Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Safety Advice Is Not Parenting Judgment

When I see a child incorrectly buckled or in an inappropriate car seat, either in a picture online or in person, I often have an instinctive reaction to mentally note the problems and an internal debate as to whether to say something to the parent. I rarely say anything, as I don't want to start an argument or offend anyone or seem judgmental.

There was a viral video going around a couple of weeks ago showing a baby sound asleep in her car seat until "Gangnam Style" came on, then waking up suddenly and dancing. It was a very cute video, but many of us on Facebook who are interested in car seat safety were very quick to point out the many problems with the car seat use depicted in the video. The Car Seat Lady (Dr. Alisa Baer, a pediatrician and certified car seat technician), in particular, took a frame from the video and made a graphic showing all of the problems with how the baby and her sister were secured in the car and posted it to her Facebook page. (I can't locate the picture now. Either she took it down, or Facebook doesn't want to show it to me for some reason.) The picture received well over 1,000 comments, and while many comments to the post were along the lines of "Yes, I noticed the same thing!", or "That really bothered me, too!", many others expressed disgust that the Car Seat Lady would publicly criticize the family in this way. Others then commented that once the parents posted the video to YouTube and it went viral, they lost control over the images, and Dr. Baer had every right to use the picture as a teaching tool. There was some debate over whether her producing this graphic was simple commentary or actively judgmental and overly critical.

This got me thinking hard about how I react when I see improper car seat use. Often, my first thought is, "Oy, another kid buckled wrong. Don't they know that X should be Y?" (where X is whatever was done incorrectly and Y is the correct usage). I'm trying to retrain my internal reaction to, "I wonder if they know that their child isn't as safe as she could be. Maybe I should let her know that Y instead of X." I usually don't say anything unless I'm asked, mostly because I like to avoid confrontation.

From there, I tried to think of a neutral, unrelated safety issue that I might want to point out to someone, to decide if commenting on said problem could really be construed as judgmental or critical of their parenting skills. One safety tip I remember from a baby-sitting course I took as a teenager still sticks with me. When cooking on the stove top, turn the pot handles in so that they're not hanging out over the edge of the stove. This way, a toddler can't reach up and grab the handle, potentially dumping whatever's in the pot on themselves and getting severely burned. To this day, whenever I cook on the stove top, I always, always make sure the pot handles are turned in, because my toddler does reach up and try to play with the stove knobs, and if he were just a little taller, he might try to grab the pot handle. It's a real concern!

So, if I saw a picture on a friend's Facebook page, say, of their toddler in the kitchen doing something adorable, like pretending to cook, and in the background of the picture I could see a pot on the stove with the handle pointing out over the edge, would I comment to the parent something like, "Soooo cute! But, hey, that pot handle sticking out like that could be dangerous. My son likes to grab anything he can reach, and I wouldn't want him to dump a pot of hot spaghetti sauce on his head. I've heard you should turn the pot handles inward so the little ones can't reach them"? (Note: I have never actually seen such a picture. This is a hypothetical scenario.)

If I did make such a comment, would that be construed as critical, judgmental, or rude? I don't think so. I think it would come off as genuine concern over the safety of my friend's child. So why, when a car seat technician points out a safety issue with a car seat, is that labeled as uncalled-for or obnoxious?

When G was a very tiny newborn, my mother-in-law and I went shopping. It was a warm, sunny day, and we were loading up the car with our purchases and the baby when a man came up to us in the parking lot. He said something like, "You know, you should get your baby out of the sun. They can get sunburned so fast, and you might not even know they're burned." I was only half-listening, and my inclination was to brush him off and be annoyed that he would have the gall to approach me and judge my parenting skills. G was only in the sun for a few minutes while we put our purchases in the trunk, and I was sure he would be fine.

Thinking about it later, though, I realized that the man was just showing concern for a little baby. Perhaps it happened to his baby, that she got terribly sunburned and was in pain because he didn't know better, and he just wanted to make sure other parents protected their children from the same possible injury. He wasn't saying I was a bad parent or that I was stupid or anything of the sort. He just didn't want to see another little baby suffer like his had.

I think the issue requires a little sensitivity from both sides. If I see a problem with car seat use, my job is to express concern without allowing that concern to grow into judgment of the person's overall parenting skills. On the other hand, if someone points out a problem about car seat use, it's up to the recipient of such a comment not to become defensive but rather to take the kindly given bit of advice under consideration and thank the person for the information.


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