At the grocery store where we shop once or twice every week, they always have helium balloons at the cashiers, and any kids going through get offered one. Which leads to a parenting-strategies dilemma and a funny story.

What Would a Good Parent Do? · The baby (well, 15-month-old almost-toddler) totally loves the balloons; pulling them down and letting them up, but most of all squeezing them with both arms and all ten fingers. She has sharp little fingernails and it’s almost inevitable one’s going to go off in her face. In fact, when she puts the squeeze on, her eight-year-old brother shrieks and hides his face, he can’t bear to watch.

When, inevitably, the balloon pops, she’s totally going to have major hysterics (we hope no actual personality damage). But she enjoys it so much, and eventually she has to learn that Shit Happens. So for now, we’re letting her molest the balloons. Would a Good Parent protect her from the predictable explosion?

Blues Balloons · Quite a few years back, when Lauren was out of town, I and the boy, then a teeny tiny toddler, went off to the Burnaby Blues Festival, and we had a good time, except for The Balloon Incident.

What happened was, he got a helium balloon, and I knew he’d lose it so I wanted to tie it to his overalls, and he would Rather Die Under Torture than have the balloon tied to him. I tried reason (hah!), I tried brute force (he resorted to extreme squirming) and eventually I got tired of abusing a three-year-old in front of thousands of strangers and let him just hold it. Thirty seconds later, it was drifting up into the blues-laden blue sky.

Thirty-one seconds later, the loud electric blues were drowned out by the louder toddler meltdown. There are times when you gotta tough it out. Then this nice matronly woman bounced up and said “Did that adorable little boy lose his balloon? Here, he can have mine!” She shrank away horrified as my eyes with terrible clarity told her to implode and die; then decided that I couldn’t have meant what my eyes said, and anyway if that boy had a psychopathic Dad maybe she could brighten his world a bit with a nice purple helium balloon.

Fortunately, at that point he also had stranger anxiety and shrank away from the Strange Person With a Balloon, offering a first-rate theatrical shudder no less; doubtless she was moments from diagnosing child abuse and calling 911, so I steered the boy behind the nearest thicket of hippies, bringing us in sight of an ice-cream stand, and the problem was over.


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From: Hanan Cohen (Sep 10 2007, at 01:14)

In Israel we have a classic book called "A Tale of Five Balloons" dealing exactly with the anxiety of the popping balloon.

It wasn't translated into English.

If you want, I would love to send you a copy. I am sure you can translate it on the fly.


From: Thierry (Sep 10 2007, at 02:28)

Looks like they really need to experience stuff for themselves. Just telling them the balloon is going to fly makes them wonder: 'what if'. Their reaction to the lost balloon even surprises them, as the sad feeling overcomes them.

As a parent you have to let your kid fall off the minor heights, so he can experience that it can be dangerous. It will make them aware of the consequences when they klimb higher and the fall can really hurt.

If it doesn't kill you it makes you stronger I guess.


From: Andrew Hobson (Sep 10 2007, at 04:26)

It's a strange thing trying to keep a balance between overprotective parent and neglectful parent. We usually let ours play with balloons when we are around.

It's probably important to know that balloons cause more childhood deaths than any other toy.


From: Doug Ransom (Sep 10 2007, at 05:26)

Latex baloons also provide a safety risk - if a child inhales a peice of a broken one it is an almost impossible obstruction to clear. Children will emulate parents trying to blow up the broken peices and end up inhaling the fragments. Supervision is essential.


From: Eric Meyer (Sep 10 2007, at 06:03)

It's always fascinating to me how the hard, hard questions lurk under the seemingly trivial. A balloon in (or not in) a toddler's hands becomes a distillation of the entirety of one's parenting.

I'm of the "let 'em learn" school, even knowing there will be traumatized tears and scraped knees and the like, and of *course* I think I'm a Good Parent-- doesn't every parent? Generally I'll explain the likely consequences, and offer some alternative(s), but then go with what they want as long as it isn't likely to cause serious injury or death. If things go south, I soothe and cuddle and wipe away the tears and try to quietly reinforce the intrinsic lesson without be too pushy about it.

For me, this approach has the added benefit of teaching that parents often do know what they're talking about.

And before someone asks, yes, I would let one of my children touch a hot stovetop if they insisted on it. I'd probably try three or so times to explain why they shouldn't, and make sure they were clear on the expected outcome of doing it (burned finger, blister, lots of pain). And then if they still said, "I wanna", I'd say, "Okay, but remember what I said". And then follow up with soothing, ice packs, anti-bacterial ointment, and some quiet reinforcement.

Someone out there will probably conclude from this that I'm a Bad Parent, but then, I tend to think the militantly protective sorts aren't very Good Parents either.

