Friend’s parenting not wrong, just different

Posted March 11, 2010, at 5:24 p.m.

The stairs were steep and uncarpeted. The banisters were spaced so widely that a toddler could easily slide through them and drop to the hard floor below. My friend’s toddler daughter had climbed halfway up this staircase while my friend, with her back to the child, chatted with me and made some tea.

As I hurried to pick up my friend’s child and encouraged her to play with my own toddler safely on the floor, I figured my friend had failed to notice her daughter’s stair-climbing because she was at work making tea for her guest. But when we sat down to tea, I learned that I was mistaken.

As her daughter made a beeline for the staircase and then began another eager scramble up the steps, my friend looked on, smiled, and remarked fondly, “My little monkey.” Obviously, my friend felt confident that her daughter was going to be fine, while all I could see was an accident waiting to happen.

“She could fall!” I blurted as I dashed over and picked up her daughter again. After I engaged the little girl in building a tower with blocks, I sat down at the table with my friend again.

“I hope you don’t mind that I stepped in,” I said, amazed at my friend’s amused smile. Clearly, she viewed my action as unnecessary. “It’s just that if she fell, she could be severely hurt, perhaps even for life,” I said. It seemed amazing that this was not obvious to my friend, whom I knew to be a loving mother.

As my friend changed the subject, my heart ached over the revelation that she was so lax about child safety. Not only was I profoundly concerned for my friend’s child, but I realized that I could not entrust my own daughter into the care of this woman.

Not unless we had a very serious meeting of the minds about our child-minding styles, that is. And so, while my friend finished making her point about something else, I pulled together the courage to talk with my friend frankly.

“I have to tell you,” I began, “how much I enjoy our times together with our girls. And I hope we’ll also be able to continue to help each other out with child care. But I just have to say that it seems I’m much more safety-conscious than you are. When your daughter was playing on that staircase, all I could think of was how easy it would be for her to fall and be injured. I could see that you were not worried in the least. Not only am I worried for your daughter’s safety but I’m worried about how you would feel if she was hurt. It only takes a minute for a fall to happen that could harm your daughter for the rest of her life.”

“I guess I am a lot more relaxed about this than you are,” my friend said. “When I was growing up, I was a ‘monkey,’ too. I was perfectly fine! We were given the run of the house as kids!”

As she spoke, it occurred to me that her upbringing, in Kenya, had been literally worlds away from mine. The daughter of a government officer, she had been brought up by household staff that had an easygoing attitude about child care. This obvious difference in upbringing made it easy for my friend and me to discuss the experiences that had led to our contrasting child care styles. That’s because those differences made it possible to talk about the topic without it becoming too personal.

More importantly, though, because we cared about each other as friends, and because we loved our children, we were able to listen to one another’s concerns. My friend said she really felt it was unlikely that her child would fall from the steps, but she acknowledged that it was a wake-up call to imagine how she would feel if that did happen and her daughter became injured. And I acknowledged that my sudden lunge at “rescuing” her daughter from what I saw as danger could have the result of making a child startled and unduly fearful.

The next time I arrived at her house, I found that my friend had installed child safety gates at the top and bottom of her staircase. We both smiled and relaxed while our girls had the run of a reasonably safe section of the house.

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