Smothered by Safety

Very few people think children are NOT precious and should be hurled into harm’s way with a gleeful whoop. And yet, any time a politician, principal, or bureaucrat wants to score points, he or she lets us know that kids are even more precious—and endangered—than we thought.

Safety-wise, we’re told that our kids are dancing—or at least doing their low-impact kiddie yoga—on the lip of a live volcano. This explains the explosion of new laws, products, and policies to protect them from, well, everything: Creeps, kidnappers, germs, grades, flashers, frustration, baby snatchers, bugs, bullies, men—all men are pedophiles until proven otherwise—sleepovers, toys from China, and/or the perils of a non-organic grape.

How far has society gone in dreaming up new dangers to protect our children from? Until you take a step back and look at all the new laws and regulations, you probably have no idea. So to start out, let’s test your Child Safety IQ. Which of the following did NOT happen this past year?

(A.) Local licensing authorities outlawed soap in pre-school bathrooms for fear that children might suddenly start drinking it. Now kids must come out and ask an adult to squirt some soap in their hands.
(B.) Unaccompanied children under age 12 were banned from the Boulder, CO, library, lest they encounter “hazards such as stairs, elevators, doors, furniture…and other library patrons.”
(C.)The Consumer Product Safety Commission announced a recall of certain fleece hoodies sold at Target because of lead paint on the zipper, which presumably could raise blood lead levels if the zippers are eaten.
(D.) Children under age 18 were prohibited from gathering on the streets of Tucson, AZ, for fear they might “talk, play or laugh” in groups, which could lead to bullying.
(E.) A New Canaan, CT, mom was charged with “risk of injury to a minor,” for letting her 13-year-old babysit the three younger children at home for an hour while the mom went to church.
(F.) A Tennessee mother was thrown in jail for letting her kids, aged 8 and 5, go to the park without her, a block and half away from home.

Okay, okay, I’ll stop! Except…I can’t resist. Here’s one more:

(G.) A Hazmat crew was summoned to Seminole High School in Florida after a science student brought in a mercury thermometer.

If you guessed (D.), you are either incredibly brilliant or a loyal reader of my blog. (Not mutually exclusive!) If you guessed any of the others, well, welcome to the world of “dangerism.” That’s a term coined by Gever Tulley, author of 50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Kids Do). He uses it to describe the way normal, everyday objects and activities can be reclassified as dangerous when seen through the worst-case-scenario lens. That’s why, for instance, federal playground safety guidelines propose removing “tripping hazards, like tree stumps and rocks.”

Throughout history until just very recently, tree stumps were things for kids to stand on, jump off, sit on, or use as tables for tea parties. But seen through the lens of risk, they are simply hazards.

That’s the lens government is looking through all the time. If to a hammer everything looks like a nail, to a government agency charged with protecting children, everything looks like a health threat, death trap, or predator.

But doesn’t it make sense to protect children? Of course it does. I’m thrilled we have eradicated big killers like diphtheria, polio, and cars without seatbelts. It’s wonderful that we can talk candidly now about child abuse, making it easier for kids to open up and be believed.

But the dark side of protecting kids is how easily this slips into over-protecting them from ever doing or encountering anything on their own, and insisting on constant oversight of everything they might encounter. At its very worst, whether out of real concern or political pandering, the government steps in and tells parents that their children are in such danger that only the authorities can do a good enough job of protecting them. Let’s look at some disturbing cases.

Over the summer, according to the Manchester, Connnecticut Patch, a local mom was charged with “risk of injury to a minor and failure to appear after police say she allowed her seven-year and 11-year old children to walk down to Spruce Street to buy pizza unsupervised.” This was a walk of half a mile.

