Interview by Rory Grady
Most parents know the fundamentals of child safety. Turn pan handles inward on the stove. Look both ways at a crosswalk. It’s easy to forget that injury prevention goes far deeper than that.
Dr. David Schwebel, director of UAB’s youth safety lab, has earned a Fulbright Award and a Woodrow Wilson Scholarship for his work in injury prevention. His new book, Raising Kids Who Choose Safety, offers a new method for protecting children and helps parents better understand their role as their child’s first and most important teacher.
You’ve been working in child safety for a while now. So how did you settle into this branch of science?
It all started with Barney, the purple dinosaur. I was an undergraduate student at Yale, and my advisor was working with the creators of Barney to determine whether the scripts were actually helpful in teaching children, and it turned out they were. We recommended a few minor revisions in those early seasons of the show, but it was really that research that got me excited about doing applied psychological science. How can we use behavioral theory to help children and help families?
I suppose it’s always a good story when Barney is involved.
There’s a statistic in the introduction to your book that I want to ask you about. It says that injuries are responsible for more deaths for kids aged one to fourteen than every other cause combined. Just to give a specific number, how many is that per year?
Yeah, so the most recent data from 2020 says that 4272 American children died from an injury that year. So if we divide that out by 365 days in a year, that’s almost 12 children a day who are dying from an accidental injury in our country.
So of those, what are the most common types of injuries that you see?
The most common are what you might guess: car crashes, drownings, falls, poisoning. And then we get into things that are less likely to be fatal, like sports injuries. There are also things that we might not think about — things like dog bites, which affect hundreds of thousands of children. The list is long, but really, the prevention strategies are similar.
Your new book, Raising Kids Who Choose Safety, focuses on the TAMS method. Can you talk a bit about what that is?
Yeah, absolutely. TAMS stands for teach, act, model, and shape. I can talk through each of them briefly.
Teach is what it sounds like. You’re teaching your children to do things safely. So if you’re with a young child crossing a parking lot and you see reverse lights on a vehicle, we teach our children that means the car is moving backward. If we think of older children, we teach them things like kitchen safety.
Acting refers to taking action to prevent injury. That might involve supervising our children or safeguarding the home.
Modeling is, in some ways, the simplest and in other ways, the hardest. If we behave safely, our children notice, and they do the same thing. For example, the best predictor of a teenager wearing a seatbelt when they learn to drive isn’t age or gender. It’s whether their parents use a seatbelt.
The S stands for shaping. So this refers to shaping our children as they grow older: setting rules, helping them understand what’s safe, and guiding them as they grow older.
What went into creating this method?
Well, it’s behavioral science. It’s based on how we, as parents, can teach our children to be safe. Our goal is for parents to do the things that will help our children make safe decisions. That’s grounded in behavioral science and human behavior.
You emphasize that TAMS isn’t just for young children, and the system is still valuable into a kid’s teens. How does the process of following the system change as a child ages?
Parents obviously have to adapt as their children grow older. We would never try to teach or fifteen-year-old the difference between red and blue. That’s something we teach to our fifteen-month-old. Perhaps we don’t need to supervise our eight-year-old on the playground, but we do need to supervise our two-year-old. The goal of the TAMS method is for children to learn to be safe themselves, but the parents stay involved throughout.
You’ve done work in injury prevention worldwide. With your new book, do you take a region-specific approach, or are the strategies more universal?
You know, children are quite similar across the world. There are differences, obviously. The cultures and geography are different, but children and their parents are remarkably similar. If you live in China or New York City, your children are probably crossing the street more than if they live in a suburban or rural area, but the lessons of crossing streets apply to everyone. So the lessons in the book, and really the lessons for safety more broadly, generalize quite well.
In your work, have you found an area — be it a part of TAMS or otherwise — where average parents have the most room for improvement?
It varies a lot. I’m surprised by how often parents have very hot water flowing through their home faucets, which carries a risk of burns for children in bathtubs and sinks. The solution is so simple. Find your water heater and turn the dial. That’s all it takes.
Another example is car seats. About 80% of the car seats in America are installed incorrectly. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use them. It’s certainly still safer to put a child in a car seat that’s installed slightly wrong than to have no car seat at all, but often, a simple fix can turn a serious injury into a minor injury if you’re in a crash.
I’d assume that there are some skeptical parents out there who say things like, “I’ve never used any system, and my child turned out fine. A scrape or two is no big deal.” What do you have to say to these parents?
Well, I would say you’re right to some extent. Many children turn out fine. All children will have some scrapes and bruises as they grow up. That’s part of childhood, and it’s healthy. We need to take some risks as we grow. Every child who drives needs to turn the key for the first time, and every child that crosses the street needs to cross on their own for the first time. But let’s go back to the statistic from the beginning. Twelve families per day are losing a child to an injury. If we could reduce that risk—and we can—wouldn’t we want to?
So other than your book, of course, what resources are out there for parents who are looking to do more for their child’s safety?
The book is a great place to start, but there are plenty of other resources. If people are looking for guidance online, I would point to two sources. The first one is Safe Kids Worldwide. It’s a great nonprofit organization with a tremendous amount of resources on its website. The other place I would point them to is the CDC. It also has a nice website with guidance for parents on safety.
If parents want personalized advice, pediatricians are trained in injury prevention. I would encourage parents to ask their children’s pediatricians about things like car seats, poisoning, and drowning. Get the doctor’s advice because they will have wisdom and guidance, not just on the flu in the cold and immunizations, but also on injury prevention.