Photo Credit: Ariel Skelley/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images
Although taking care of my daughter when she was a toddler was nerve-wracking, it was also straightforward: A lot of firm "No’s!" whenever she came within reach of a hot stove, glass coffee table or our feisty Chihuahuas. Now that she’s old enough to reason and talk back, looking out for her welfare is trickier business.
We chatted with Dr. Richard Lichenstein, Associate Professor of Pediatrics and Director, Pediatric Emergency Medicine Research at the University of Maryland Medical Center about simple ways to keep young children safe.
Have your kids memorize their home address and phone number. Although you should definitely teach your children their first and last names as early as possible, most kids won’t be able to remember an address or phone number until they’re in kindergarten. "Since kids around this age often wander, it’s important for them to be able to tell people where they belong," says Dr. Lichenstein. Even if you’re sure they know everything, it’s worth slipping a card with the info into their backpack, or affixing a label with your phone number on the inside of the bag -- not the outside where anyone can read it.
Tell your kids who they should go to if they need help. Mommy and daddy, older siblings, grandma and grandpa, and teachers will probably be at the top of the list. However, what if none of them are around? While you want kids to be wary of strangers, Dr. Lichenstein says at times -- like when they get lost -- children may need to seek help from someone they don’t know. Make sure they can identify police officers, and that they know to approach families before talking to a single adult.
Continue to watch -- not hover over -- your kids while they play. At my daughter’s five-year checkup, her pediatrician warned that many serious injuries occur around that age because parents stopped being as vigilant about supervising their kids. Even though they’re growing up, they’re still children, and need adult guidance and protection. "Make sure swings, slides and climbing structures are well kept, that there’s nothing jagged or sticking out, and that surfaces aren’t too hot," says Dr. Lichenstein. "Keep an eye on your kid, especially around water."
Put parental controls on your TV, computer and other media devices. By now, your kid knows how to use your iPhone -- and every other gadget in your house -- better than you do. Make sure you’ve turned on all parental controls. While your five-year-old probably won’t wander into a chat room or open a Facebook account, it’s only a matter of time. Plus, you don’t want them accidentally stumbling across violent or sexually explicit content online or on TV. Even the evening news might disturb or confuse them. "Your kids don’t have a lot of life experience yet," says Dr. Lichenstein. "They can’t contextualize things. You don’t want them coming across this stuff in isolation."
Don’t try to turn your child into someone she’s not. Some kids are more daring than others, and that’s just the way it is according to Dr. Lichenstein. "I don’t think we can change fearless or cautious kids; as parents, it’s about minimizing risks," he says. "For example, all kids should wear bike helmets, but if a child wants to do wheelies, you’re not going to be able to stop him -- and you shouldn’t." A recent article in The New York Times quotes psychologists who claim that letting kids try riskier equipment and experiences helps them learn to conquer fear. While Dr. Lichenstein stops short of endorsing that philosophy, he does think kids should be allowed to be kids. "Five or six should be a pretty happy time. Parents just need to take precautions."