Safety Bubbles and the Lowest Common Denominator

I had a Twitter conversation this morning with a friend of mine. She was looking for a recommendation for a fireplace screen for her little 7-8 month old bubba now that the winter season is coming and they’ll be using their gas fireplace. I replied that she could use one that would typically be used on a regular fireplace, although we elected not to buy one when Kale was that teeny weeny and instead worked very hard to teach him “hot!” with both the fireplace and the stove. I elaborated to say that not everyone’s house would have a screen and so to be vigilant when visiting. I love my friend and her little bubba and wasn’t trying to make her feel bad about wanting to find a piece of safety equipment. In context, it was two friends chatting.

Warming our toesies by the fire.

But I want to elaborate on that brief Twitter conversation – 140 characters will only allow me to pontificate so much. Plus, this type of post lets me pull up some of KPants’ baby photos. Heck yeah, sign me up.

Some of the safety equipment that is available to parents astounds me, and the rise in the use of these items worries me a little bit. I should clarify that a rise in their availability and use is a personal assumption I’m making and not backed by statistics or research – I am assuming we as parents use them more since I see so many of them in the stores and being touted online. They appear to have become more popular and seem to me to have crossed the line from “optional equipment in specific circumstances” to “essential in every home”. I worry that the rise in popularity and reliance on these items may increase minor and often not reported accidents at home because parents have been trained by advertisers or marketers or “experts” to rely on their piece of safety equipment rather than themselves or their children.

Please don’t misunderstand me. My friend is worried her little bubba may not yet be old enough to understand the concept of “hot!” and wants to use the piece of gear until she is convinced that her bubba is ready. I think if you’re a parent you need to do what you think is right, and if you do no harm to your baby or your family or anyone else, go nuts. Additionally, I really do think there’s some safety gear science tells us does save lives – such as car seats – primarily because modern cars are made out of fiberglass and plastic and not metal and therefore can’t withstand a crash and so we all have air bags now instead, except air bags can kill kids so now we all need big meatier car seats. /endrant

So freakin’ teeny.

But I wonder if we as parents are being led to believe we need these safety articles, and are not being encouraged to trust our own instincts about how to keep our children safe.

I remember being pregnant and again when Kale was new and Ross and I visited a well known baby store and I remember most of the products designed to add safety in your house play off fear. They use fear on their packaging to justify you buying whatever it was, and they use fear to rationalize incredibly high prices. The suggestion seems to be “if you don’t buy item X, you are not a good parent and your kids will DIE.” We were being shown around the store by the presumably-commissioned-sales-staff and she stopped in the “safety” section to point out their large selection: gates, attachments, special cords, levers, things that kept babies away from stuff, things that kept babies close to stuff. All of them were branded and marketed in a way that made you feel bad if you didn’t consider buying at least something.

And Ross and I did buy a few items as Kale became less a blob and more an active baby: we bought some cupboard latches so I didn’t have to continually clean up the contents he ripped out, and ironically, those stupid latches were a safety issue all on their own since they opened an inch or two and were an incredible pinch hazard. We bought some electrical outlet covers because electricity kind of scares me period and that’s one thing I don’t think you have too much of an opportunity to learn. He had a high chair with some straps designed to keep him in the chair. And we bought obviously, a car seat.  Not the “most safe” one (and not shockingly, most expensive), but one that fit in our car, fit our kid, and fit our budget. All car seats that are approved for sale in Canada are safe, theoretically.

I can remove all the contents from this drawer! Super powers!

We did not buy a screen for the fireplace or stove, and we did not buy a baby gate for the stairs when we moved to our new house in July 2010, either. Although, to be honest, I did borrow one from friends and was going to install it but changed my mind.

The reasoning behind our modest rejection of safety devices like this is because of something called the lowest common denominator. Although it’s a mathematical term, it is more popularly used to reference our western society’s bottom end of the bell curve. It was important to me that as we took our child out into the world and introduced him to people and experiences, that we didn’t spend all of our time keeping him in a safety bubble. Not all of our friends have gas fireplaces, but some of our friends do. And of those, not all of our friends have screens that prevent a curious baby from touching it. While we could rely on a screen in the house, we’d still have to teach him how to be safe around hot things out on the big wide world. In my mind, it was all the work of teaching him PLUS the expense of buying the gadget. I am way too lazy and cheap for that.

Probably going to get me hate mail.

We spent HOURS (literally, I am totally not exaggerating) holding Kale’s hand near stoves and fireplaces and saying “HOT!” We would show him “COLD!” with ice cubes and water, and “HOT!” with the stove, fireplace, and bath. We wanted him to understand that some things are of a temperature hot enough to harm you and for him to be able to understand when that thing is too hot. He caught on quickly. Did he touch the stove once? You betcha. Did he touch the gas fireplace once or twice? Yup. Does he have scars? Nope. Keep in mind, we also felt that the amount of time Kale would be by himself around a hot fireplace or a hot stove was going to be minimal. We thought it out without succumbing to the panic and I encourage any parent wondering if they need a specific piece of gear due to circumstances to do the same. We thought, “Sure, I might run off to the bathroom, but chances are he’d slap slap slap down the hallway to see what interesting thing I was doing.” Because where there’s mommy, there is bound to be good stuff, like tasty dog toys.

Dog Toys RULE!

So what am I saying? Well, I guess I’m still standing by my Parenting Rules, which have been amended as we keep going on this whole “parenting trip”, and now include:

  • Whatever gets you through the night
  • Feed the baby
  • Trust your gut and stay open
  • Advice unsolicited is ass-vice
  • Don’t buy the white one (no, really, TRUST ME.)

