisal about behaviors we observe. It is not about who is a better person or parent. It is about improving ourselves based on our own previous behaviors. Maybe we should think about how we can do the same things as another parent, if it is safe, healthy and effective. If the parenting choice was not very safe, then how can we learn from it? How can we improve ourselves so we are safe, kind, and effective parents? It is my opinion that we should be thankful for the opportunity to learn from another parent’s mistakes or accidents. We should also embrace our own shortcomings and try to improve them. It may take some time to figure out, but there is often a way to minimize the chance of an unsafe scenario.
One final thought, please, let’s bring back a village of support. Let’s get to know one another and figure out how we can help so that when a parent is exhausted, there is someone safe who knows the child that can help with cooking, cleaning, childcare, and more. It seems that many mistakes happen because parents are not part of a village that helps when times are tough and parenting gets overwhelming. Let’s bring back the safety of a village.
Sidenote: I may change this a bit as I process my thoughts more thoroughly. <3