Once upon a time when humans first roamed the planet.. There were no Dangerous Steep Cliffs that had an off-switch, and sleeping tigers were still very dangerous to poke. Back then parents didn’t have the luxury of teaching children about dangerous things with a “no! no!” and they simply showed their child the fear that the parent had for the dangerous thing, and the child knew not to approach.
Today we interact with our Dangerous things. We ride in the cars that can run us over. We cross those streets. And when our child runs towards those things we…. Do what? We often do the same thing that we do when our child interacts with the Dangerous Things that are turned off.
“No!” we say and run after them, turning it into a marvelous game of chase where the child runs as fast as they can away from the parent. (Usually right into the street.)
I don’t. I stage opportunities for my children to safely approach a danger in its “off” state. And I allow panic into my voice. It’s a dangerous sleeping tiger, not an empty road. It’s a cliff, not a stove that has been turned off. I look ahead, I make sure that the road is clear, and I watch as they approach the street alone. I drift closer and as they approach the grassy strip between the sidewalk and the quiet residential street that we live on, I call out in panic and freeze until they look at me, startled, and begin to toddle towards me in a rush of instinct to climb into my arms. I run over to them, sweep them up against my chest where they can feel the rapid beat of my heart from the adrenaline rush I just pushed myself to have.
“Not alone.” I say. We cross while holding hands, in the stroller, while I carry you. Not alone.
When a toddler hears a parent be afraid they become afraid. This is instinct. It’s a part of them just like reflexes are.
When a toddler with a healthy attachment is scared they run towards the parent even if the parent is right there with the source of danger.
This is how my children learn that they stay on the sidewalk and don’t go near the grassy edge. This is how my children learn that we hold hands and don’t let go when we walk through parking lots. This is how my children learn that they don’t touch the stove, that they don’t reach for things that are above their heads on counter-tops.
And as they get older I teach them what to watch for, and we talk about earning trust as they tell me what it is that they need to be able to see and what they need to be able to do in different situations.
They learn about danger, not as something that I “don’t want them to do”, but as something that I am afraid of. As a sleeping tiger.