What if your child wants a dangerous substance?

From the archives: The original post was posted on 25th April, 1995

In answer to Mark Slagle’s suggestion that if a child has been asking for ice cream for 8 hours, that might suggest that the child really does want ice cream, and that it might be worth considering honouring the child’s request, a poster wrote:

“So does the infant who incessantly attempts to open the medicine bottle, medicine cabinet, toilet lid, etc. How about the child who wants to reach up and grab the pot of boiling water on the stove?”

I think there is a difference, in that if you were to explain to the child that the medicine would be dangerous to ingest (if indeed it is), or that the pot is hot, he would not wish to drink the medicine or pour the boiling water over himself. If he does not know what “sick” and “hot” mean, then I’d say his parent ought to be explaining those things to him. It is not difficult, even with tiny children. But I suggest that actually, the child might just want to open the medicine bottle, or look in the pot, and that it is perfectly possible to arrange those things (and indeed to allow his exploration of the medicine cabinet and his lifting of the toilet lid) safely. In other words, why coerce? Why stop him?

“Would it not be said that to keep the child out of the kitchen in the first place would be coercive?”

Yes, if the child wanted to go in the kitchen. Given that young children may not have sufficient information to handle some of the things in the kitchen, I’d say it would be essential to be there with the child, to provide any further information that the child might need. Right from first crawling stage I’d say one should be giving children information about dangers like “hot” and about the dangers of the road, etc. Even babies who are not yet talking have sensation, and can understand the concept of “hot” if one allows them to feel the outside of a cup of boiling water, say. Young children aren’t stupid or irrational; they just lack information. That is what they need.

“Where do you draw the line of honoring a request? ice cream, vegetables, vitamins, medicine, lye, ammonia, gasoline? Again is it not a subtle form of coercion to restrict access to anything?”

I do not draw lines at all. That idea does not suggest coherence to me. Yes it is coercion to restrict access to anything that the child wants access to. Ice cream: is ice cream unsafe? I think not. Why would you wish to deny access to the ice cream you have in your freezer? Vegetables? Errr, many parents not only do not deny access to vegetables, but force their children to eat them.

Forgive my ignorance: I don’t know what “lye” is. Ammonia/bleach: the tiniest tiniest child is perfectly capable of understanding the dangers of ammonia. I suggest that instead of coercively preventing the child from going anywhere near the stuff, one should allow the curious child to smell it. One whiff is all it takes to persuade a child that this is nasty stuff. Failing that, show him what it can do. Show him how it “burns” things. Coercion is not necessary. Same goes for petrol. There are ways of safely showing tiny children why certain things require caution.

I don’t think it is coercive to avoid keeping cupboards full of toxic substances when one has babies around. I can’t remember the last time I used any medicine, for example, but if I did, I’d keep it somewhere out of reach and out of sight and throw it out when I’d finished with it. If you make jolly sure that you keep the bleach locked away, the issue is not going to arise unless you make a point of bringing it up. But the question was about what to do if a child has already discovered the bleach bottle and wants to open it.

But suppose you have kept everything locked away, and thus protected your child from the dangers, and one day, when you happen to be using the bleach, the phone goes/you hear a piecing scream/something else happens whose effect is to make you rush off, leaving the bleach in a more accessible place than usual. And suppose your child discovers it. What would your child do? Who knows? He has no information about it. He might well have no idea of the danger.

I’d say one should aim to provide information about these things anyway, just in case, in some unforeseen circumstance, the child discovers a cupboard full of nasty substances. The more information the child has, the less likely he is to do something dangerous when he finds himself in a novel situation. Since unforeseen events occur all the time, I suggest that this is a very strong argument for reason over coercion.

Where real dangers are concerned, using coercive strategies is particularly unwise because it may be putting the child in danger. I’d feel much safer knowing that the reason a child is not touching the bleach is that bleach is nasty stuff, than that the parent had forbidden it. For who knows what the coerced child might do the moment the parent’s back was turned. Reason keeps a child safe because the child has the correct theory (that the stuff is dangerous); coercion is risky because the child’s theory is not based on the reality of the substance, but upon the possible punishment for an infringement of the parental rule.

So:

“How does experience and awareness of consequences influence the intent to give children freedom?”

It doesn’t. It influences the intent to give information to the child so that he will be aware of those consequences too and thus able to make informed judgements.

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 1995, ‘What if your child wants a dangerous substance?’, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/what-if-your-child-wants-a-dangerous-substance/