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