By Debra Gilbert Rosenberg
If I'm ever carjacked and locked inside the trunk of my own car, I am prepared. I know just what to do to save myself, thanks to the efforts of informative television talk show hosts. I remember watching TV as some serious safety expert demonstrated how to kick out my own tail lights, thereby alerting passing police officers that something must be wrong in the car. Carefully making mental notes about what to do or not do to stay safe, I imagined myself part of the greater television audience composed of millions of young mothers like myself, folding laundry, feeding and rocking babies, tidying up while watching the television from the corners of our eyes, feeling virtuous that we were learning how to be always more vigilant, ever better moms. Interesting and useful as this carjacking advice may be, however, I've never had to use it. And in the many years since I first watched, fascinated, as this supposedly essential information was provided, I have yet to meet anyone else who has had to extricate herself from her own carjacked trunk.
Of course, taking appropriate safety precautions only makes sense. I would never tell a parent not to be cautious; I believe it is always important to use car seats and electrical outlet protectors, and to keep knives out of reach of small children. I have always been careful to do what I can to keep my own loved ones safe. What doesn't always make sense to me, though, is how often the media focuses on potential life hazards. These stories make young parents fear that there is danger of death or dismemberment around every household corner or at the hands of potentially any adult, including loved ones, despite the fact that these heartbreaking tales of children being hurt become news largely because of the infrequency with which they occur.
As a psychotherapist and parenting expert, what concerns me about these frequent safety-issue alerts is the effect that these kinds of warnings have on parents. Many mothers and fathers become hyper-alert and, unfortunately, frightened, that the world is a terrifyingly dangerous place, and that they must do anything and everything in their power to prevent any harm befalling their kids. Sometimes parents get so paralyzed by their fears of these perceived or hidden dangers that they forget to relax and have fun with their kids. And when parents are over-protective, or constantly fearful, their children often become anxious and timid and unable to enjoy normal exploring of the world.
I believe that one of the best gifts parents can give their children is to assure them that they have confidence in them and faith that the world is a wonderful place to be. Kids need to believe that life is essentially good, and that there are opportunities to find happiness in infinite ways. Children need to feel that they are safe, but that sense of security comes from witnessing their parents feeling confident about the world, taking thoughtful precautions (those car seats, for example, or keeping poisonous cleaning products under lock and key until the child is old enough to understand the need to avoid them) while also allowing for creative exploration and expression.
Stories about abusive babysitters and child molesters have led many new moms to fear ever leaving their children with anyone. Parents seem not to trust their own judgment anymore, which leads them to being overprotective and uncertain about every parenting decision. Excessive worry about strangers and dangers, or trying to prevent every scraped knee may keep kids from physical harm, but it also is likely to inhibit their ability to develop trust in themselves and others, to be playful and adventurous, or simply to have confidence in themselves or others. While paying no attention to your children's safety may occasionally lead to them getting hurt, too much caution may stifle their willingness to try new skills, to develop new talents, or simply to be a spontaneous, trusting, carefree person.
I believe that it is useful to have truly avoidable dangers pointed out to the general population; undoubtedly, lives have been saved by parents who've placed the baby's crib away from windows and put poisonous cleaning products under lock and key. I believe in living safely, and that mothers and fathers should protect their kids. But I also believe that too many parents of young children have become so cautious that they and their children are immobilized and frightened, and that's not the kind of protection kids require. Instead, parents need to show children that they are confident and love their kids, and that the world is a great place to be. Too much fear hurts kids as much as too little.