Does "Being Careful" Make Kids Safer?

Matt and I talk a lot about safety, especially in terms of Wolf. 

Besides loving him, our main job is to keep him safe as we nurture him into adulthood. But what does that really mean?

Sure, some of it is obvious. We provide secure shelter, car seats when we drive, and hold his hand across streets. 

But what about letting him climb around on rocks? Or run really fast on a hard surface…the kind that would skin up his knees and elbows if he fell? Or talk to strangers?

I think these decisions are grayer and worth thinking about.

Our approach has been to allow him to experience some risk. The kind we hope will develop his intuition, judgment, and situational awareness. 

To that end, we actively encourage him to explore the outdoors. 

While he does, we try to use 'Don't do that!' and ‘Be careful!' sparingly - only when he really needs to watch it. 

More often, we tell him the potential consequences and what he could do to be safer. Things like, 'You can slide down that gravelly hill if you want, but if you don't change into pants your legs may get cut up.'

At that point, we usually let him decide. If he wants to do it anyway, we advise him on how to do it more safely - like, "Stick to the side of the path so you can grab a root if you start going too fast."

There are several upsides we've seen from this approach. 

For one, he's become very agile for a four-year old. But beyond that, he's developing his own sense of risk and natural consequences. And probably just as important he gets to have a little agency over his life. Kids don't get much of that.

I can't speak for kids broadly, but Wolf is adventurous without being particularly kamikaze. Because of that, when we're playing outside most of our direction to him is along the lines of "Stay where we can see you" or "Now put the toad back where you found him."

Still, we've sometimes gotten side-eye from other parents.

Earlier this spring at the zoo, he climbed up a boulder embankment that was 8 or 9 feet high. He sat at the top, cheerfully shouting hello at everyone who passed. Almost every kid who came by - probably a dozen - asked their parents if they could climb up it, too. None were allowed.

I think a decision like that comes down to a risk/reward ratio that is different in every parent’s mind. Having seen Wolf climb up many rocks and boulders, the embankment at the zoo looked solidly within his ability. And it was.

But I’m not judging the parents who said no. You get good at climbing by climbing, and they may have accurately gauged the boulders as beyond what their kids could safely manage. Or maybe they just had animals they wanted to see without a big holdup for climbing rocks. 

I get a little saltier when people intervene directly with Wolf. 

This happened right before we left Kansas City. We went to a restaurant that hosts a weekly outdoor music and wine night. Its patio area has a shallow water feature surrounded by landscaping boulders. 

Appropriately, Wolf was more interested in exploring water and boulders than watching adults drink wine and listen to soft rock covers.

When he was up on the boulders - maybe eighteen inches off the ground - someone in our group repeatedly told him, “Get down!" and "You’ll crack your head open!” But when he dropped down to his belly to look more closely at the (very shallow) water feature, the waitress immediately shooed him away. It's hard to be a kid sometimes.

Besides protecting Wolf from himself, we also want to keep him safe from the bad apples of the world.

We get stopped with curious questions about our truck literally every day. Usually multiple times. So far, these have been 100% friendly conversations with people curious about our truck and what we’re doing. 

Wolf often steps in to answer their questions himself: 

“The truck is an LMTV” 

“Our dog is a Rhodesian Ridgeback. His name is Casey. I named him.” 

“You can follow us on our blog. It’s Kid Dog Travel.”

People usually look a little surprised when he pipes up. Then, most will respond and engage him in a little conversation.

What about "stranger danger", then?

I have several concerns about teaching kids “stranger danger”. First, most of us contradict it all the time by chit chatting with people we obviously don’t know. Second, how will kids ever develop good judgment if they're only supposed to interact with familiar people? Third, squelching kids' natural confidence with fear may actually make them more vulnerable to bad people. And lastly, most people are really pretty nice. It's kind of sad and limiting to imply otherwise to kids.

Rather than telling Wolf not to talk to strangers, we want him to learn to interact with them safely. For now, those interactions include our supervision. But our long-term goal is for him to develop his own radar so that he grows into an adolescent, teenager, and adult who makes good choices.

That process very much involves him interacting with unfamiliar people, including sometimes in ways that aren’t positive. This came up last week when Matt and Wolf took our puppy to a dog park in downtown Salt Lake City. 

It turned out to be a bleak, dog-less hangout for junkies and the homeless. People were openly dealing drugs. 

They quickly left, and Matt later asked Wolf what he had thought about the park. 

It was scary, Wolf said. 

That prompted a discussion about what made it feel scary, and why they had left so fast. 

Similarly, when we have good interactions with people we talk about those, too - and what we liked about them. 

If Wolf ever gets separated from us, I think he’s had enough positive encounters with strangers to do what we’ve taught him to do. He’s supposed to pick a grownup that looks like a mom or a grandma and ask them to call us (he knows our phone numbers). 

We intentionally did not tell him to look for a police officer. It probably depends on where you live, but most places we go don’t have uniformed police officers milling around where a kid could easily find them. 

And in trying to find a cop, he might inadvertently approach a security guard. While I'm sure most are fine individually, as a group they're minimally screened, barely trained, and mostly male - definitely not who we want Wolf seeking out for help.

Not only are women collectively far, far less violent than men, choosing who helps you  is almost always safer than waiting for someone to step in. {You can read much more on this subject in Gavin de Becker’s excellent book, Protecting the Gift.}

For me, the bottom line is that we do a lot of things that are supposed to keep kids safe. 

We tell them not to climb high, run fast, or talk to strangers - all while giving them well-intended but vague warnings to ‘Be careful!'. This sends the message that the world is scary without actually preparing kids to interact safely within it. 

Safety is never guaranteed to any of us, but we think Wolf's best chance of achieving it will come through an ongoing dialogue. One about which risks are worth taking, and which risks - and people - he should probably walk away from. 

Meanwhile, we will keep climbing, running, exploring, and yes - talking to strangers.