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Goodbye Baby Gate, Hello (Terrible, Frightening) Freedom

Jan06

by

Hi Amy!

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.

Thanks, Amy!

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.

About the author

Amalah

http://www.amalah.com
Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy's daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it's pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.


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15 Responses to “Goodbye Baby Gate, Hello (Terrible, Frightening) Freedom”

  1. Susan Jan 06 at 2:38 pm Reply Reply

    Ooh, we loved our Ok to Wake! clock – it worked to keep my younger son in bed in the mornings – he’d come in our room and we’d said, “is your clock green?” and he’d hang his head and go back to his room!  It was also hysterical when he came out one more announcing proudly that his clock was green – BUT DIDN’T PRONOUNCE THE “L”.  Died laughing…

    The clock died recently (I’m just positive that it was in no way tampered with by two inquisitive little boys!) and now DS (age 3) just goes downstairs to play with his trains or planes in the morning. We hear him wake up as his room is right across the hall, and he’ll come get us when he’s hungry (I can’t wait til he can get his own breakfast, but he can’t open the fridge on his own yet). 

    Good luck – Amy’s suggestions, as usual, are spot on.

  2. Cassie Jan 06 at 2:41 pm Reply Reply

    Good lord, I WISH I could get my four year old to leave his room on his own and go DO THINGS in the morning! So far he just uses the bathroom and then comes straight to me. No deviations, even though I’ve tried a variety of things. And he’s been free to come and go from his bed and room since at least 2.25. I will admit, he’s not the daredevil kind though, and doesn’t tend to try and get into things he shouldn’t. ::knocks wood:: And he clearly knows/understands dangers about knives, stove, other stuff.

  3. Chayary Jan 06 at 3:22 pm Reply Reply

    Another possibility is instead of restricting him to his room, restricting access to certain parts of the house.  I have done that  by gating off certain rooms, or putting door knob covers on doors to rooms\staircases we didn’t want the kids going in.  Obviously this depends on layout, and temperament.  My kids tend towards the active, crazy side  and  I found this did worked as a reminder of where they SHOULD be, and less of a boundary to test.  I would make sure any doors to the outside are not easily openable–either a deadbolt that they can’t do, or a cheap lock up high.  
    With a kid that age, you can really spend time during the day talking about what they CAN and SHOULD be doing.  Whether you want him to come up to you, or stay in bed quietly, or call for you– go ahead and tell him that, and remind him of it.  Maybe even practice a few times while he still has the gate–one of you come  in the morning and practice doing whatever you want his new routine to be.

    Good luck!!

  4. June Jan 06 at 4:06 pm Reply Reply

    Yeah, I don’t know, using baby gates with a 4 year old sounds a little strange. Our oldest is 6 and we haven’t had a baby gate up since he was about 2 1/2. We still have outlets covered but thats about it. We’ve start re-babyproofing for his baby brother but honestly we just wanted him to learn to do things safely and recognize/ avoid danger without a giant roadblock in his way. He was great about it but his brother is wayyyy more “adventurous” so we’ll see how well that theory holds up this time around.

  5. ElleB Jan 06 at 4:29 pm Reply Reply

    Heh…Our kidlet has been in a bed, with no gates….since 18 months =)  Luckily we got an “easy baby” in that regard–it makes up for the fact that he is still a pain-in-the-butt sleeper/non-sleeper.  He has responded well to having options of things to do on his own (books and toys) and being told “no”…but ymmv.

  6. MR Jan 06 at 5:31 pm Reply Reply

    Yes, definitely time to remove the gate. Even if you didn’t want him to play quietly in his room, he is old enough that you can teach him, “When you wake up, come and find me.” With a child this age, there should have already been plenty of opportunities for him to be in a room by himself (“Just a second, Honey, Mommy is going to move the clothes into the dryer”) so you know that he won’t just immediately start destroying things.