But I’m also questioning, especially now as Kale is starting to go out into the world without me to shield him from Dangers, how we are being led to believe that we can’t trust ourselves as parents.

An anecdote: today, after I dropped Kale off at preschool, I walked to the new grocery store opening in my neighbourhood, and upon walking back toward home, I ran into Kale and his ten other kids in class walking to the same grocery store for an outing. (“MOMMY THEY HAD BALLOONS!”) There were two teachers and they were herding an obedient line of 3 and 4 year old kids along, all marching with their buddies and happily following the rules and it struck me (as it has more than once these days) that children are incredible learners.

A few short months ago, Kale was a terrible walker – he’d careen from one side of the sidewalk, blocking people’s path like a drunken college kid and making my heart JUMP into my throat that he would step off the sidewalk and be SMUSHED BY A CAR. But he’s learned.

Kids are sponges and they know way more than we give them credit for. They learn by experimentation, by observation, and by mimicry. So here’s the million dollar question for which I do not have an answer for, but I’m totally leaving you with and I’d love to hear your thoughts except you can’t say “safety” – remember, I think it’s cool if you need to buy a gadget because of your personal circumstances after you’ve thought it out rationally:

Why do we continue to purchase items we are told are must haves and critical to the safety and well being of our children even if we really don’t need them and they limit children’s ability to learn?

Final gratuitous shot of my adorbs kid, with scab on his nose from bailing at his first birthday party (where he was learning to walk on an exposed aggregate patio without a safety device)



10 years ago


  1. Why? Well, you already answered that in my opinion. It’s because this particular society has not only caused parents to be fear-filled, but also to be guilt-filled. If you don’t have it then you suck as a parent. So they feel.

    In the case of the fireplace, we actually didn’t use ours at all because *I* couldn’t handle the constantly monitoring my overly exuberant older child.

  2. First off this post is awesome.

    Second, if you get any hate mail tell them to send it to me too, because I agree 100%.

    It’s this whole culture of fear thing. I really don’t like. Especially because so many of our fears are a)irrational b) statistically super unlikely c) not even preventable if we tried- sometime life gives you crap to deal with.

    Anyway, yes. This!

  3. Well put!!! All I have to say is both of you survived abeit with maybe 1 or 2 scars. But that is part of the learning curve. Kids fall and bang themselves and learn. (One hopes so anyway). When you guys were little we didn’t even have car seats and my peers and I often say that we are amazed with all the safety stuff out there, that any of our children survived to have children of their own. Use your head and heart and it will all come together. nice post. I enjoyed it very much.

  4. Because it gives us (back) the illusion of control. The same reason we write detailed birth plans that are doomed to be changed in ways we can’t imagine. Because we can’t imagine and we think we can somehow prevent The Worst (being death, at least in *my* head that’s the worst thing) by engaging in this magical thinking…by doing Everything We Can, which means everything They Tell us To … And the people who make the fear-based devices know this, and they know we will spend a few bucks here and there if it makes us sleep better at night, even though we *know* in our hearts that does diddly squat to actually make our children safer —

    and as you probably know, I agree with you; what makes our children safer is THEM learning things and they can only learn by doing. Not kid vs. mack truck but kid vs something hot? Kid needs to learn that one for himself. Part of raising kids who will be smart teenagers and smart adults is letting them figure it out, whether it’s candle VS finger or 16 year old VS 6 pack of beer. Yes, we mitigate risk with car seats and bike helmets and learner’s permits. But we still don’t eliminate risk. We NEVER eliminate it. And some people don’t want to think that. Some people can’t face the fact that any of us could die at any moment.

    I love your rules of parenting, by the way.

  5. Love this post! Brings to mind an episode of House Hunters where a Michigan couple were moving to France, and were horrified that windows in Paris did not feature screens. The baffled realtor explained that you just, you know, teach your kids not to fall out the second story window. Unintentional hilarity in TV. 🙂 Also, two friends of mine stated just the other night that they have no guilt or regret over being over-protective parents – they feel the guilt of *anything* happening to their kids is worth avoiding (this was when we were talking about allowing 5-10 yr olds to boogie board on a Florida beach vacation.) I was speechless.

  6. I think for a lot of people, it is about trying to plan for every eventuality and protect against everything. As impossible as that is, we as a culture have determined that eliminating risk is possible if we just TRY HARD ENOUGH. Or are hypervigilant enough. Or buy enough.

    For us, most of the safety equipment we bought was not out of a sense of trying to protect against everything so much as it was about laziness. I have no problem admitting we put up a baby gate between the living room and dining room/kitchen so we didn’t have to deal with another book being torn when he was 10 months old. And the latches on the entertainment center are totally so that he’d stop emptying all the DVD’s onto the floor at 1. As he got (and gets) older, we remove those things when he’s at a level that will allow him to understand what we’re teaching him about no, but hey, I’ll cop to my lazy nature.

  7. I just wanted to say the Kale pictures are adorable! squee! (Oh, and I agree with you on all points, even though we had a few safety things). The other thing we subscribed to along the same lines was the “one finger rule.” Jaxon could touch pretty much anything he wanted (aside from hot things) with one finger and one finger only. Saved us putting valuables up high and how much damage can a little kid really do with one finger? Besides, when you’re allowed to touch things, it’s not nearly as appealing. Great post.

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