If this were an isolated incident of police over-zealousness, well, that’s all it would be. Unfortunately, at my perch I hear about incidents like this all the time—the authorities determining that they know better than a child’s own parents what their kids are capable of handling. That’s why just a few months ago a Michigan mom had to come fetch her children—12 and 15—from the police station, after she’d expected them to walk home from the library. The library staff decided it was too cold to make the kids do this (the kids had walked there without coats). Instead, staffers took them to the police station. The police called the mom and told her they’d be filing a report. For what? The crime of believing her perfectly capable kids could walk home in the cold.

The message to parents? The government is better at raising your kids than you are. The message to kids? You are weak little babies. The government will swaddle you in safety.

And I won’t even get into the letters I get almost monthly from distraught parents who let their kids wait in the car for a few minutes while they picked up a pizza or prescription, only to get back and find a cop waiting for them. This happens because onlookers now routinely call 911 when they see kids waiting in cars, usually because they are convinced that one of two extraordinarily rare tragedies are happening all the time. The first is children dying from hyperthermia, which DOES happen—but mostly when a parent literally forgets the child is in the car and goes into work for eight or nine hours. Death by hyperthermia does not happen in the time it takes a parent to pick up the dry cleaning.

Onlookers also worry that any children on their own will be instantly kidnapped, because on TV you can see kids being abducted 24/7. Child abduction is ratings gold, so news shows pounce on any instance, no matter how far away or long ago it was. (That’s why you see “anniversary of so-and-so’s disappearance” stories.) Then the dramas recycle it with some added sadistic twist. That’s entertainment!

But in the “real world,” stranger abductions are so rare that if for some reason you actually WANTED your child to be kidnapped by a stranger, do you know how long you’d have to keep your child outside, unattended, so that statistically the abduction would be likely to happen?

The answer is about 750,000 years, according to author Warwick Cairns. And after the first 100,000 years or so, your kid isn’t even cute anymore. Onlookers and officers intervening to “save” children whose parents are running an errand are doing nothing of the sort. Nor are the laws in 19 states that prohibit parents from letting their kids wait in the car for a brief amount of time. These laws are simply criminalizing any parent who doesn’t want to wake a sleeping baby or drag three kids across an icy parking lot. Those parents are making a loving, rational, case-by-case assessment. The law is not. In its Zero Tolerance intolerance, it criminalizes any parent who refuses to engage in what I call “worst-first thinking”—dreaming up the very worst case scenario and acting as if it’s about to happen.

When rational parenting decisions become criminalized, parents are forced to think irrationally. I hear from parents all the time who’d like to let their kid walk to school, or play outside, but worry they could be cited for negligence. As law professor David Pimentel explains in his Utah Law Review article “Criminal Child Neglect and the ‘Free Range Kid,’” this is the way over-parenting becomes the law of the land: “If criminal child neglect standards are sufficiently vague, and are applied at the discretion of prosecutors… (and) juries steeped in the media’s fear-mongering, parents will have little choice but to stifle their children’s independence and initiative and buy into the Intensive Parenting culture.”

Law professors Gaia Bernstein and Zvi Triger noticed something similar: In several divorce proceedings they reviewed, the parents who could prove they were the most over-involved were the ones awarded custody. The judge’s assumption in those cases was that the parent who hovers most must care most. The authors even found lawyers instructing their clients to obsessively text their kids all day, in order to leave a digital trail to document their pestering. Thus helicopter parenting becomes not just the social norm but the legal one, too.

At the same time, there is a parallel process going on the regulatory world, with bureaucrats looking ever more intently for ever less likely dangers, on the grounds that kids can never be safe enough. This explains things like the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s recall of a line of children’s jackets last year because the elastic waistbands had toggles on it “that could become snagged or caught in small spaces or doorways, which poses an entrapment hazard to children.”

Yes, it’s true: Those toggles could snag. Does that make them inherently more dangerous than, say, pigtails that could get caught in a door, or a charm bracelet that could get snagged on an electric window? I’m just free-associating products and problems here, because that’s what it feels like the CPSC does, too.

