Ann Hulbert has just published a history of child-rearing expertise, Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About Children. Curious to find out whether she has learned anything practical from her explorations, some of Slate's staff turned to Sandbox with their questions about down-to-earth dilemmas facing up-to-date parents.
What's the bottom line on childproofing? When my now 1-year-old started crawling, I bought all those kitchen cabinet and toilet locks and that ugly gray rubber stuff that you're supposed to line every sharp edge with. But then I took the locks off because I could never figure out how to open them, and he pulled the gray stuff off, thinking that it existed to be waved around. Now he moves through an unprotected world, and with my careful attention, he seems to be getting a basic sense of what he can fiddle with safely and what he needs to avoid—though, of course, I have to run after him all the time to make sure he doesn't slip up. My husband thinks it's great that we're defying the childproofing Nazis. I wonder: Is exposing my child to the dangers of life a way to instill in him a more acute awareness of the real world, or am I just rationalizing my failure as a mother and making more work for myself?
—Panting in Pelham
Dear Panting in Pelham,
Eighty years ago, the behaviorist John B. Watson emerged as America's childproofing pioneer and proposed erecting an electric fence around untouchable household objects. The current padded-cell approach, Sandbox agrees, marks a dubious advance—all that rubber stuff incites babies to wanton destruction, and those locks drive parents nuts. But what would we do without unwieldy expert cures that help us see that our child-rearing ills are perhaps not so dire after all?
You might as well face it: Whether or not you adorn your house with the latest protective paraphernalia, your toddler is going to discover the world's dangers (and allures) and run you ragged in the process. He'll head for the electrical outlets, and you'll charge after him—even if the little socket covers are on, and even if he isn't waving a fork (which Sandbox trusts you keep out of reach). Of course he isn't going to get fried, but you've still got to convey the don't-mess-with-that message.
Dr. Spock has the bottom line on the best way to do that. "Don't say 'No' in a challenging voice from across the room," the doctor advises. "This gives him a choice. He says to himself, 'Shall I be a mouse and do as she says, or shall I be a man and grab the lamp cord?' " Instead, whisk him away from mischief with some matter-of-fact "No"s.
In short, don't be a mouse or unduly fierce; be in touch with your inner boss—and be aware that when your son gets bruised or worse (or rips up your books), you'll find some way to blame yourself (and your husband), no matter how much childproofing you did or didn't do.
I've been trying to get my 2-and-a-half-year-old son to brush his own teeth before going to bed. My wife prefers to do the brushing for him, and she tends to put the question to him in a way that encourages him to have her do it rather than do it himself. My argument is that he doesn't like people poking around in his space and that it's better for kids to learn to do things for themselves when possible. My wife's argument is that he's too young to brush competently and needs help. What's your view?