  7. Chris Jan 06 at 7:02 pm Reply Reply

    Once my twin boys were potty trained and needed bathroom access on their own, we took down the gate and set up a nightlight on a timer.  It was actually a lamp on the dresser, with a 15 watt bulb. The light went on at bedtime and clicked off at 7am.  They were told that except for bathroom trips or a drink of water, they needed to stay in bed until the light went off.  Books and stuffed animals were available to play with quietly in bed. (We also hung a big clock on the wall, but they couldn’t yet tell time.) The first morning, I hear one of them wake around 6:30.  He patiently waited about 3 minutes, then yelled, “It’s never going to go off!!”  We got a chuckle out of that, but we kept that nightlight on a timer for several years. 

  8. Diana Jan 06 at 11:26 pm Reply Reply

    I found this post timely, as just today, my four year old and I agreed (after years of trying to keep him in bed till a reasonable hour in the morning) that I will leave his breakfast on the table for him when I go to bed at night and he can come down to have cereal by himself. I also removed all the knobs from the stove tonight as a precautionary measure.

  9. ChloeB Jan 06 at 11:54 pm Reply Reply

    We’ve never used baby gates to keep our two in their rooms, but rather to keep them out of rooms/areas that are harder to baby-proof and we don’t want them in.

    At the moment with a 5 year old and a just-turned-2 year old, we’re using 1 to keep the 2yo out of the area with the laundry/study/storage rooms, and another over the 5yo’s door to keep the 2yo out – he knows how to open it, and that way he can have some space for Lego or trains without his little sister wrecking the joint.

  10. Stephanie Jan 07 at 1:33 am Reply Reply

    We have the same alarm clock for our 4.5 year old. If she comes into our room before the clock is green, we send her back. She’s really good about playing  quietly in her room in the morning. Our friends gave their son a “hall pass” – meaning he’s allowed out of his room once. After that, well there are no more hall passes. Pretty funny, but seems to work!

  11. Lrj Jan 07 at 12:07 pm Reply Reply

    I don’t know maybe I am a neglectful parent lol (jk) but my daughter has had free reign of the house by 2. We taught her this amazing word NO and what danger was so she could respect boundaries. I think its incredibly important to let children feel in command of their environment. My daughter will be six when I have this baby and THANK GOD she can do all her morning stuff on her own. She wakes up at the crack of dawn no matter what but has no problem entertaining herself or coming to my room and snuggling.

  12. Olivia Jan 08 at 11:22 am Reply Reply

    We stopped using baby gates by the time my oldest was two (though we don’t have stairs and we are back to using them to block off the kitchen from our current toddler), and she’s had free reign of the house since she was three when our second was born. I would leave her in the living room while I napped with the baby and she never came to any harm. Granted, she’s not been a mischievous child, but with the house fairly baby proofed I figure at worst she would make a mess.

  13. Olivia Jan 08 at 11:35 am Reply Reply

    We had both of ours on floor mattresses from about six months on and we celebrated when they figured out they could leave the room and come find us instead of crying for us to come get them.

  14. Lynn Jan 08 at 5:06 pm Reply Reply

    “Slightly Untrustworthy.” I laughed because i remember the flooding incident on your blog. All this is great advice for kids on the cusp of becoming just a tiny bit independent. If you don’t trust them with the little things like stairs, they will never learn to trust themselves.

  15. leslie Jan 09 at 3:57 pm Reply Reply

    I agree with all the other posters. Definitely time to let the baby gate go. My daughter, who is not quite 3.5, gets up on her own in the morning and makes her own breakfast. We have food and dishes where she can reach them. And we keep some milk in a small container that she can easily pour from without spilling. And if she does spill, she knows to get some paper towels and clean it up. She has a stool in the kitchen that she uses to get to stuff at counter height (cabinets with cleaning supplies are locked). She is able to reach the stove, knives, etc…BUT…we’ve taught her the dangers of those things and she knows not to touch them. So she doesn’t. Like others have said, maybe do it slowly. First only allow him access to rooms you feel comfortable with him being alone in (i.e., perhaps gate the kitchen?). And slowly remove those gates as you become more comfortable?

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