Goodbye Baby Gate, Hello (Terrible, Frightening) Freedom
I am looking to you, as expert on all-things-boy for help with my dilemma. I have an almost 4 year old boy and my question for you is about keeping him in his room at night. We have a 2 bedroom house – we are upstairs with our 6mo. old daughter and our son is downstairs in his own room. (It isn’t possible to switch rooms.) He learned how to open the first gate when he was 2 1/2 so my husband put a stronger spring in it so he couldn’t open it any more. Then when he was strong enough to open it a year later, we switched to a different style gate that he couldn’t open. Well, that lasted a week because he figured out how to open that one pretty quickly. So now, for the past two months, we have been zip tying the gate shut at night when we go to bed. My husband and I laugh that it has never occurred to him to climb over it! He is a great kid, and I am sure that I am being way to crazy about this, but when is it time to let him have free reign of the house?!?! (PANIC!) I know it has to happen at some point, but all I can envision is him going outside alone or microwaving a fork… neither of which he has ever done, but I have irrational-mom-worry.
In my bleary, pre-coffee first read of your letter, I somehow missed your son’s age and thought we were talking about a young toddler here. So I immediately was like, “INSTALL A CHAIN LOCK ON THE OUTSIDE OF HIS DOOR. GET DOORKNOB COVERS FROM THE BABYPROOFING AISLE. INSTALL A BABY GATE ON TOP OF THE OTHER BABY GATE.” And then I realized your son is almost four, and it was a little bit of a record-scratch moment.
This is probably the Montessori school experience talking here, but I personally don’t think preschoolers should be baby-proofed into their rooms. Not because they aren’t still capable of being complete boneheads about messes and disaster (they totally are), but because there are more effective methods for teaching them not to be boneheads than simple containment and restriction. An older 3/young 4 year old is old enough to understand danger, cause and effect and how safely and responsibly care for their environment (cleaning up their own spills, picking up toys, not microwaving forks, etc.). At this age you want to be encouraging independence, not fearing it. I KNOW, I KNOW. BEAR WITH ME HERE.
By restricting your son’s movement with a baby gate, you’re basically presenting him with a tempting, glorious limit that is made to be tested and broken, and hoo boy, is he going to test and break it. Thus his mad baby gate Houdini skills. He hasn’t learned the purpose of (or respect for) the gate because he just sees it as a big fun challenge, even though he’s coming up on being old enough to understand that The Rule Is You Stay In Your Room Until Mommy or Daddy Come Downstairs. (Or some variation: You can leave your room and Play Here or Do Just This until we come downstairs.) By giving him more freedom (within reason), you can actually give yourself the peace of mind that you’re managing to raise a somewhat capable human being who understands that table corners are sharp and stoves are hot even if you aren’t there to and remind him. You will be very grateful for this fact in a few months when you’re chasing after a second mobile toddler and simply won’t be able to hover over your preschooler (or keep him barricaded in).
Once my kids were potty-trained, we more or less gave up on keeping them contained in their rooms. (They need access to the bathroom, right?) We removed most of our baby gates because I saw them more as a liability than anything else — ours were all on or near the top of our stairs, so it was safer to simply let the kids use the stairs than tempt them to climb over a gate and fall. When Noah was three, we used an alarm clock that lit up/changed colors at a certain time — he had to stay in his room and read books until then. By four, he was allowed to go downstairs by himself and play quietly with toys or muted games on the iPad. By five, he was allowed to help himself and his brother to basic breakfast components — bowls, Cheerios, fruit, cups of water. And by “allowed” I of course mean “SCORE ONE FOR ME SLEEPING IN.” These milestones have probably been sped up with each subsequent child, since they travel in a pack most of the time. (The baby gates were gone by the time Ike was a toddler, and while he has made some big-ass messes behind my back, he’s never fallen down the stairs or seriously hurt himself. I’ll take it as a win.)