This past year the commission also warned parents to beware of a Fisher-Price bouncy seat because, “mold can develop between the removable seat cushion and the hard plastic frame of the sleeper when it remains wet/moist or is infrequently cleaned…” Gee, really? Mold can develop in a chair where babies sit, eat, and excrete all day, if no one ever wipes it down? Tell me, CPSC: If I “infrequently clean” between my toes, can mold develop there, too? Maybe it’s time to issue a warning about toes?

Of course, real children’s product companies don’t get the luxury of a laugh. They have to accept the commission’s decrees. And may I just mention here that “children’s products” are officially defined as products for any person under age 12? So 11-year-olds are considered the same as 1-year-olds, even though I don’t know many sixth graders who still put toys in their mouths.

The problem seems to be that because nothing is 100% safe, almost anything the commission sets its eye on is fair game for censure. One big case in point is the issue of drop-side cribs.

In 2010 the government warned consumers to stop using—and stores to stop selling, and manufacturers to stop making—all cribs where the side drops down to make it easier to get the baby out. The reason given was that over the course of the nine preceding years, thirty-two children died in such cribs.

The death of a child is so horrible to contemplate, it’s hard to say, “But!” But “But!” I must, because we are talking about three deaths a year out of approximately 8,000,000 kids under age two in America, or about one death per 2,000,000. Those odds do not mean that the product is inherently unsafe. It means that drop side cribs are vastly safer than stairs (1,300 deaths per year), much safer than eating (about 70 kids younger than 10 choke to death on food each year), and waaay safer than driving your kid in a car (over 200 baby and toddler deaths per year).

What’s more: Now that it is harder to get kids out of the crib, will parents perch on step stools to be able to reach down to the baby? How many parents will fall off, possibly dropping the child to the floor? So now should the government require shag carpet in all nurseries? Or helmets on all babies?

Just because something is not 100% safe doesn’t mean it is unsafe, but when zero risk becomes the only acceptable standard—and when politicians can point to a grieving parent and swear this will never happen again—we are expected to believe in a magic world where every danger can and must be removed.

Of course, a world with zero risk is also a world with zero anything, except maybe a phthalate-free, gender-neutral doll with no eyes. (Because these can be come detached, posing a choking hazard.) But when the government declares that we must live in a zero-risk world, it is free to outlaw almost any product or parenting practice it decides to set its sights on. And we have no recourse but to toss the toys we trust, the heirlooms we loved, and the age-old belief that if we train our kids to be brave and smart, we can gradually let them out to embrace the world, risk and all.

That’s a lot to give up for a toggle-free jacket.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Lenore Skenazy argues that when it comes to children, we have gone too far in the pursuit of safety at all costs. This isn’t just a cultural phenomenon, either; it has serious implications for public policy, in the form of consumer product regulations and family and even criminal law. She suggests that it’s time to start learning to relax about children’s safety. In particular, allowing kids to take controlled risks is one of the ways that we introduce them to the real world, which is not and should not be risk-free.

Response Essays

  • Anthony Green argues that child safety is nothing to joke about. It is not an overreach to call the police if you see a child alone in a locked car; on the contrary, you should certainly do it. Real progress has been made in child safety in recent years, even as new threats emerge, including toppling television sets and poisoning among older children. The child protection community has done tremendous good, and safety enables fun rather than inhibiting it.

  • James A. Swartz argues that the multibillion dollar corporations that make children’s products have a responsibility to deliver them without any safety hazards. Recalls and labeling are not enough, and a close examination of many such cases reveals a disturbing trend: Corporations are often indifferent to children’s safety. We ought not to excuse or make light of such behavior.

  • Joel Best identifies two changing factors in American culture that have contributed to overblown fears related to children. The first is the mass media, which excels at spreading alarming stories, whether true or fictionalized. The second is the declining birthrate, coupled with increased safety itself: There are fewer children per family, and losing one is not an experience we suffer so often nowadays. As a result, smaller problems appear more alarming.