Children are life-changing.
Many people dream about someday “having a baby”, but few realize the transformation that awaits when you truly become a parent. Parenthood affects your health, your schedule, your relationships…and new research is showing the fascinating ways that it literally changes your brain!
But despite all these amazingly important ways parenthood changes us, most widely-discussed is the cost. Food, clothing, a larger home, education expenses…it can be overwhelming for many families to even begin to think about the financial obligations of children. And just in the first few years, many families spend upwards of $1,000 child-proofing their homes!
While child-proofing is of course no guarantee of child safety, it is recommended by pediatricians to minimize dangerous and sometimes fatal home accidents involving poisoning or injury. Few people would question or criticize the decision to make your home safer for your children, including myself. But I do think it is important to understand the differences between a home that is child-proofed and one that is child-centered.
Child-proofing is the process of making an adult environment safer for kids and making it harder for kids to destroy adult things. The most common adjustments are covering electrical outlets, containing small children with gates or play pens, adding locks to cupboards, doors, and toilets, anchoring heavy items to walls to prevent tipping, and putting permanent markers, paints, breakables, etc. out of child reach. But of course none of these steps makes the home environment any more engaging to the child; in fact, each one involves removing exciting elements! This does not mean that I recommend any of these steps be avoided. Safety is, and should be, the number one concern in a parent’s mind. BUT if safety is concern number one, growth should certainly be concern number two, and over-concern with safety can sometimes undermine it.
Imagine a young infant for a moment. When we think of safety, many of us will picture the infant securely in the arms of mother or father. This image is a calming and beautiful one indeed. But as any parent knows, the time that infant is content to just stay in those arms is fleeting. Before long, a thriving baby will scoot or crawl, pull themselves up to stand, and, miraculously, begin to walk. I doubt any of us would allow our fear of that baby falling down make us stop them from walking. Inherent in this development is danger, but we know it is required for the baby to grow.
As babies become toddlers and toddlers preschoolers, the understanding of how much danger is useful for growth becomes trickier and trickier to grasp. One example of this involves the use of small objects. Toddlers and preschoolers are often fascinated by small beads, figurines, buttons, and pennies, and as any parent has surely been informed, all of these objects pose a potential choking hazard. But manipulating such items is an engaging exercise in fine motor skills and a concentration-developing sensory experience! (Children often feel drawn to do the things that will grow their brains the most, even when we as parents flinch at the potential hazards involved.)
I certainly do NOT want to minimize the danger of choking. It happens regularly, can be deadly, and must always be in the forefront of the mind of anyone who cares for young children. But I do believe many toddlers and preschoolers can safely interact with small objects as long as two conditions are met: knowing the child well, and knowing yourself well. If you’ve observed a child at length, and he or she has clearly moved past the stage of development where every new object goes into the mouth without thought, AND you trust your own ability to see the signs that an object is about to be used dangerously so that it can be intercepted, activities with small objects could be a safe educational option.
But returning to the overall question of this post, it’s important to understand that making a home child-centered requires a very different sort of thought process than child-proofing does. When child-proofing, parents typically ask themselves what they need to remove or block-off to keep children safe. But when child-centering your home, you are instead asking, “How can I make my home interesting, stimulating, and empowering to my child?” You could interpret this as making the home more “educational”, but ultimately with young children, their educational interests are best served by supporting their independent brain growth through activities that they love to do.
Making your home interesting
Achieving an interesting home can begin by looking at the world from your child’s point of view. Get down to the height of your child and look around. Does everything seem high and out of reach? What do you see around you that is enticing? Consider adding art or activities down at child eye-level to help engage them visually.
Making your home stimulating
Everyone provides their child with toys, but not all toys are created equal. Toys that challenge without totally frustrating your child will push her or his brain to grow and will keep your child stimulated and learning. I recommend toys that don’t do too much on their own (like light up and play music). Things like puzzles, wooden stacking rings, non-powered trains or cars, playdough, etc. (i.e. “classic” toys) require a bit of work to use and therefore provide more learning opportunities.
Making your home empowering
Many parents I know feel overwhelmed by all of the things they have to do for their children. But chances are while they are feeling overwhelmed, their child is feeling frustrated by environmental limitations. Children need to help, they need responsibilities, they need you to believe that they can do things on their own. This doesn’t mean they will jump at every chance you offer them to do chores, but if you keep looking for things they can try independently, some of them will be a hit. Some great home environment adaptations to empower children include providing a small dustpan and hand broom as well as a garbage can their size so that they can help clean small dry spills,
placing a hook at their height in the bathroom so they can hang their own hand towel,
A child-centered home is a place where children want to be, and it’s also a place where parents can enjoy their role more. Taking good care of our children means doing a million things for them when they are born, and then letting them take the reins of their own life as they grow. What have you done in your own home to help children learn and be independent?