Expert Interview: Barack Levin

Our expert today is Barack Levin, a stay at home Dad and author of The Diaper Chronicles. Barack’s book is all about raising independent and well behaved children, based on his experiences. Today’s post is the first in a series of two on child proofing.

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Why “child proofing” is actually bad for your baby – Part I

The good news is that our child is mobile. The bad news is the same – our child is mobile. Now that he can crawl anywhere, open doors and drawers, and gain access to all sorts of interesting adult things, our house has gone from a haven to a hazard zone. We know that for his safety, there are places and areas our baby should not touch or go into. He, of course, has other ideas.

Many parents these days try to “childproof” their homes when they have children. My wife and I discussed that approach and decided it was not right for us. For those who are not familiar with the concept, childproofing means (in theory) making a house safe for babies and little ones to roam freely without coming to harm—or harming the house. More than a concept, it’s become a whole industry, complete with scores of complex-looking products such as contraptions for locking drawers, cabinet doors, and even locking toilet seats. There are gates for stairs and doorways, cushions and bumpers for sharp corners and edges, special covers for door handles, and plastic plugs to cover electrical sockets.

In addition to installing these devices, childproofing parents usually reorganize their houses to prevent any possible accident or injuries. They move chemicals to locked cabinets, relocate breakables and electronic devices to higher ground, and find new and usually inconvenient places to keep everything tucked away—everything from medications to matches. Basically, these people renovate and redecorate their own living spaces to give their infants free rein; meanwhile, they trap themselves in a house where cooking a simple meal becomes as complex as the opening scene of an Indiana Jones movie.

Childproofing enthusiasts argue that fiddling with bizarre locks and barricades is a small sacrifice if it keeps children safe. I have nothing against sacrifice, and can think of no more deserving cause than children, but this is not, in fact, a small sacrifice, and it can lead to even bigger safety issues later on. The result of whole-house childproofing is that parents lose control over their environment; their children are, in effect, dictating how their house will be organized. And after all this, there is still no guarantee that the children will be safe.

Childproofing is in its core a passive approach to supposedly shield the child from danger. My wife and I dismiss this approach because we can see that it will likely cause us to live, as our friends do, in a state of constant fear. Once you start looking for ways a child can get hurt, you see danger everywhere. If you install one childproof device, it’s natural to start looking around to see what has not been childproofed in the house. You may cover up the electrical outlet, only to start obsessing over the lamp cord and its possible dangers—our baby could pull the lamp down and be hurt…the compact fluorescent light bulb could break and release mercury, not to mention all those glass shards…he could chew on the cord…. You get the idea. Childproofing a house is a task that can never end.

Moreover, the childproofing approach is localized. It does prevent kids from getting hurt in certain areas of the house, but it does not help if somehow they get loose in an “unsafe” room. Also, by removing the danger, you also remove the learning opportunity. How will kids who think that all outlets are naturally covered with plastic tabs ever learn otherwise? And what will happen the first time they spot one that’s uncovered? The cover-hide-remove approach does not help teach youngsters boundaries. It fails to provide them with the self-awareness and safety tools they need to use on their own.

Preventing children from touching things teaches nothing. Locking doors and drawers can stunt children’s sense of exploration and excitement and may eventually cause the opposite effect than intended. As with Pandora’s Box, the lock becomes part of the temptation; it sounds like fun to try to open it to see what’s hiding behind it. A locked drawer is inherently more interesting to the curious than an unlocked one. The first chance kids have, they will try to find a way to get into it. So by childproofing their houses, parents actually create tempting challenges for the children.

Another reason that childproofing can backfire is that children do not stay home all of the time. What happens when they go to someone else’s house, or to a store or restaurant? These places are not childproofed. What happens if, while you are chatting away at a friend’s house, your baby crawls away and discovers an odd set of holes in the wall, arranged rather like a happy-surprised face? The child may recognize that this is an outlet, or maybe not, but since this one isn’t covered with a plastic childproofing plug, it must be safe, right? What’s to stop the child from poking at the holes with keys, toy parts, and soggy crackers? A childproofing parent would have to jump up and run to save this child. Such parents must remain constantly on alert ready to jump into action.

