It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Rules and Risk-taking

sandals“OW! Mary, my foot is hurting me!”

Some kids are just so damned cute when they cry! Emily’s already large brown eyes become enormous, glimmering with tears, the little pink lip protrudes endearingly, and perfect round tears roll in glittering lines down the perfect roundness of her peachy-cream cheeks. No red blotches, no scroodged-up face, no snot, no red-rimmed eyes. Just 100% adorable pathos. And she’s earned a bit of pathos. I’d wondered this morning if her sandals weren’t just a smidge too small… That’s one big blister she’s got on her heel.

I put a bandaid on it.

“Do you want to put your sandals back on, sweetie, or would you prefer to walk home barefoot?”

“Barefoot, please.”

Simon is appalled.

Simon (a previous daycare client, now six) is with us this week, filling the week gap between the end of school and the beginning of his summer camp. Simon, sweet, earnest Simon, comes from a risk-phobic family, where Rules of Safety are many and strictly enforced. (Too bad rules about Eating Your Vegetables and Getting Sufficient Sleep are not equally rigorously enforced. In fact, it would be a far better use of parental energy, says I, if they tossed about 70% of the Safety Rules and applied that diligence to the nutrition and sleep fronts. Snark, snark, snark.)

Simon, as I said, is appalled.

“She can’t go BAREFOOT!!!” We are threatening to trangress a Rule of Safety!!! “When we’re outside, we wear shoes.” In fact, Simon’s mother provides shoes for use in the house. Toddlers do not wear shoes in Mary’s house. Thunder-footed six-year-olds most definitely do not wear shoes. They wear slippers, or they wear bare feet. Shoes are LOUD, and we all know how Mary feels about LOUD. Simon has been barefoot this week, but only in the house.

“Why, Simon? What might happen if she goes barefoot?” My tone is mild. I’m curious as to his thoughts on the matter, and I’m pushing an agenda here. Let’s evaluate the risk, shall we?

“A car might run over her toes!”

He looks mildly offended at my shout of laughter. I try not to snort as I explain.

“Simon, honey. If a car were to run over her toes, I don’t think those little sandals would be any help at all.”

“But she can’t go BAREFOOT!!!”

“Why not? Let’s think about this. What might happen if she goes barefoot?”

“She might step on a rock!”

“Yes, she might. She might stub her toe, too.”

“Or a spider might bite her!”

“I think that’s less likely, but okay, maybe. Now. What will happen if she wears her sandals?”

“A spider won’t bite her!!!” He thinks he’s got me there.

“A spider could still bite her on the leg. But Simon, think about Emily’s blister. What will happen if she wears her sandals?”

“Her blister will hurt her?”

“YES! My blister will hurt and get bigger and hurt me MORE!” Emily, who is getting nervous about the direction this conversation is taking, wants him to be Perfectly Clear on this point.

“So what do you think, Simon? If she goes barefoot, she MIGHT step on a rock, or stub her toe, or even, maybe, get bitten by a spider. But if she wears her sandals, she WILL get a big, sore blister, even worse than she has already.”

Emily whimpers. I whisper words of reassurance in her ear.

“Now, Simon. If you had to choose between MAYBE stepping on a rock, and FOR SURE getting a giant blister, which would you choose?”

Simon’s answer is slow and reluctant. “I wouldn’t want a bliiiiiister.”

“No, I bet you wouldn’t. Neither does Emily. That’s why she’s not going to wear her sandals any more.”

Emily sighs with relief.

“But Emily? You gots to be VERY CAREFUL where you put your feet! You can’t step on any rocks or sticks or spiders!”

Emily, a sensible girl, gives him The Look. “Simon, I am not a big silly. I am not going to step on rocks in my bare feet.”

And she didn’t.

Has Simon learned anything about evaluating risks, or has he learned only that Mary is a wild and reckless woman? I’m not sure, but we’ll be optimistic, we shall, and call it One Strike for Freedom for Simon.

June 29, 2009 Posted by | Emily, health and safety | , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Who says it’s wrong

…to say “I told you so”?

“That doesn’t look like a safe game to me. Someone is going to get hurt.”
Wait for it…
“Mary! Timmy hurted me!”

“If you keep jumping over Timmy, someone is going to miss, and he will get squashed.”
Wait for it…
“Mary! Emily SQUASHED me!”

“Can you guys not come up with a game that doesn’t involve mooshing heads?”
Wait for it…
“Mary! He bonked me onna head!”

“If you throw those up in the air, sooner or later one will land on your head.”
Wait for it…
“Mary! I gots a bo-bo on my head!”

My policy is to warn toddlers of the possible consequences, and then, if they persist anyway, let them experience those consequences. (Within reason, of course. They are not allowed to ‘experience’ hot burners or playing in traffic.)

