How can I keep my independent two-year-old safe?

My friend Mindy had a recent challenge with her two-year-old son. She wrote:

Shelly, We have a big challenge. I like to leave our doors open to the backyard, so Thomas and the animals (we have two dogs and a cat) can go in and out as they wish.

Today Thomas crawled under the automatic gate into the front yard!

Then he came around to the front door and played a game out of it. But I’m terrified he is going to go near the street or in it, or someone is going to snatch him. I really can’t watch him well enough now that I have Tabitha (3 mo.) to ensure he won’t do it again, and there is no way to alter the gate to prevent his tiny little body from going under it. What do I do?

The gate is automatic and on a hill, also an angle, and wouldn’t open if we added material to the bottom. I could put locks that are childproof on the doors to the outside, and no longer keep them open. But it makes me sad to think he won’t be able to go outdoors as often and whenever he likes. Especially with the weather getting better.

At the time, I didn’t do much because I didn’t know what to do and was afraid of doing the wrong thing. I needed to think about it. so I neither discouraged or encouraged the behavior. He was laughing and having a fun game of it.

Later that evening, when he was in a calm and quiet mood, I went over to him and played with him a bit. Then we had a conversation that went something like this:

Me, in a very serious and concerned tone: “Thomas, I need to talk with you”

He looked at me, concerned.

I got connected with my honest feelings about it, fear and love for him, and turned those feelings up.

“I’m really worried about the gate.

“I know you like to go under it, but it scares me.

“I’m afraid you will go too close to the street, and a car will hit you.

“I’m afraid someone will come by and take you or hurt you.

“I want to be around you and keep you safe from cars and strangers”

(Every now and then he would say something like “yeah!” which is his way of saying he understands what I’m saying, but in general he was concerned and a little afraid.)

“Its OK if you want to play under the gate if I’m around and playing with you. Or another adult, like daddy, grandpa, or Pia. But don’t go under the gate and into the front yard when you are by yourself. Only when someone else is watching you or nearby”

“OK?”

Thomas: “Yeah!” he said, concerned but also relieved to have a solution about this problem ( I think that is what he was feeling).

I repeated the resolution again.

I brought the whole story up with him again later, and he agreed again. I plan to go over it with my husband, who hasn’t been in town. I will tell Matt the whole story and ask him to also feel concerned and to express his concern, and then we will all agree to the resolution again, together.

I think this approach could work because we have a good amount of trust between us. Also I expressed myself with honest emotions, which he seems to understand better than words.

What I don’t want is to create a punishment around the gate, as I don’t want this to turn into a power struggle area. I’m afraid if I punished him and came down to harsh or controlling he would retaliate, later, when he is mad at me by sneaking under the gate again.”

Here’s my response:

Hey Mindy,

That sounds really scary.

First let me say, nice job! You’ve handled the situation well and your instincts are right on, not wanting to make it into too huge a deal etc. I really liked what you said about how much trust you’ve built with Thomas.

However, for a child as young as Thomas (about 2 yo) it’s difficult to distinguish between times when it’s ok and times when it’s not ok to go under the gate.

If I were you, I’d have an absolutely NEVER policy about going under the gate. That way, Thomas knows that it’s NOT OK to slide under the gate.

It helps kids his age to have the rules be really black and white, and since he has very little impulse control (which is typical for kids his age), I suspect he’s not capable of distinguishing between “when an adult is here it’s ok but when I’m all alone it’s not ok”.

When it comes to safety it’s really a good idea to have specific rules that can never be strayed from. For instance, we ALWAYS hold hands when we cross the street…

If you’re worried about enforcing the rules, then you may have to institute a policy of always supervising outside play until you trust Thomas to respect the rule. In fact, make sure you’re on hyper alert and supervising his outdoor activities more closely at least for the next few weeks.

If you see him going near the gate, catch him before he’s actually beginning to go under and remind him of the rule. You can be lighthearted or stern about this depending on how you feel in the moment. A lighthearted approach might work if he’s not touching the gate, but I’d use a more stern voice if he’s actually about to slide under. You really want to get his attention and remind him that it’s NOT OK to go under the gate.