(Is it me, or did my writing patterns just morph to mimic Tim's?)


From: Lance Lavandowska (Sep 10 2007, at 06:33)

[paranoid parental moment] beware toddlers and exploding balloons: while it has never happened, I've always feared a shard of latex(whatever) balloon would shoot down my child's throat and cause suffocation.


From: len (Sep 10 2007, at 06:35)

Now THAT is a classic parenting tale. We've all been there: discipline vs loss of face.

Face can be replaced. Undone discipline doesn't get a second chance. It sounds strict only to people without infants and grandparents. The first don't know and the second are getting even.

I spent a long night combing the grounds of an after-the-fair park looking for a lost 'blankie'. Never found it. Never got to sleep that night. Just enjoy it.


From: John Cowan (Sep 10 2007, at 06:58)

If these are metallized-nylon (usually called "mylar", but that's actually polyethylene) helium balloons, then they have a very different failure mode under pressure from latex balloons. They don't so much pop as fwzzzt (picture of balloon being dropped from a plane here) due to a failure along one seam or corner. So I wouldn't worry about trauma.

Also, a little emery-board work might be in order.


From: Steven Brewer (Sep 10 2007, at 09:24)

I'll never forget the visit to the greenhouse overhearing a family where the parent told the children not to touch anything because it (sic) "might be poison". The children weren't dumb and they would ask about every plant "Is that poisonous?" and the mother would shriek "Don't touch it! It might be poison!" My wife and I still joke about how things "might be poison!"

My take on parenting is to try not to protect children from experiencing pain -- only injury or death. I would explain to my children when they were doing something that would likely result in pain (and I would also try very hard to avoid saying "I told you so" afterwards and just being prepared to comfort), but I only tried to stop them from doing things that I believed would actually result in injury. My children learned very early on that balloons explode or get away if they're not treated with great respect. And I think my kids recognize that when I say "don't do that" it actually means something.

But I do remember I got a little stuffed goldfish for my younger son that had a velcro strap to go around the wrist of a small child -- I don't know what kind of child would have wanted something like that strapped to them (and I suppose I had some foreknowledge when I bought it of what would happen when I strapped it onto his little wrist) but, feeling a little sadistic, I bought it anyway and I can still remember his look of utter horror as he tried desperately to shake it off his wrist until I relented and took it off him. It was well worth the price I paid (both in money and with my wife, who thought I should have known better than to buy something like that. :-)


From: John P (Sep 10 2007, at 09:50)

:-) My kids learned pretty early (surprisingly) that the pain was too great when they lost the helium balloon to the skies(and they knew it). So at some point, they just refused to take helium balloons...remembering the pain :-)


From: Derek K. Miller (Sep 10 2007, at 10:04)

Our older daughter still talks about the time she tried letting go of a balloon on our front porch and it flew away, much to her sadness, even though we'd warned her. She's been very careful with them ever since.


From: Chris (Sep 10 2007, at 10:58)

I don't have kids, so I've never actually tried this, but the obvious solution is to tie a suitable weight onto the end of the balloon string. Then let the kid hold the weight. If he lets go, the balloon goes down, not up.


From: Doug Cutting (Sep 10 2007, at 11:03)

Over-protection is certainly a bane, but all forewarning isn't bad. There are two lessons for the child here: first, that balloons can pop or float away; and second; that parental advice is sometimes worth heeding. You can't force them to follow your dictates, but you can perhaps teach them to consider them. Of course, at 16 months, the second lesson may be premature...


From: Susan Jolly (Sep 10 2007, at 15:36)

The people who wrote about the danger of suffocation from popped ("rubber") balloons need to be taken seriously.

The real problem is that the pieces go everywhere and even one small piece hidden under a chair, say, and later discovered by an exploring child can be disastrous. Of course, one never leaves a 16-month old child unsupervised by an adult for more than a few seconds but even so, I just feel better making sure you take the comments on this issue seriously.


From: Martin (Sep 11 2007, at 06:53)

I always say that my job as a parent is to prevent permanent damage.


From: Andrew (Sep 11 2007, at 07:58)

To Chris:

The weight idea is a good one, but the problem is in remembering to bring weights with you to the place that you get a balloon. The helium balloon that makes it home (or to somewhere more than 50 feet away) is a rare one when your kids are under 3.


From: Terri (Sep 11 2007, at 22:36)

As long as you and Lauren go with the moment, it should fine. Trust me there are many moments in the future that the moment the balloon pops will serve as good practice. :-)


From: Allen (Sep 12 2007, at 16:48)

Why did you try to implode and kill a nice matronly woman with your eyes?


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