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

Knee-deep in Guts

We have in our skulls “two minds working semi-independently of each other”, one a thinker, one a reactor. System One and System Two, or, for convenience, “Head” and “Gut”.

So claims Dan Gardner in his book RISK: The Science and Politics of Fear, which I received for my birthday. Given how I feel about risk and risk-taking, I expect to thoroughly enjoy this book.

“Head” and “Gut” got me thinking — about my job, of course. We all start out 100% gut. Newborn infants have no Head yet; they are pre-rational. Everything they do is done by instinct and reaction. There is no considered response. This is as it should be, instinct (and that piercing wail!) helping this helpless little critter survive into the next hour, the next day.

Gut is essential for survival. It tells us what’s a danger, it tells us what to avoid, it drives us to seek out what we need. And it does this fast. When in the path of a speeding car, you don’t need to know the make, year, or its likely carbon footprint. You need to take instant action. Your Gut response to something is instantaneous. Reasoned? Not at all. Effective? Very. We all start out as completely Gut, and we never lose it, because we need it.

Eventually, however, Head starts to become a player, too. Head, however, is much slower than Gut, so it takes some experience and maturity to apply it. Eventually we learn (or should!) to take advantage of what Stephen Covey neatly calls that small space between stimulus and response, and respond rather than merely react.

Well. I hope we do. For my part, at its most basic, my profession comes down to the ongoing task of attempting to install some Head-response into the seething mass of little Gut-people who fill my home daily.

A toddler is frustrated. He shrieks. Or throws something. Or wallops someone. Because Gut is fast. Then I intervene, with Head admonitions to “use your words”, “hands are for hugging”, because what I am attempting to do is to have these children pause before reacting, to teach them how to respond out of Head instead of, or in addition to, Gut.

It’s an interesting perspective on my job. And now, I must go. There are raised voices, and I think some Gut is about to bust out over there. This Head needs to intervene.

February 17, 2009 Posted by | aggression, books, Canada, health and safety, power struggle, socializing | , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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