When you teach safety rules to your preschooler, it will help if you provide clear reasons for the rule. "Because I said so" may win some degree of compliance, but will not convince your child to make it his own rule, too. Try to help your four-year-old understand that these rules are not intended to spoil his fun, only to keep him safe. The more fair and reasonable your rules seem to your child, the more likely he is to adhere to them and adopt them as his own.
Try to avoid resorting to scare tactics. The reason you don't want your child to climb to the top of the jungle gym is not "because you'll fall down and break your neck and die." It's that "if you do fall, you'll get hurt." If you overexaggerate possible dangers, one (or both) of two things will happen:
- You will lose your credibility. Your child will dismiss your rule because at some level he recognizes the unlikelihood of what you're saying.
- Your child will accept what you say, but grow up believing that the world is a scary place, with deadly dangers lurking everywhere.
When your preschooler disobeys your safety rules, you need to make him see that unsafe behavior has consequences. If your child runs out into the street you should immediately pull him back off the street, repeat your rule, explain your rationale (that drivers in cars may not be able to see him), and warn him not to do it again.
One warning is all you should issue. If your child then repeats the unsafe behavior, you'll need to enforce strict consequences. Whenever possible, try to make the consequence related to the unsafe behavior. In the example here, for instance, you might make him come inside right away. Help him make the connection between his action and the consequences. "I told you that you cannot run in the street. It's not safe. If you can't play outside safely, then you can't play outside."
If you teach your safety rules, if they seem fair and reasonable to your child, and if he recognizes that they are intended not to be mean to him, but to keep him safe, then he will probably be eager to obey them—and even adopt them as his own rules. What begins as obedience, in an attempt to please you, will gradually become identification with you and your rules, a critical part of his developing conscience.
The Voice of Conscience
Keeping your preschooler safe requires more than just knowing the rules. Your child also needs to develop and trust her own instincts regarding what's safe and what's not. With your help, she needs to cultivate her own inner voice that warns her of possible danger. This voice keeps your child from climbing into a stranger's car or walking along the edge of a river. So teach your child to trust her instincts. Whenever she hears this voice, she needs to heed its warnings.
One way to hone your child's self-protective instincts is to rehearse safety situations with her. Use scenarios that allow you to turn these safety rehearsals into a game. Try to mix in some easy safety problems with the more challenging ones that you really want your child to master:
- What would you do if someone you didn't know came to your day care and told you to go home with him?
- What would you do if your ball rolled out into the street?
- What would you do if you couldn't find me in the supermarket?
- What would you do if you saw a three-year-old fall off the jungle gym?
- What would you do if another child sat at the top of the slide and refused to go down?
- What would you do if you dropped a glass of juice and the glass broke?
- What would you do if a friend asked you to do something you thought was unsafe?
- What would you do if the smoke detectors in your house went off?
If your child seems stumped for an answer, offer a suggestion—or allow your child to choose from two or three alternatives that you provide. Don't be surprised if your preschooler comes up with some wild answers:
- "I'd smear peanut butter on the man so he'd get all sticky and couldn't catch me!"
- "I'd wait for a car to kick the ball back to me!"
- "I'd put candy at the bottom of the slide so the child would come down."
Try not to laugh at your child's safety solution. She's probably not trying to be funny. Instead commend her for her ingenuity, offer a better alternative, and then ask the same question again the next time you play the game with her.