Scaring kids safe is the wrong approach


Q: How do you explain the concept of danger to young children? When I explain safety issues, like staying away from the fireplace, to my 3- and 4-year-old children, their response is, "Well, I did it one time and nothing happened."

Becky Schultz, Minneapolis

A: The temptation for parents is to focus on their own fears. Good parents crave ultimate safety for their children. Anxieties are often so strong that parents go to great lengths to be sure their children don't run out in the street, go near the water or touch the stove.

But there's a fine line between doing enough and going too far.

The perfectly understandable quest for ultimate safety has led many parents who called Child Life to show their children graphic television shows and newspaper pictures of burned and maimed children. Several other parents suggested exposing children firsthand by taking them to see patients in a local hospital burn unit or trauma center.

But before we scare the wits out of our children, one child-safety expert urges us to consider the long-term effect of these kinds of tactics.

"What the research is showing is that fear disables people," says Paula Statman, a psychotherapist and author of "On the Safe Side: Teach Your Child to Be Safe, Strong and Street-Smart" (HarperPerennial, $10).

"When a child gets into a dangerous situation, an alarm button goes off. All he's remembering is all the terrible things his parents told him would happen, and that means he's not able to think clearly or act quickly," says Ms. Statman, director of the KidWISE Institute in Oakland, Calif.

At ages 3 and 4, most children don't believe that anything bad can happen to them. Their immature mind doesn't allow them to easily grasp the concept of cause and effect. This leads to frustrated parents who come to believe they have to instill fear in order to get their children to heed their warnings.

"But the first question needs to be, 'What am I trying to teach here?' " Ms. Statman says. "We need to prepare, not scare, kids."

This doesn't mean children don't need safety rules. On the contrary, they need firm, consistent limits.

"You can tell a child, 'We have safety rules about how to cross the street, and this is the safe way to do it,' without a description of what happens when metal hits flesh," Ms. Statman says. "It's partly a matter of tone and of giving the child a reassuring view of the world."

Also, parents need to childproof the house and supervise them closely whenever they are in the kitchen, near the fireplace, street or other source of danger. "Anticipate problems and remove danger as best you can," says Donna Olson, a parent from Barrington, Ill.


Here's a new question from a parent who needs your help. If you have tips, or if you have questions of your own, please call our toll-free hot line any time at (800) 827-1092. Or write to Child Life, 2212 The Circle, Raleigh, N.C. 27608.

* True love?: "My 12-year-old daughter is very mature for her age, and I am almost frightened by the intensity of a 'crush' she has for someone her own age," says a mother in San Jose, Calif. "I am interested in how parents and experts feel about the depth and 'realness' of these early romantic feelings. How should I handle this?"

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