Childproofing the house is a passive approach towards educating children. Restricting certain items does not provide children with the ability to learn what is good or bad for them, nor does it give them the tools they need to decide on their own (yes, on their own and yes, at this early age) what they can and cannot do.

So what is alternative?

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Be sure to check in next Monday for Part 2 of this discussion. What are your thoughts so far?

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14 comments

  1. Hm! Well, I agree with some of the notions… but not with all. My kids have played with the amplifier, DVD player, satelite receiver etc. since they were babies. These are all on or near the floor in open cabinets, no doors or locks on these. The harm to the kids and to the (albeit expensive) gear is quite low. They get spooked when they manage to crank up some white noise, that's about it. But I do have gates in my doorways. When I am cooking, with my back turned on the kids, I don't need the panicky feeling of not knowing whether they are right behind me the second I open the door of the hot stove. So the gate between the kitchen and the living room (we have no door) is closed for 15 minutes before dinner. Oftentimes it is also closed for 15 minutes after dinner, giving us the time to wipe up all the spilled food in stead of having them step in it and leaving lasagna-footprints all through the house.
    I have childproofed the trash can cabinet. It was a battle I saw no use in starting: I simply don't want to clean up trash from the floor as often as it would take for my kids to lose interest in it. Other cabinets and drawers are left open. I mean, come on. Most of us don't childproof "everything". We live with broken flower pots and constantly searching for the remote control. But the cacti are on the top shelf. And the scissors are, too. Am I really putting my kids at a disadvantage for keeping laundry detergent out of their reach?

  2. I am interested to see the rest of this interview. I consider myself to be a pretty laid-back mom, but even I am doing some basic babyproofing-a gate on the kitchen door, locks on the cabinets with cleaning supplies in them, etc. I completely agree that you can go too far with babyproofing, but I also think taking some protective measures are completely reasonable. Like I said, I'm intrested to see the suggestions in the second part of the interview.

  3. This is an interesting theory to highlight on a multiple blog, coming from a father with one child. It is MUCH easier to keep an eye on 1, than 2 toddlers (or 3 or 4 kids). Don't get me wrong, we haven't child proofed everything and most of the stuff my kids stear clear of, because they do know better, but better safe than sorry.

  4. I agree with some of this post!If we put everything away and locks on evry cabinet then they only know how to behave and be safe at home!Don't get me wrong,I think safety is #1 we just don't childproof everthing in our home!Just some stuff.
    They have learned alot already just by being monitored by me.I actually took my twins out,to a store,and baby girl listened and touched but didn't grab and stayed with me.Just a miracle?probably!!LOL
    can't wait to read part2

  5. Sean Patrick and Emma Jane

    I simply don't agree. I am all about teaching my children right from wrong but children are naturally curious. And I would much rather feel safe knowing there isn't anything they can hurt themselves on. I certainly don't baby proof everything, but there are just common sense things that they need to be protected from. Light sockets, chemicals, electrical wires, stairs, etc. You can tell a child a million times not to touch something and curiosity will get the best of them! I's rather be safe than sorry.

  6. My first thought? Easy for this guy to say, he only has one baby to watch! When all three of mine got mobile as I chased one down one hallway another was crawling into the kitchen. I think babyproofing is necessary for parents of multiples.

    That being said, we did not go crazy. We moved cleaning supplies to a different spot, we moved the VCR up high (after Jackson got his hand stuck in it) and we put velcro on the kitchen cupboards and drawers (velcro is a super cheap way to babyproof). The drawers and cupboards though was really for my own sanity. And we put outlet covers on the outlets.

