There’s something about the term “baby-proof” that rubs me the wrong way. Maybe it’s the pro-lifer in me, saying that babies aren’t dangers that we need to defend ourselves against. Maybe it’s just that I wouldn’t want something to be Hannah-proofed, because that would imply I couldn’t develop a healthy relationship with that object and treat it respectfully and appropriately, that the standard was set so low because not much was expected of me. I know that this is not what people intend when they use the term and that people love their children and simply want to keep them safe, but I believe these inferences are still fair.
This is why something clicked in me when I first discovered RIE, a philosophy of respectfully interacting with infants and toddlers that treats them as capable persons, rather than dolls that need everything done for them (no finger-pointing here; I use such an extreme comparison merely to emphasize what RIE values). RIE teaches that in our homes we ought to have a “yes” space, where our youngest ones are free to examine and touch, to explore, learn, and grow, without being told, “No!”. “No” can take many forms:
- Get down!
- Don’t touch that!
- Be careful!
- That’s not for you.
- That’s not for babies.
- That’s sharp!
- Be careful not to break it!
You get the idea.
Babies put things in their mouths. It’s a fact of life. But I think we too often buy into our modern consumerist and “expert”-led culture that implies only products created and purchased for teething can go in their mouth, and they have to by sanitized anytime they touch anything ever. Every family parents differently, so please don’t take anything I say as a criticism of your lifestyle. Some people value germ-free environments more than others. Some people have health problems where they need a more sanitary environment. I don’t fall into either of those categories, and I grew up with 8 siblings, so in our house, we ask two questions when the baby wants to mouth an object:
- Will it harm the baby?
- Will it harm the object?
And we have to answer honestly. Will junior really suffer physical or psychological harm from chewing on that ball/pan/hat? No? Then, will it damage the object itself? Because we do want our children to treat their belongings well, to be good stewards of what God has given us. That means no eating books, or sister’s artwork. But that also gives freedom to play with objects in an unexpected manner. Blocks don’t have to be stacked one on top of the other; they can be stacked on top of Daddy while he is reading. Crayons don’t have to be used for coloring; they can be separated into different jars for fun! And things can go in baby’s mouths, whether that’s what they were designed for or not.
RIE, from what I have read, usually creates one (or more) rooms/fenced off areas in the house where the child can explore freely. Our house is fairly small and adding fences wouldn’t help that situation. So while our house isn’t entirely a yes space, our toddler is allowed everywhere in it, and often unsupervised. For us, this means that no dangerous chemicals or sharp objects are within reasonable reach ever. Parents of toddlers know what I mean by reasonable. My almost two-year-old daughter can slide a chair from the dining area to the kitchen counter, climb it, open the overhead cupboard door, and reach the knife block contained therein. She can physically do that. But we talk to her about safety in an open, respectful, and consistent way, and we know her pretty well, so we trust her not to do that. We do have areas that are more easily accessible to her that we still do not want her making a mess of. Under our bathroom sinks, we store toilet paper, and if she wanted, she could unspool all the Costco-quantity TP until our apartment was ready for Halloween in February. But we have asked her not to, we have shown her other areas that are more appropriate for her, and we have not shamed her for getting into messy things so that she sees them like some forbidden fruit that she can only play with when mom and dad aren’t looking.
When friends come over, they see all the spots that our daughter now generally ignores, and messes happen. But I want to give my daughter as much freedom as possible and appropriate, and I want her to know that we trust her. Even and especially from this young age.
We cover outlets, hide cords, and secure furniture to walls. Her bedroom, where she sleeps on a floor bed and has unsupervised access to everything therein every night, contains nothing sharp, poisonous, or otherwise dangerous. I love plants and they are within her reach scattered throughout the house, but not in her bedroom, because if they aren’t poisonous, their fertilized soil might be.
Yes, sometimes she gets into somewhere I wouldn’t necessarily want her to be, but she is not in danger. Things break, but so do people. I want her to know that broken things can be fixed or replaced, and that I trust her, and that she is capable of doing things well. Not to sound all hippie-dippie (although I could argue this concept as very Christian), but I would much rather things break, than break her spirit. And, honestly? We’ve used glass cups and plates with her since she began to wean and she has maybe broken four things in our whole house in two years. So while our entire apartment isn’t exactly a yes space, it is our daughter’s home as much as it is ours, and she is learning responsibility, self-awareness, and self-confidence day by day.