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To Grandmother's Deathtrap We Go

They love your kids. They want to babysit. But what do you do when Grandma and Grandpa let safety rules slide?

When my dad gets behind the wheel, my children know they'd better click quick: "Hurry! Your seat belt! Grandpa won't wait!" My parents are of a generation that sees seat belts as inconveniences; after all, they drove for years without those confining straps and lived to tell about it.

Fortunately, my parents generally observe our family safety rules, even if I have to remind them on occasion. When they visit us, Mom and Dad make sure to keep their medications out of harm's way. When we stay at their house, Mom moves her cleansers from under the sink to a high shelf. With 1,500 miles separating us, my parents rarely get a chance to baby-sit; but I know that when they do, my kids are not only much loved, but safe as well.

My friend Betty, on the other hand, has always been frustrated by her in-laws' refusal to make any changes for their grandchildren's safety. "They keep glass knickknacks where my girls could break them and get cut, and cleaning supplies are within reach, too," complains Betty. "I've asked my mother-in-law to please move them, but she says, 'That's where I kept them when my boys were young. I just told them not to touch those things, and they didn't.'" Consequently, Betty keeps visits to the grandparents to a minimum, even though they live just an hour away. "It's just too stressful to have to watch the girls constantly," she says.

The Information Gap

Chances are, your kids spend time alone with their grandparents. According to the National Safe Kids Campaign, nine out of ten grandparents help care for their grandchildren, either occasionally or full-time. While it's wonderful when you can look to your own family for child care, that sweet arrangement can turn sour if you and your parents (or in-laws) don't see eye-to-eye on safety.

Parents today tend to be more aware of childproofing, seat belts and other safety issues than previous generations were. "Even the most loving grandparents can put their grandchildren in danger when they unknowingly overlook simple precautions," says former U.S. Surgeon General and Safe Kids Chairman C. Everett Koop, M.D. Each year, more than 6,300 children age 14 and younger die in motor vehicle crashes, fires, poisonings and other preventable incidents, and yet a recent Safe Kids survey reveals that:

  • A third of grandparents don't think it's critical to use various child-safety seats, including booster seats, while transporting kids in the car.
  • Less than half of grandparents think it's vital to check a smoke detector's batteries monthly.
  • Only about 40 percent of grandparents have safety latches on drawers and cabinets, though nearly all take medications and vitamins that are potentially toxic for children.

For most grandparents, these oversights are unintentional. Often, all it takes to help your parents and in-laws be more safety-conscious is a gentle reminder of what you'd like them to do.

Before you drop your children off to spend time with their grandparents (or anyone, for that matter), it's a good idea to do a quick sweep of the house or the room where they'll be playing. If you see something that bothers you, politely ask if you can fix it.

Keep in mind, too, that when grandparents don't see your family on a regular basis, they may not be prepared for the changes in your child. If your baby wasn't even crawling the last time you visited Grandma, she might not be aware of just how active your now-walking toddler can be. If you're planning a visit, call ahead and talk about ways the grandparents can prepare their home for your children. Offer to bring baby gates, outlet plugs or whatever you'll need to make their home safer.

On the Side of Safety

Still, talking to your parents about your safety rules can get dicey for a number of reasons. For instance, your mother may resent being asked to follow your rules; after all, you're standing there as living proof that she knows how to take care of a child. Then there's the issue of respect: You are still her child, still trying to "honor your father and your mother." At the same time, you recognize that you have a God-given responsibility to keep your children as safe as possible.

The situation can get ever trickier with in-laws, who may be quick to view your concern as criticism, particularly if you already have a delicate relationship or some clashing views on child-rearing.

Finally, your kids are tossed into the emotional mix. Chances are, they're within earshot when these issues come up. Listening to Mom and Grandma argue about what's best for them may make them uncomfortable or anxious. And if you heatedly write off Grandpa's ideas as outdated or just plain wrong, your children will be less likely to see their grandparents as sources of wisdom and deserving of their respect.

So where does that leave you? In a tough, but not impossible, position. "If an argument arises, keep your cool but hold your ground," advises Angela Mickalide, Ph.D., Safe Kids program director. Rather than turning these discussions into a showdown, show your parents and in-laws that you're all on the same team, working together to keep the kids healthy and safe. As you explain your viewpoint, be friendly, matter-of-fact and nonjudgmental. They're more likely to see things your way if you stay calm.

My friend Betty has taken this approach with her in-laws. She's even gone so far as to buy safety gadgets?outlet covers, cabinet locks?for their home. She and her husband gave his parents a carbon monoxide detector for Christmas, helped them install it and change the batteries as needed. "Last year," says Betty, "we bought them a fire extinguisher after learning they'd had a kitchen fire, and we got them a smoke detector for the basement, where they have a wood stove. We show them how to use these things because they don't like to read directions. Now I feel a lot better about giving the girls and their grandparents time alone together."

Even when you try to work things out, there might be issues you simply can't resolve. If that's the case, your children's safety needs to be your top priority, even if that means the kids might not get to spend the night with Grandma and Grandpa. Still, do your best not to let safety concerns ruin your relationship with your parents or your in-laws. Even if your mother won't childproof her house, you can still make her feel welcome in yours.

As parents, keeping our children safe is one of our most important jobs. And while it can be awkward to advise our own parents on childrearing issues, doing so with respect can go a long way toward making sure our children are safe, even when they're away from us.

Rachelle Vander Schaaf writes frequently on children's health and safety issues. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two children.

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