One day, an old man was walking along a beach that was littered with thousands of starfish that had been washed ashore by the high tide. As he walked he came upon a young boy who was eagerly throwing the starfish back into the ocean, one by one.
Puzzled, the man looked at the boy and asked what he was doing. Without looking up from his task, the boy simply replied, “I’m saving these starfish, Sir”.
The old man chuckled aloud, “Son, there are thousands of starfish and only one of you. What difference can you make?”
The boy picked up a starfish, gently tossed it into the water, and turning to the old man, said, “I made a difference to that one!”
This short parable nicely sums up how I feel about child passenger safety education. After having been an Emergency Medical Technician and 911 Dispatcher for many years, and witnessing the sad aftermath of improperly or unrestrained children, I decided to become a Child Passenger Safety Technician (CPST) in 2009. Over the last decade, in my role as a full-time civilian police department employee, as a CPS Tech offering private car seat checks, and as an active volunteer with local CPS agencies, I’ve educated many, many parents in person, online and over the phone.
My goal has always been to appreciate each success, or “starfish”. I know that I’ll never save every single one. I’ve also learned I need to meet parents where they are and that success is subjective. Making a child safER is a win in my book. If I wasn’t able to convince a parent to switch their 25-month-old back to rear-facing, but I was able to teach her to properly install the seat forward-facing, understand the importance of a top tether, snug up the harness to pass the pinch test, and when and how to move the harness straps up, then her child wins. It may not be best practice, but it’s certainly a much safer one than a forward-facing but improperly installed and fitted seat. And added to that is the knowledge that the parent knows I respect her choices, and that she will feel free to seek out future advice from me. Every single one of those is a positive point.
This is how I educate and advocate for CPS on a daily basis. This is how most techs I know conduct themselves. Lately, though, with the advent of Facebook CPS groups, there’s been a shift. Many CPS ‘advocates’ and newer, less seasoned CPSTs lacking real-world experience, are educating in a ‘do or die’ way. A CPST friend referred to this group as zealots, and this is a very accurate description.
The CPS zealot believes that there are no exceptions. The absolute maximum best practice must be followed at all times. If a driver can’t fit all of the children in rear-facing seats, they must buy a new vehicle or stay home. Caregivers must spend money they don’t have or can’t spare to buy longer-lasting seats if their child is under 4 and they’ve outgrown the rear-facing limit. The parent of an 11-year old who can’t quite pass the 5-step test is forced to put them into a booster. A zealot sees black and white, in a world where there are thousands of other shades of colors. A zealot believes if they say it, you must do it.
Why is this a problem? Well, life is rarely ever black and white. These zealots are fear-mongering, turning off parents to hearing what true CPS advocates and many of my respected colleagues have to share. They push parents to get them to act in the way the zealot believes is the ONLY way. This is not advocacy. It’s bullying.
I’d love to see a culture change. From those who are fanatical and uncompromising to advocates that approach instead with zeal. To be a positive role model. To be the person who parents want to come back to again and again with questions because they feel unjudged and welcome. To consider that if they are too reproachful with parents and caregivers, they might win a ‘battle’ perhaps, but the ultimate war will be lost. Opportunities for education, and making children safer, will be closed to all of us with some parents. And that isn’t our goal.
I hope if you’re a zealot, you’ll read this and know that I understand where you’re coming from even if I abhor your approach. I want to see all kids as safe as possible too. I’m kept awake by the local news that another child was killed because she was unrestrained. I become physically ill when I see a picture of a friend’s small child in an ill-fitting seat belt without a booster in my Facebook feed. I’m frustrated when a parent HAS an appropriate seat that isn’t maxed out, but chooses not to continue to rear-face for reasons they can’t explain. Some nights I do lie in my bed and cry because it seems like we are not getting anywhere. Beautiful children are still dying. I get it, truly I do. But I know becoming a zealot won’t change those things.
Instead, I do my best to gain the trust and respect of all parents I come in contact with. I accept that my job is to educate, and it’s a parents’ job to decide. I give them the best option, and when that isn’t their choice, I give them every other possible option that leaves the child safER than they were when we started. Little steps, sometimes.
One starfish at a time. I know I won’t make a difference to all of them, but I know I surely helped ‘that one’.
Coleen Fitch is a stepmom and mom who developed her passion for keeping kids safe in the car during her many years in public safety. She is a former EMT and 911 Dispatcher who, for the past 14 years, has worked as a full-time civilian employee for local police in the Traffic Division. She became certified as a Child Passenger Safety Technician in 2009 and is the owner of Little Riders LLC, a child passenger safety education and installation service. Coleen is a long-time contributor to the car-seat.org forums, and an active CPS advocate and volunteer in her community. She lives in southern CT with her family and their dog Scooby.