How much childproofing should I do?

Childproofing the home is important because young children explore indiscriminately. If an object is within reach, a child under three will touch it without considering his own safety or the value of the object. Because young children have such a strong natural compulsion to touch, see, and explore, their parents have to protect them and make their environment safe. But parents also have to balance their child-proofing with an understanding of their child’s need to explore.

Most parents know to put plugs in electrical sockets, to put locks on cabinets containing dangerous substances, to keep plants and sharp items out of reach, and to put away valuables. But beyond that, they wonder how much accommodating they should do. Some parents feel they should teach their child the meaning of “no” by leaving out objects that he’s not allowed to handle: “Sooner or later, he’s going to have to learn not to touch everything.” Other parents leave out forbidden objects or refuse to let their child touch accessible items in order to train him to behave well in other people’s homes. One mother who wouldn’t let her son play behind the living room curtains, said, “I don’t care about my own curtains but I’m afraid he’ll play with the curtains at his friend’s house.” Such fears prevent many parents from allowing their child to explore his own house. Yet, children can be allowed to touch and play with things at home and taught not to do the same thing at other people’s homes.

Parents who leave out knickknacks and declare many items and appliances untouchable find themselves in constant conflict with their child, who simply does not have the impulse control to resist touching. One common battleground is the kitchen. Frustrated parents who don’t understand the developmental urge to explore sometimes try to limit their child’s access to the dishwasher, trash can, and refrigerator by tying up doors and lids. Yet, such denial may only make him more frantic to experiment with the interesting appliances he sees his parents use. He may run to the kitchen every time he hears the refrigerator open, or he may struggle to climb on the dishwasher door to get at the silverware. He just wants to touch, but parents often expect too much from a child under three and then feel drained by having to say “no” all day.

It’s certainly true that a child needs limits, but he will inevitably learn his limitations because there are dangerous and valuable objects that can’t be put away: a fireplace, lamps, a TV, a stereo. There is no need to intentionally leave out other forbidden things, just as there is no need to automatically declare all appliances off-limits. The dishwasher for instance, won’t need to be tied up if parents keep some spoons and plastic dishes and cups within their child’s reach inside and let him occasionally practice taking them out and putting them back. Likewise, if parents put some healthy snacks on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator, their child will probably feel satisfied to help him-self to those without feeling a need to touch everything else in the refrigerator. If parents are firm about not letting their child handle a few items, but otherwise allow him freedom to touch, both he and they will not be overly frustrated during this developmental stage. The more freedom he has, the more likely he’ll be to listen when they tell him not to touch.

Once you have fully childproofed your home, you’ll feel comfortable leaving your child alone in one room for a brief time while you work or answer the phone in another room. If you have limited the number of objects he may not touch, you won’t feel tense when he explores. However, expect to keep reminding him of his limits; his urge to touch is so strong that he may not be able to stop himself.

If you want to keep your child from handling things at someone else’s house, try telling him ahead of time, “I know you play with the cushions here, but when we’re at Grandma’s you can’t do that.” You might find that your child is more cautious when he’s away from home and that he does less exploring in other people’s homes than you expected.

Whenever you visit, you may have to do some temporary childproofing, especially if your host has no young children. Ask if you can temporarily move fragile items. Most people will understand, particularly if you offer to put the objects back in place before you leave.

Childproofing is basically a way of accommodating the normal developmental needs of a child under three. Young children want to touch and try everything, so if you prepare for this stage, you will have an easier time getting through it. And, although it may seem to you that the touching phase will never end, you’ll see a gradual decrease in your child’s need to explore everything in sight. By the time he’s three and one-half, he’ll gain more understanding about objects, safety, and impulse control, and have less need to touch. You will then be able to put back on your tables and shelves many of the objects you had to keep out of reach.

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