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Lesson of the Week: As Safe As Necessary, Not As Safe As Possible

Each week during parent + child classes, I give parents a Lesson of the Week. It's a short, single piece of paper on some parenting topic. Typically the topic is one that has come up in multiple classes the week before, like finding the line between encouraging independence and doing things for your children.

This week, I decided to make turn it into a blog post so I can share it with everyone!


As Safe As Necessary,
Not As Safe As Possible

We all want to keep our children safe. That’s a caregiver’s number one job! I still want you to keep your children safe, but I also want you to evaluate how safe you need to keep them at any given moment. Let's start by contemplating the difference between hazards and risks. A caregiver’s job is to eliminate hazards, not risks. A hazard is anything the child might not be able to recognize - like the chemicals under the sink that are poisonous, a rusty piece of playground equipment, or a body of water that is too deep or too fast. We can and should intervene to keep children safe from hazards.

Risks are educational. They allow the child to grow, to practice a skill, and to learn their body’s limits. It builds their independence. Every time a child is working on a new gross motor skill, there is risk involved in their learning process. A baby beginning to walk falls down repeatedly. This can be hard to watch, but it is how they learn to find their balance. Falling down lets them figure out they need to adjust something for next time and try it a different way. Every gross motor skill that they will learn - sitting up, climbing the stairs/Pikler triangle/couch/floor bed/tree, walking, running, riding a bike - is learned by failing and trying again. When allowed the opportunity to take risks, they internalize their body’s limitations.

Children who are allowed to take risks injure themselves LESS often because they have a greater ability to judge what their body can and can not do, and we can start building that skill from birth.

The line between a risk and a hazard is not a constant thing that you can figure out once - the line moves as your child grows. What was once hazardous for a baby might be an appropriate risk for a toddler. It takes practice to understand where your child is developmentally and think through the real and true danger. What is likely to happen if he gets down from the couch on his own? What happens if she slips down the bottom two steps she has climbed up? You will be doing this math often, allowing for increasingly more risk as your child grows.

One way to increase your ability to allow risky play is to be the spotter. As a spotter, you’re there to catch them before they hit the ground, but you don’t stop them from experiencing the fall. When they climb the Pikler Triangle, your hands are there to keep them from falling all the way, but you allow their body to experience what it feels like to fall down a rung or two. You allow them the opportunity to catch themself. When they go up the stairs, your hands hover behind them, but they still get to experience the fall. Again you are allowing them the opportunity to catch themself. When they’re crawling under a table, you put your hand over a sharp corner or exposed hardware, but you allow them to bump on the flat part of the underside. They get to learn where the limit is on their own so they know better for next time.

You can spot them when you are pretty confident they’ll be just fine, but you need to do it to regulate your own anxiety! If that’s what it takes to increase your comfort with risky play - do it. Your needs matter too, and if this is new for you, you get to practice in a way that works for you.

When you allow risky play, you are still present and engaged. You are still caring for your child. You do not abandon them to the risk and hope for the best. You are constantly evaluating hazards versus risks, your child's development, and where you're needed. Aim to keep them as safe as necessary, not as safe as possible.

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