Not that our house isn’t child-friendly: Outlets are still covered, TVs and heavy furniture are mounted to the wall, knives and sharp objects are stored high and cleaning products/medicines are out of reach. We have sensors on the front and back doors that beep when the doors open. Those are thanks to the previous owners, who installed them because one of their young children WOULD just open the door and run outside unsupervised no matter what they did. Ours are linked to a home security system, but I’ve seen similar door/window sensor alarms sold a la carte at home improvement stores. We’ve only “needed” them once or twice, as Ezra went through a phase where he’d decide to go see if a neighbor friend was home without asking us first. The chime went off, I was like, HOLD UP THERE BUDDY, and we had a nice little chat about the rules and consequences for breaking them. The next time it happened, said consequence also happened (no playing with friends that day), and that made enough of an impact on him. He always asks first now.
Anyway, you’ve got a 6.5 month old who will be crawling/scooting/cruising soon, so it’s certainly not time to go crazy with reverse-babyproofing, but I would encourage you to give your older son a touch more freedom. You can certainly try the lighted-alarm clock thing first — to teach him to stay in his room because that’s the RULE, not simply because he’s yet to figure out how to undo a zip tie. Freedom might just be too tempting for him at this point, though, for the clock to work without a lot of angst and adjustment time. But even if you let him out of his room, you might be surprised how well he responds to the privilege. (Again, since we’re not talking about a danger-crazed 2-year-old here. Which is why my 2.5 year old still sleeps in a damn crib 75% of the time because he’s proven himself to be Slightly Untrustworthy whenever we’ve let him sleep in his brothers’ room and navigate the house with them in the morning.) Your worries about him leaving the house and microwaving forks are, for the most part, unfounded what-ifs that probably aren’t going to happen, particularly if you give him other alternatives in the morning.
So try this: Look at one room at a time. Eliminate or move the most obvious of dangers — not the complicated “what if he puts the ottoman and a stepstool on the couch and leaps for the ceiling fan” stuff, but you know: knives. Matches. Poisons. Unplug and store countertop appliances like the toaster or blender. Then make sure there’s something your son might WANT to play with in each room, or stuff he CAN mess with safely. A drawer full of Tupperware/plastic measuring spoons and some cans of Play-Doh in the kitchen, a bucket of train tracks in the living room, easy access to paper and crayons or SOMETHING to draw his attention to the fun, safe stuff so he’s not immediately confronted with a ton of locked doors and off-limits drawers that he might be tempted to mess with. Clearly explain your expectations and what he’s allowed/not allowed to do in the morning and check on him for the first few days (use a baby monitor at first so you’re aware that he’s up and about — give him 10 minutes or so before checking). If you think he understands, there can be consequences if you catch him doing something he’s not supposed to do, like the baby gate going back up for a night. Or just redirect him to a preferred activity and remove whatever temptation he got into going forward.
Have him help you prepare meals so he can gain a healthy understanding and respect for knives and stoves and such. Give him a cup without a lid and show him what to do when something spills. Designate a low drawer in the fridge as a “snack drawer” that he can help himself from when he’s hungry. (This helped us immensely when my kids figured out how to raid our pantry and would gorge themselves on cookies and snacks whenever I wasn’t looking. I filled up a crisper drawer with portioned-out containers of nuts, fruit, cheese, yogurt, milk boxes, etc. that they were welcome to any time. They were delighted with the buffet of options, even though it was all “boring” healthy stuff.) During the day, practice being in a different room from him and resist the urge to check on him over and over again. If you spot him playing nicely and independently, praise him for it. Same if you catch him solving a problem on his own, like cleaning a spill with a towel or getting his own drink of water.
Look, accidents do happen. So do spectacular kid-fueled messes. Some kids learn some lessons the hard way (and it feels even harder for us parents). It’s about performing a delicate balancing act of protecting and anticipating without helicoptering.
And let’s be honest: it’s also about teaching your kids to do stuff for themselves so you don’t have to, because sleeping in while your kid gets his own Cheerios is kinda the bomb.