Thursday, June 12, 2008

"Warning Signs are Everywhere"

Calvin has become obsessed with warning labels lately. He notices every one around, and he asks me what they say. I usually ask him what he thinks a sign says, and with the words he can sound out and the help of the picture, he can tell me the gist of it.

I suppose there are some benefits to this new obsession, though not the ones you might think. Calvin is learning to read all sorts of new vocabulary words, "injury" and "serious" being two of the most common. In fact, the other day I heard him in his room with Hobbes asking, "Do you like choking hazards, Hobbes?" To which Hobbes answered a resounding, "Yes!"

Most of the time, however, the warning label obsession is problematic. For one thing, Calvin's mommy is not terribly safety conscious. I am of the house-proofing the baby instead of baby-proofing the house philosophy. Calvin has more than once asked me to read a label on a toy he shares with Hobbes that reads, "Not for children under 3. Choking hazard." He hasn't asked yet why his negligent mommy lets Hobbes play with these toys, but the time will come. To be fair, I don't let Hobbes have things that are really, truly choking hazards, at least not without supervision. But I suppose that highlights my whole issue with this warning labels business.

My problem? Most of the items that have warning labels in our house are not really dangerous. For example, Calvin's step stool in the bathroom is a sturdy, low-to-the-ground plastic thing that has never once tipped over or caused an injury, even with all of the tricks my boys play on it. Still, it has a warning label, big and ugly and yellow, stuck to the side of it. I am not going to fold up my stroller with my child inside of it, but there is a warning label just to make sure I don't. I've always had issues with this, but I never realized until now just how much I had learned to ignore the warning labels on nearly every single children's item in my house. Calvin's keen eyes have helped me to see them all again.

Ours is a safety obsessed society, and I am bothered by what that means on so many levels. I am bothered that we are lawsuit crazy, that we think we have a right to a pain-free and problem-free existence, that we have become a culture of victims who are unwilling to take responsibility. But those are all posts for another time. Suffice it to say that traveling abroad is always refreshing to me for the lack of warning signs.

But I do wonder what to teach my kids about this issue. It is important to be careful, to look both ways when crossing the street, to use caution on ladders, to make sure no one is at the bottom of the slide before you come down. I don't want my children to grow up to be overly cautious or unwilling to take risks, but I would prefer to keep them alive. I know that most parenting advice in America these days seems to emphasize safety to an extreme without considering the negatives of being overly protective and cautious. I want to strike a balance.

Thankfully, my husband and in-laws do not subscribe to this philosophy of safety. When we are with them, my kids help their Gram drive the loader, help Daddy build fires, and watch Grandpa cut down trees. We teach them common sense and safety in those circumstances, always keeping a close eye on them, but we don't keep them away from places other folks might consider dangerous. Isn't it better to teach kids to respect fire than to tell them never to touch a match? Certainly, Hobbes is young enough that we keep matches and lighters out of his reach and teach him not to touch them, but one day he is going to want to play with fire. It's better that he ask his Daddy to come help him than that he try to build a fire on his own and burn down our house in the process.

I guess the question is about my priorities for parenting my children. I want to keep them alive, but I also want them to learn to deal with dangers and challenges that may come their way. I'm glad Calvin reads warning labels, sometimes they are useful and important. But more than following external warnings, I want my children to learn to face challenges with courage and common sense, to see the things that are truly dangerous and to learn when to attack them head on and when to run. I want to raise children who know how to have adventures and take risks and who sometimes are better of for ignoring the warning labels and taking responsibility for lives lived well.

I've just made a big parenting confession here, one that might make some of you wonder if I am fit to raise kids. I'd love to hear what you have to say on the subject.


wheelsonthebus said...

Unfortunately, people seem to abdicate responsibility for having common sense. We sue instead of realizing we were being dumb. A warning label is there to cover every single scenario.

Tipper said...

I don't think you are a bad mother-you just have some common sense and want to raise strong kids to be strong adults. My girls went through a phase were they were obsessed with a book "Danger" it was a neat old book that told all the dangers in the world from the 70's.

Kelly said...

Just last week, my stepmom was watching my kids at a playground, running, jumping, and gleefully enjoying being crazy. Her eyes were teary as she told me how much she regretted her very protective parenting style; she would never have let her girls be free at the playground, and now they are women who are not particularly adventurous, outdoorsy, or active. I do think sometimes the kids drive the train on this one, though-- just try to keep a naturally active kid from climbing... I will say that there are some safety things I'm much more vigilant about than others-- around pools, for instance, my kids will always be watched hyper-carefully. I hope we're striking a good balance, too, between letting our kids develop some independence and common sense and not putting them in situations that are beyond their ability. It is an interesting issue in these days of litigation and media coverage.

Kerry said...

All I know is that when there are "HOT Contents" labels on a COFFEE CUP, it's time to get real. :) There really is as wheelsonthebus says an abdication of responsibility in our culture. I think you are a good parent to ignore the excessive "warning" labels and model common sense and reasonable caution for your children.

'becca said...

Read The Continuum Concept by Jean Liedloff for some fascinating ideas about safety and learning. I have a three-year-old son with a great sense of his own abilities--he'll do things that look risky but succeed completely, and he'll back off from things that he judges likely to go wrong--but of course I'm not sure how much is due to following Liedloff's advice and how much is just his innate temperament.