Sometimes they heed the caution, but often that old toddler stubbornness/impulsiveness/living-in-the-moment-ness drives them to ignore it. And sometimes I’m wrong, and the bad consequences don’t happen. Mostly, however, I’m right.

You’d think they’d have noticed that by now.

“Emily, if you stand on top of that pile of books, they will probably slide out from under you and you will…”
“OW! Mary! I fell down!”

Sometimes you don’t even have to wait for it.

I don’t say “I told you so”. Not exactly, anyway.

“If you stand on those books, you will probably fall down. If you decide to do it anyway, I will not kiss it better. Understand?”

…wait for it…

“OW! Mary! I fell down!”

“Oh, dear. Well, that’s what happens when you play that sort of game. Do you want to play some more, or shall we put the books away?”

“I wanna put them away.”

“All right. Let’s do that.”

(“TOLD you so, you little monkey.”)

April 22, 2009 Posted by | health and safety, socializing | , | 2 Comments

I just work here

caution“FAAAAATTY-CAT!!” Timmy aims a two-handed shove at the substantially larger Nigel, and manages to set him back a pace. They grin gleefully at each other.

“FAAAAATTY-CAT” Nigel charges at Timmy, back arched, and they slam into each other, belly to belly. They both shriek with delight upon impact, staggering like a pair of miniature drunks around the living room.

“FAAAAATTY-CAT!!!” Nigel waits, tense with thrilled anticipation, for Timmy to take another almighty shove at him. They careen into a couch.

“Mary, we’re playing ‘fatty-cat’!!!” Timmy hollers at me.

Evidently. I have no idea what “fatty-cat!” means. Neither do they. (“Wherever did that come from?”, asked a bemused parent later that day. Only the depths of their imaginations, I’m sure, and the fact that “fatty-cat” is a collection of sounds that bounce nicely off the tongue, perfectly suited to a game where you bounce off your friend. Things don’t have to “come” from anywhere. A three- and a four-year-old are perfectly capable of making stuff up!)

(And who but a three or four-year-old could make this one up?)

I scan the room, assessing risk. The only sharp edges accessible to the kids are those of the brick fireplace. I shove a (soft, upholstered) chair in front of it. The worst that’s going to happen now is that they’ll fall over. I let them have at it.


Attracted by the uproar, the girls join in. Within 90 seconds, Anna is in tears.

“He pushed me, Mary! He pushed me and I fell dooooown!”

“Well, that’s the game, lovie. If you don’t want him to push you, don’t play the game. You don’t have to if you don’t want to. But if you decide to play, you’re going to get shoved.”

Well, that settles that. Anna trots off to the kitchen.


Twenty-three more seconds, and Emily approaches, wailing.

“I fell down and hurted myself!”

“I see that. You landed with a bump on your bum. But you know what? That’s what kind of game it is. If you want to play that game, you’re probably going to get bumped. If you don’t want to get bumped, you don’t have to play. But if you want to play, you can’t complain about a bump.”

“I want to play.”

“Okay, then, but no complaining about a little bump.”


“FAAATTY-CAT!” Emily belly-bumps Timmy right onto his butt.
“FAAATTY-CAT!” Timmy hip-checks Nigel.
“FAAATTY-CAT!” Nigel shoves Emily who dominoes into Timmy. They cling to each other, teetering, and land in a heap.

And Emily laughs into Timmy’s gleeful face.

It’s a seriously weird game, but they’re having fun. And learning to assess a small risk while they’re at it. (In case you’re wondering, Babies Noah and Tyler stayed with me. Gravity alone is enough of a challenge to their powers to remain upright just yet.)

I figure the Big Kids can play fatty-cat for another 4.3 minutes until I just can’t stand it any longer. Not the risk. Not the falling down. Not the crashing to the floor. Goodness, it’s only a bump or two at issue. No, no, it’s the NOISE. My LORD, the NOISE!


Because, worthy as it is to let them evaluate and experience risk, the risk to my sanity is even more real and immediate.


Four point two minutes…

March 13, 2009 Posted by | Anna, Emily, health and safety, Nigel, Timmy | , , , , , , | 4 Comments

If Mohammed can’t come to the mountain…

crawler…you move the damned mountain…

Awwww. Lookit the baby! I mean, really. Just look at that little fella. Isn’t he cute, crawling off on some little baby adventure? You wouldn’t think something so small could be capable of mass destruction. (All that debris in the hallway? All his. Every crumb.)

And today was a Big Day in Baby Tyler’s life at Mary’s. Today, baby Tyler learned to climb onto the dining table benches!!! (Can you hear the excitement in my voice? Because it sure was exciting, oh gracious me, yes!)

