ONE REASON it's important for parents to childproof their houses with the kind of precision you might associate with, say, CIA headquarters, is that a 2-year-old child will -- don't ask how we know this -- sometimes seize the very moment you have stepped onto the porch for a nanosecond to slam the door shut, on the exact day when the spare key you usually keep outside is, for some reason, in someone else's possession.
This child will then watch through the glass pane with great interest and appreciation while you perform Etienne Decroux's mime masterpiece, "Excitement Over an Inside Doorknob." After a few minutes, though, he will tire of your wild gesticulating and wander off to do something really entertaining, such as try to interface the VCR, the garbage disposal and the downstairs toilet.
During the period between that moment and the moment when you return with a neighbor's ladder-blowtorch-Ring of Power, your childproofing means everything.
Even if you childproofed the house when your first child was born, you probably missed a few things. And, as your children grow and develop new abilities, it's important to upgrade your precautions until they no longer constitute a menace to themselves or others (usually their late 20s).
So here are a few things to cogitate on.
Sure you need such gadgets as gates, cabinet latches and electrical outlet covers, but the best gadgets of all are your eyes and your brain. Jeanne E. Miller, president of Perfectly Safe, a childproofing catalog, recommends that you get down on hands and knees and spend some time at child-level in your house.
You may enter a tetanus-inviting world of loose carpet tacks, upholstery staples and bent nails hanging off the undersides of tables.
If these things are anywhere to be found, says Miller, your children will find them.
Look for things a child might choke on. Look for things a toddler might be tempted to grab in order to steady himself. Cords attached to fixtures a child might pull down on himself are a hazard. Tablecloths and toddlers are a bad combination too, says Miller.
Look under furniture for long-forgotten debris. Miller says defunct balloons and toothpicks are major sources of danger to toddlers.
EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED
Childproofing, as Miller observes in her book "The Perfectly Safe Home" (Fireside $9.95), is the science of what if. It's good to have a childproof latch on the tool shed, the garage, the reptile house. It's even better to have thought about what would happen if your child got in there anyway.
"As parents, we can become a little bit complacent," says Herta B. Feely, executive director of the National Safe Kids Campaign. "It's exactly at that moment that accidents happen and injuries occur."
If a child can climb up on a piece of furniture and lean against a window, you have a hazard, says Feely, even if the child leans against the window every day for months without incident. One day, when she leans, she'll weigh a little more, or it will be spring and a screen will be there instead of glass.
You should not assume that your child will never do something, just because she never did it before, Feely says. Likewise, you should not assume that a child is beyond the stage where you have to worry about, say, his eating a houseplant. He may have agreed with you that they are poisonous and not to be consumed, but one day six months later, a hydrangea could suddenly look real good to him.
THERE'S NO PLACE LIKE HOME
Feely's organization is making a special effort to remind parents to be vigilant during the holidays, when a lot of families travel. If you're planning to spend a night or two in a home or hotel room that isn't childproofed, you should assemble a basic kit (some socket plugs, a gate or two, a few slide locks for cabinets, some syrup of ipecac, a toilet lock).
When you arrive, you also need to acquaint your hosts with the kind of trouble your child is capable of getting into and how to avoid it. Even if your hosts are Grandma and Grandpa, they may have forgotten, during the 30 years or so since it was an issue, how easily a kid can pull a pot of hot water down off a stove or a knife down from a counter.
Feely's organization also advises that you check the house for items that can be swallowed or that may pose choking hazards. Make sure there's a smoke detector and an escape plan in the case of fire. If there are pets who aren't used to children, discuss in advance how you're going to handle that, including the possibility of offering to pay for a couple of nights in a nice kennel.
If you're visiting grandparents, keep in mind that hauling out an old crib and some gates from the attic may be a bad idea. They may have lead paint, loose slats or a design that's no longer considered safe.
WHAT ARE YOU, NUTS?