    I still teach my kids what's ok and what's not. There are plenty of teachable moments. To not babyproof at all with my three boys would be irresponsible and foolish.

  7. interesting!…I think like with everything there has to be a balance..

    My husband told me today he saw a van with a sign for professional childproofing in one of our neighbor's house. That's a bit much!!

  8. I guess I'll have to wait for part 2. While I agree that it's important to teach a child to leave something alone, I don't think it can always replace child-proofing. It was easy for me to keep my son from playing in the toilet when he was the only one I had at home. Not so easy to keep an eye on three.

  9. I agree with previous comments. I'm curious as to what he suggests when I'm correcting the behavior of twin A while twin B falls off the end table. So then I rush to help twin B while twin A goes right back to ransacking the fireplace. I'm only one mom with two arms and two VERY active 17 month olds.

    I do agree somewhat that you can't completely turn your home upside down to accomadate your children, and that they need to be free to learn and explore, but you also can't watch them 100% of the time and regardless of how well behaved they are, they are going to get into some things you don't want them to and hurt either themselves or your things. I babyproofed half of my cupboards; the other half I put things in that they can ransack safely. I've also taught them to put things away. We have baby gates in appropriate places, but not at ALL tops and bottoms of stairs. Depends on the level and what we do in that room (and whether or not they will EVER be unsupervised for ANY amount of time.)

    I think you can encourage freedom and exploration as well as good manners without exposing the children to injury or your things to damage (somewhat.)

  10. I think he makes a few valid points but then again he only has one to watch. I do believe some people are just afraid to tell their kids "no". I am not one of those people, however when I am trying to do housework or cook dinner with three little ones underfoot I can't constantly be there to say no and watch them. As proof one of my babies swallowed a marble that should have been put away while I was doing laundry and another stuck a grilled cheese sandwich in the dvd player! We have since put up a gate.

  11. I did not want to spend all of my time telling my kids no, they couldn't touch something, so I childproofed. As they've grown older and learned some impulse control, things have come back out. But when they're babies you can't expect them to keep their hands off things!

  12. I take a minimalistic approach to babyproofing. I choose to make their playroom as safe as possible. This included tying up the curtains so they couldn't reach them, covering the outlets and making sure that they couldn't pull furniture down on themselves. I locked some of my kitchen cabinets (those with glass and chemicals.) I put a gate at the bottom of my stairs, I didn't want my twins upstairs without my supervision (I live in a pretty large house.) And I did put bumper corners on the edges of my coffee table when they were learning how to walk for a couple of months. I did that after one black eye.

    I did not clamp down my toilets, screen off my fireplace, move my DVD player, TV or books. I did not put up doorknob things, or brick protector around the hearth. There are tons of things I didn't do.

    What I did was repeatedly tell my twins, "No, don't touch Mommy's books." or "We don't touch the TV." OVER and OVER and OVER and yes, OVER. Now that it finally has sunk in, I live in a "livable" house with two two year olds. I can trust them at other people's houses too. They know when they aren't supposed to do something. They know what "Danger" means (along with the signlanguage of Danger) They also know that NO means NO and they WILL get time out.

    My twin mom club promotes a professional babyproofing guy. And he came to speak to us when my girls were infants. I liked to hear about it, but I choose to do my own thing. Believing like the interview said, that I wanted to teach my kids right from wrong and not let them stumble upon it themselves and let curiosity get the best of them.

  13. Yes, childproofing can become "obsessive," but, in my opinion it's necessary. Especially with multiples. You simply can't keep an eye on each child at the same time every waking second. As for what happens when children are in an "unsafe room"? My daughters already knew the "danger zones" from our childproofing gadgets and knew not to go to those areas in other homes. Childproofing isn't fool proof but it certainly helps.

  14. All I know is I would never forgive myself if my child put their finger in an outlet when I had my back turned for a second. There will be plenty of time for my kids to be more independent when they are older and can comprehend more and make good choices.

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