Baby Noah, three months older and walking, has not once even contemplated this feat. Baby Noah can climb onto the couch, mind you, but he scrambles cautiously (and competantly) up and down on his tummy. No real danger there.

Tyler? No soft, cushy couch for this boy! He yearns for more challenging terrain. The dining table is good: wooden table, wooden benches, wooden floor beneath. No sensible belly-scrambling for him, either. Once he’s breached the bench, he kneels up there, bouncing his triumph.

So, the dining furniture. Not only is the terrain suitably hard and bruise-inducing, with the bouncing ritual providing the right level of death-defiance, the table is also the motherload of non-baby-friendliness: a bowl of polished rocks, just the right size to fill a breathing passage; a small pile of pom-poms; a camera; a box of beads; a cup of hot tea; and, oh glory be, a butter knife!

A butter knife just right for bashing into the table, ‘bam! bam! bam!’, such a lovely noise, the end of the knife (round and non-serrated, thank heavens), waving about in the air next to his ear. (And to think I honestly thought I couldn’t fly.)

My dining set now looks like this:


(Table at top. The wooden plank facing you at the bottom is the bench, on its side.)

And it will stay that way until he’s overcome his will to self-destruct. Or develops some common sense.

Which could be a while…

December 4, 2008 Posted by | health and safety, individuality, Tyler | , , , , , | 4 Comments

Risks and Risk-taking

Emily is done her lunch. I remove the tray to her highchair, and lift her. The entire chair comes up with her.

“Oops! Didn’t see the belt under your little fat tummy!”

Which tells you that I don’t always strap the children in, doesn’t it?

Well, not with Emily I don’t. Emily, who just sits and methodically munches through her meal, then says “DOWN!” and waits to be released. Now, Timmy? He gets strapped down every time. Every time. Otherwise, he’d be tap-dancing on the dining table in seconds.

Some risks are not worth taking, ever, of course. Children in my care are always put in CSA-approved safety seats, properly tethered to the floor of the vehicle. Even a gentle fender-bender can be disastrous to the child not properly restrained. Not an appropriate risk.

But, some days our societally-approved caution reminds me of a game you learn in drama class, “Mountain From Molehill”. Game in which someone starts with a mundane problem – “Oh no! I stubbed my toe!” Players take turns in compounding the gravity of the situation: “And if I stubbed my toe, I might have to limp.” And if this, then that, each one worse than the one before.

The limp makes you walk more slowly, and you miss your bus, which makes you late for an important interview, which means you don’t get the job, which means you have no money, which puts you out on the street, which means you have no food, which means you starve. Almost every scenario ends with

“And then I might DIE!”

Fun game, huh??? Well, yes, it is a fun game, when it’s a game. But we’ve turned every single moment of a child’s day into a potential life-and-death moment, and I, for one, am weary of it.

Don’t let your child play with latex balloons…
Don’t lose the corner snipped off the end of the milk bag…
Never leave your child alone with the family pet…
Never let a toddler hold an infant…
Never let the family dog come tobogganing with you…
Always stay within an arm’s length of your child at the park…


Honestly, it’s like living an episode of House.

Strap that child into his high chair or he might stand up and if he stands then he’ll fall, and maybe hit his head and maybe get a concussion or end up in a coma or break his neck…

Or. More likely, he’ll slide forward a bit, get wedged uncomfortably under the tray and learn it’s better to sit still.

It’s a matter of evaluating the likely consequences of a risk. In a car, the tiniest of bumps can have life-threatening consequences for an unsecured child. In my dining room, what are the risks? Really, actually, likely risks? I’m always within a metre or two of the child. I can see if he/she is trying to escape. I can intervene if the child is in danger – but I may very well choose to let the child be uncomfortable for a few seconds before I rescue him. I may even decide to let the child solve her own dilemma, knowing that the discomfort will teach her more than my careful explanations ever could.

Of course, one measures the risks. Timmy is always strapped in. Emily isn’t always. In part, this is pragmatism, not risk management. Timmy is so much more likely to make for the hills, I don’t want to have to be lifting him back eight times a meal. But with Timmy, there is more of a risk, and I judge it necessary to protect him from himself, for at least a little while longer. I’ve been doing this for 12 or so years now, and my own kids over and above that. Not once in all this time, have we had a Serious High Chair Incident.

Risk is part of life. Kids have to learn to evaluate risk, take the ones worth the risk and manage them safely, and avoid the ones not worth the risk. Kids will grow to be adults, who will have to manage risk every day of their lives. Which means we have to learn to let them.

November 13, 2007 Posted by | parenting, socializing | , | 15 Comments