Thomas might resist the rule or test your resolve, which is where the increased supervision comes in- if he knows he can’t get away with it, he’s more likely to relax into the new rule. But if he can sneak out repeatedly, he’ll begin to think it’s a fun game and a great way to get Mommy’s attention. He may even begin to enjoy the intensity of your reaction. If you can remain calm, but clear about the rule, and take responsibility for enforcing it, everyone wins. And it won’t take more than a few weeks for Thomas to forget about the gate (for now).

So, for Thomas’ safety do whatever you have to do to make sure he doesn’t slide under the gate again. Even if that means standing between him and the gate and physically stopping him, it’s much better than the alternative of inadvertently reinforcing a dangerous behavior. Just remember to breathe and express the rule or boundary powerfully.

You may want to remind him a couple of times when he’s near the gate, or even before he goes outside. “Hey Bud, remember, we stay inside the gate so that we can be safe from cars!” But only do this if you think he’s got the idea first- ideally he’ll forget about the gate entirely and enjoy other stuff outside. And if he’s already let go of the idea, you don’t want to remind him!

One more thing to do is to provide some very interesting distractions and activities in the back yard that keep him close so you can keep an eye on him. Sidewalk chalk, painting with water on the sidewalk, a bubble machine, sand/bean play, and window washing are all fun activities for little ones Thomas’ age. And they keep him more stationary, so you can glance over and keep an eye on him while you attend to little Tabitha.

Lastly, I wonder what the reasons are for this behavior. Is Thomas bored? Is he trying to tell you that he misses playing with you in the back yard? Is it possible he’s experiencing a little too much freedom for a two year old to handle?

Maybe he’s asking for a little more guidance and direction. I know it can be challenging to meet the needs of both of your children, especially when one is younger, smaller, and still nursing. And the other is running around exploring voraciously.

But I think it’s important to learn to integrate multiple developmental stages into our daily lives so that everyone is stimulated and enjoying their work!

And, the more you can direct Thomas toward activities that will nurture his body and mind (and away from destructive behaviors), the more you’ll prepare him to make good decisions for himself as he grows up.

So, I hope this all helps. And I want to reiterate- you’re doing great and you’re a fantastic mom already. Just the fact that you’re willing to reach out for more information when you’re faced with a difficult situation inspires me so much.

I’ve gotta go for now, but thought you would want to know asap about these developmental considerations so that you can begin to create even more clarity for Thomas about what the rules are.

Have fun!
Tons of love, Shelly

P.S. I really want to know what you think about Mindy’s question and my response. Please leave your comments in the box below. Thanks!

4 comments
Rob Wilcox
Rob Wilcox

It's issues like these that led my business partner and me to found our company. Nothing's more terrifying than the thought of harm coming to our children. I remember when my daughters were young and "talking" to them was an afterthought. Discipline came first. As we've all grown older, the ability to be able to talk to our daughters has become an acquired skill. They know that when we talk, it's a dialogue filled with reasons and two sides. The again, discipline still has it's place. Thanks for reinforcing the "talk" aspect alongside the issue of discipline. Enjoyed the post.

Paula - Easy Baby Life
Paula - Easy Baby Life

Hi,

2-year-olds are wonderful little people. I have one right now (our third) and I'd never trust him to follow my rules in cases like this. In my experience, these wonderful little persons are very convinced of their own abilities ("I can!!!) and it is also their job to test our rules and boundaries. This comes and goes over the years, and our 4 year old is actually to some extent in the same development stage at present. They KNOW there are no cars in the street and really want to be big and independent and cross the street alone...

It is so dangerous!

In my view, while it is very important for a child to feel that they are relied upon, I'd never take the risk with such important situations. Shut the door, always be with him outside etc. And make it an absolute no to ever go outside the gate alone.

I know I'm a coward sometimes. But there are other ways to help a child become independent. Some friends of ours actually lost their daughter - she drowned - after being left together with some older childen to watch TV. She went down to the water alone (which certainly was not allowed). She was 4 years old.

This became a long comment...

A wonderful mom and a good reply was really what I wanted to say ;-)

Baby Onesie
Baby Onesie

Nice tips, hmmm, very good and I think I can learn more here

How about adding some info that having your baby/child with you everywhere you go

Shelly
Shelly

A quick update! I got an email from Mindy saying that it's been two weeks since the scary moment with the gate and Thomas hasn't attempted to go under it once more! Just thought you'd all like to know that Thomas is safe and learning the new rule. Do any of you have similar situations that you'd be willing to share? I'm so curious about other potential hazards and how you've handled them. Lots of love, Shelly