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One Seattle Children’s ER doctor has tips to help kids proceed with caution

Dr. Tony Woodward, medical director of emergency services at Seattle Children's Hospital, addresses the biggest safety issues facing kids.

Photo courtesy of Dr. Tony Woodward


There are good reasons to adopt aspects of free-range parenting. Data show that “stranger danger” worries can be overblown. Research shows that kids need adversity: to have a chance to fail, pick themselves up again and conquer their fears. Education and psychology publications run stories bemoaning kids who’ve been sheltered to the point that they lack the resilience needed to thrive as adults. 

While all of these things are true, that kids need the chance to be a little rough-and-tumble, Dr. Tony Woodward knows there must be a balance. Woodward is the medical director of emergency services at Seattle Children’s Hospital. And while he may not have seen it all in his years in the ER, he’s seen enough to inspire a measure of helicoptering in your parenting. 

We recently spoke with Woodward about keeping kids safe. 


The leading cause of death for kids of all ages is "unintended injury," and motor vehicles and drowning are at the top of the injury list. What are your thoughts?

The deaths “are mostly preventable, always tragic and life-changing for the family and bystanders and classmates,” Woodward says. 

When it comes to swimming safety, an adult — one who isn’t consuming alcohol — should always have an eye on the swimmer, particularly if the child can’t swim (even if they’re wearing a life jacket), and in open water. 

For kids riding in cars, follow the rules that say children always sit in the backseat, that they use the right-sized car seat or booster that’s correctly installed, and that babies — with their heavy heads and weak necks — always face backward. 

Cars are dangerous when you’re outside of them, too. “Kids get hit by cars all the time, whether crossing the street or on a skateboard or on a bicycle,” Woodward says. “They’re just in an environment where they’re not the main piece of the environment.” 


Firearms come in at No. 4 for deaths. What happens?

Most young kids are killed by accidental shootings or as bystanders in drive-by shootings, Woodward says. “They don’t understand the difference between a real or a fake gun.” Adolescents can get involved in gangs or other illegal activity and risk being shot. 


Falling is the top cause for non-fatal emergency room trips for kids up to age 9. What’s going on? 

Falling starts as soon as they can stand, Woodward says. It’s key to make your home as safe as possible. Make sure children can’t fall through windows or use playground toys beyond their age limit. Don’t let kids stand up in shopping carts or allow multiple kids to pile in. 


How about trees?

“It depends on how far up you go and how you land,” Woodward says. Broken arms are common in falls from monkey bars and trees. When a kid falls 15 to 20 feet from a tall tree or chairlift, the injuries get more serious. “All it takes is landing on a rock, or landing the wrong way.”


And as for bikes? 

“The problem with bikes is if kids get beyond their capabilities,” Woodward says, riding down steep hills or on trails with fast-cycling commuters. “It’s a supervision piece — where are they riding, do they have safety equipment on.”


What dangerous mistakes do parents make? 

“When you have kids, your whole life changes, and you’re focused on your kids and not focused on yourself as much,” Woodward says. But when we go to social events, the focus shifts back to ourselves. 

“We assume that because three or four kids are together, they’ll watch out for each other,” he says, and that’s a mistake. Parents need to appoint an adult who’s not drinking and not distracted to keep a watchful eye. 

When a serious accident strikes, “nobody ever expects this to happen to them,” Woodward says. It’s like a natural disaster. You read about it in the news, and it sounds remote and unrelated to your life. “Nobody wakes up in the morning expecting it.”


So how does a parent find the right balance between protection and giving kids a chance to build confidence and take “safe” risks?

“It varies per child and it varies per gender,” Woodward says. Speaking generally, “boys don’t understand risk as well.” It’s OK to let them “fall and get hurt a little bit along the way,” but they have to be reasonable risks, he says. “Having seen so much death and destruction with kids, with a TV falling on them or walking across the street, I’m more on the careful side.”

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