How do I get my husband to accept basic child safety measures, before someone gets hurt?

You shouldn’t treat this like an ordinary parenting dispute, writes advice columnist Eleanor Gordon-Smith. This one involves lives and laws

My husband and I have three children, aged four years, three years and four months. A recurring source of parenting conflict has been our differing stances on safety. Basically my husband has almost no regard for our children’s safety, while I would say I am pretty middle of the road. It’s a weekly battle between us.

For example, he refused to buckle up our children in their car seats ‘because it makes them upset’, despite me saying it’s unsafe. When I asked him to put helmets on our children when they’re in the bike trailer – he refused.

When we argue about this, he tells me I am being ‘hysterical’ and that I should respect his parenting decisions. I can’t seem to get him to see that this isn’t a matter of me being crazy – it’s actually the law, and every other parent we know agrees with me.

He has always been a risk-taker, and has come out largely unscathed in all his adventures. His parents were very hands-off with him and his siblings, so perhaps that is part of it.

How do I get him to accept that recommended safety measures are there for a reason, before someone gets hurt? I am sick of having to argue for basic safety for our children.

Eleanor says: How are you supposed to change someone’s mind when words don’t work? It sounds like you’re dealing with a particularly frightening version of the problem of how to reach someone once conversation has run out.

If this were any other conflict, you might just do what you need to anyway, without changing his mind. But this isn’t like that: if the kids aren’t wearing helmets or seatbelts when they’re with him, that’s not something you can fix unilaterally. It sounds, unfortunately, like you’ll need to change his mind.

So what works, when conversation doesn’t?

For risk-insensitivity, it can help when people actually see or hear what it would be like if the bad outcome eventuated. When car accidents or head injuries exist only in imagination, it’s easy to sanitise the details (“We’ll just go to the doctor”). And when they’re only in imagination, they can feel just that: imaginary, fictional. Once you’ve seen a bad accident or heard a child in real pain, it’s a lot harder to feel like that stuff never happens, or wouldn’t matter if it did. It’s like how you can know perfectly well that smoking puts tar in your heart, but seeing it on TV still changes something. Seeing does something that knowing doesn’t.

Obviously you don’t want there to be injured kids that your husband can see – but maybe you could ask for help from people who have seen these things? Are there nurses, doctors or paramedics in your circle who could tell your husband what infant head injuries actually involve? A long time ago I stopped accepting rides on motorcycles after a doctor told me the details of just one accident.

Sometimes when perception doesn’t work, sanction does. You don’t need him to agree that his philosophy on risk is wrong; you just need him to agree to put the helmets on the heads. Sometimes people change behaviour only when it gets too expensive not to. Is there a way to insist that the fines are too financially risky, or it’s, too upsetting for the kids if Dad gets in trouble with the police? If the probability of an accident is too low to move him, maybe the higher likelihood of fines could work.

Or perhaps the sanction you reach for could be relational. The risks he’s taking don’t just affect him – they affect the kids, and importantly, you. An accident would change your life, financially, materially, emotionally.

He’s deciding he has the authority to take that risk with your life, even though you’ve said you don’t want him to. I think that gives you the authority to say “this will be a problem for our marriage if it continues”. It doesn’t need to be about who’s right or wrong; it can be about why he should have the authority to take risks on your behalf, risks you’ve said you don’t agree to.

I can understand him not wanting to bubble wrap the kids. He might want to pass on his sense of adventurousness; his confidence that bad things can be endured, and it’s not worth missing out on life to avoid them.

The trouble is that not wearing a seatbelt is neither safe nor especially fun. Maybe you could try to find ways he could give the kids the fun without the inordinate risk – like going to a climbing wall, indoor skydiving or other things that will feel fun to the kids in a safe(r) way. Whatever you do, it’s important this doesn’t get treated like any other parenting dispute: this one involves lives and laws.

This letter has been edited for length.


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