Written by Dr. Kim Van Dusen, LMFT, RPT
Owner/Founder of The Parentologist w/ Dr. Kim
As a mom, it is imperative for me to teach my children about safety. And teaching them preventatively and as early as possible in their development will help minimize risk and negative outcomes before they happen. Anytime we educate our children on the difference between right and wrong we not only set them up for success but we also strengthen their competency, self worth, and potentially help them from getting physically, emotionally, and mentally hurt, especially when the risk is avoidable. The earlier you can start teaching your children about safety practices, the better. It may be too late if you wait until they get hurt for them to learn the lesson.
As parents, we begin communicating with our children as early as the womb. We talk to our babies, we read to our babies, we play music for them, and even rub our bellies to comfort them before we even meet them. As soon as they are born, we communicate non-verbally with eye contact, humming, and other soothing sounds to let them know they are safe and loved. As they grow, we begin teaching them life skills like what not to put in their mouths and where it might be safe for them to take their first steps. We are our child’s first teacher and it is up to us as their role model to show them what is safe and what is not safe as soon as we feel it might be a risk.
As a play therapist, I try to incorporate fun, interactive ways for my children to learn. I tend to use action figures, stuffed animals, dolls, puppets, and other toys to teach life lessons in a language they would understand. For example, I will use puppets to teach my children about safety in the home at the kitchen stove or why we have a baby gate at the top of the stairs. When my son is in his play yard I know he is safe and I use puppets to reinforce this notion of safety when he is inside. I want him to associate that he is in a safe place to play. The puppet will talk in a different voice than my own to speak the actual lesson and then demonstrate the lesson. I use the puppet so my child doesn’t get hurt and also doesn’t see me showing them what not to do. This way, the safety lesson is externalized.
I might use a toy car and an action figure to show what might happen if you cross the street without looking to prevent my child from getting hit by a car. I might use a doll to show them what it might look like if they fell down the stairs without holding onto the rails or holding an adult’s hand for support. When a child is learning a new concept, it is vital for them to hear the message and to see the message. Some children are better auditory listeners and some show more strength by seeing visual content.
And if you can teach children life lessons in an experiential way, even better. Most children will respond positively to hands-on learning. If your child can draw a picture of a safety lesson or sculpt something out of clay, then they are showing to you that they have soaked in the information and are applying it using their own interpretation.
As our children get older, we need to teach them behavior expectations before we can expect them to know right and wrong. Some safety rules may seem like common sense, but to a young child, they may not know the right way unless you show them first. For example, what does walking feet look like? What does an indoor voice sound like? We must teach our children by example, repetition, and reinforcement for information to be retained. I suggest that parents physically show their child what walking feet look like and then have the child practice more than once. And then once they are using their walking feet correctly, it is your job as the parent to catch them positively following the behavior expectation and then verbally praise them for doing so.
I also recommend posting safety expectations around your home for extra support. For example, you can have a safety rule about sitting down in the chair with their feet on the ground (versus rocking, tipping the chair back, spinning, or standing on a chair) and then have a photo of a child sitting in a chair properly next to the words on the paper, especially for children that cannot read yet. Children will be able to follow the rules more effectively because they will read the words or see the photos each and every time they walk into the room, which will serve as a constant teachable moment and reminder of what the right way is. As a parent, you can also save the hassle of reminding your children over and over again and just ask them to refer to the preexisting expectations. This especially comes in handy when they will try to disagree with you and or challenge a rule. Since they are posted, you can easily and quickly refer to the rules and review them together. By doing this, you will also help eliminate power struggles with your children.
Preventively teaching your children about safety will also help minimize defensiveness. When children hear the words “No”, “Don’t” and “Stop” they shutdown. And often when a child is being unsafe, we as parents, automatically say “Don’t touch that!” or “Stop doing that” or “No”. This will startle the child and in turn, you will receive a negative reaction when they may not even have known it was the wrong thing to do in the first place. Parents can say for example, “Please walk” instead of “Don’t run” or “Use a quiet voice” instead of “Don’t be so loud.” Right now I am teaching my son how to “turn around to get down” when he is climbing down from the couch. I refrain from saying “Don’t do that” or “Stop doing it that way” when he forgets and tries to climb down head first.
My preschool aged daughter will ask me “why” she can’t do something and I typically respond that it is because “it is unsafe” for whatever she is asking about in that given moment. Providing our children with an explanation for why we are teaching them various lessons is important to them. It is how they can make sense out of the new information they are processing and a mandatory part of the teaching process for parents.
Whether it is teaching your child ways to be safe around the house or in the community, the most important thing to remember is being calm. If you have any anxiety about the safety lesson, your child will pick up on that anxiety and also be anxious. In turn, they will start associating what you are teaching them with worried emotion. Rather we want to teach our children competence in a given situation to make sure that even if something scares them in the moment, instead of triggering the flight or fight response and them becoming frozen in fear, they will confidently know what to do calmly in the moment to be safe.