Letting Toddlers Climb: Teetering on the Balance of Exploration and Danger
For the last few months, climbing has been BabyC’s favorite “job,” perhaps second only to collecting things. It started with climbing up on the couch, which felt like a huge milestone at the time. I was proud of her, watching her tackle the problem of pulling her weight up onto something chest-high, skillfully using the notch between the base of the couch and the top cushion as a foot hold.
It took her days to work out the moves for the couch climb. She tested different hand holds and explored the balance of her weight as she learned to transfer it from her feet into her arms. When she finally put all the moves together, she thoughtfully placed her hands and feet and then gave a toddler-sized grunt for the big move onto the couch. And then she turned around to lower herself off the couch in a careful and controlled way, only to practice this sequence of movements over and over again.
Next up were the kitchen chairs, which quickly led to climbing onto the kitchen table. I made the table off-limits (“We don’t climb on the table. That is where we eat.”), something BabyC seems to understand but still tests at least once per day. But the kitchen chairs are heavy and stable. BabyC has fallen off of them several times, and we’ve talked about how the chairs are up high and about how falling hurts. We let her climb on them as long as she sits down on her bottom when we are at the table for a meal.
Recently, BabyC has been taking on some new and riskier climbing challenges. Her favorite is to climb onto the back of the couch, which butts up against a window. From there, she can traverse over to reach the key rack (“keesss, keesss,” she says) and the lock on the front door, which she flips back and forth.
This new climbing project makes me feel uncomfortable, so for the last week, I’ve been asking BabyC to get down off the back of the couch. She has been testing this rule repeatedly. When I am in the kitchen, BabyC will often go into the living room, and the house will get quiet. Lately, a quiet BabyC has meant a 90% chance that she’s up on the back of the couch.
The other night, Husband told me that he thinks we should let her climb on the couch. His argument went something like this (and I hope I’ve gotten it right – I’ve elaborated a bit, as I tend to do):
- BabyC is careful. She is thoughtful about her movements, and she has a healthy fear of heights.
- BabyC loves to climb, and as she does, she’s learning about physics and her body. She is testing and gaining confidence in her balance and her strength. Her efforts are focused, and she’s working on something that interests her, something she has chosen.
- The risks are not life-threatening. In his line of work, Husband has seen a lot of injured kids. He has seen minor injuries and very serious injuries. In his assessment, if BabyC fell from these heights, it would hurt and she would cry. She would think twice about taking that risk again, but she probably wouldn’t be seriously injured. [Note that this is a first story window.]
I actually think this argument makes a lot of sense. And Husband hasn’t just thought this through. He has also talked about it with BabyC. When she is balancing high, he asks her to look down at the floor. He reminds her that a fall would hurt. She listens, looks, and nods her head.
Still, I hesitate to condone furniture climbing. I think it comes down to two things:
- Etiquette. It general, it is frowned upon for humans to climb on the tops of couches and in windows. If we are visiting at someone else’s house, I would not want BabyC to behave this way. I realize that this is mainly to protect my own image as a mother to a child who behaves appropriately. It could be that the world is just all wrong about what is and isn’t appropriate behavior for a toddler. Still, if the couch were by a stone fireplace or the window was on the second floor, this would be a real safety concern.
- Fear. I am afraid of BabyC getting hurt, even if her injuries are minor. I hate to see her in pain. And while I think children learn best from natural consequences, I do think that it is the parents’ responsibility to step in at some point and say, “It is dangerous to climb there. Please come down and let’s find something safer to do.”
There is also a piece of our history – Husband’s and mine – that is relevant to this discussion. We used to do quite a bit of rock climbing together. Climbing was a big part of the early years of our relationship. As climbing partners, we learned to trust each other and to challenge each other. We learned to appreciate our partner’s strengths and gently (sometimes) point out shortcomings.
Essential to responsible rock climbing is risk assessment. Up several hundred feet or so on a rock face, an unprotected fall means certain death. And so together, we had to make a plan to mitigate the risks. Every anchor had to have a back-up anchor, and then another back-up behind that. Despite our thoughtful planning and careful actions, we were still more likely to die out on that rock than if we had stayed home to watch TV. We chose to climb because it was challenging, exhilarating, and made us feel alive. I think I know how BabyC feels when she is summiting the couch.
Watching our daughter stand on tiptoe on the top edge of the couch, I think both of us admire BabyC’s climbing. I can’t help but think how much fun it would be if BabyC keeps her interest in climbing and we can go rock climbing as a family someday. It may not be socially acceptable, but maybe this early practice with climbing and balance will serve her well when she is climbing much higher on a jungle gym or in a tree. Maybe falling now will help her to assess risk more accurately in the future. Maybe fostering confidence in her body now will free her from self-doubt when she has the opportunity to try a new sport or activity.
What do you think? Are we crazy? How do you decide what risks to let your children take?
Update: I wrote this post yesterday. And this morning, for the first time, BabyC fell from her couch summit, straight to the floor. She cried for about 30 seconds and then started pointing up to the keys again. Not a scratch on her. Still, I think it is time to move the keys to a different location for now.