Letters to the Editor: Children’s Safety and Liberty

Editors’ Note: We are pleased to print here a selection of letters to the editor in response to this month’s theme of children’s safety and liberty.

Protecting Individual Rights

An important principle to keep in mind when discussing children’s safety is that the government’s only proper purpose is to protect individual rights–those of the parents and of the child. In the case of leaving a child in a car, proper, objective laws exist to punish parents who actually harm their children, thus violating the children’s individual rights, usually through a pattern of negligence of their parental duties (e.g., the New York father of 13 who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for forgetting his 21-month old daughter in the car for hours.) Improper regulation, on the other hand, punishes parents who have done no harm (e.g., those who get visited by DSS for leaving a child in the car for three minutes while picking up a prescription on a 50-degree day.) Note, in this context, that criminal law differentiates properly between involuntary manslaughter and accidental death: a driver who runs a red light and kills someone would most likely be charged with involuntary manslaughter, but one who drives carefully and hits a child darting into the street most likely would not. The same principle should apply to parents and inform our discussions of children’s safety: not every death of a child in a parent’s care is criminal; accidents do in fact happen, and those parents who suffer from an accidental death should not be treated like criminals. Nor should parents or manufacturers be presumed guilty until proven innocent and prevented from exercising their proper judgment by reams of safety regulations, which in fact violate parents’ and manufacturers’ individual rights and are thus improper.

Heike Larson

Oakland, CA

Give Parents Options

I am raising four children, ages six, eight, ten and twelve. I don’t want Mr. Green to “advocate” for their “safety” if it means eradicating my option to choose when and whether to leave them in a car. I agree whole-heartedly with Mr. Best, and have sensed a wholesale change in our culture’s acceptance of death, loss, and risk. Have antibiotics and seat belts led us to a place in human history where we cannot accept even one child’s death, ever? And if there is a death, under any circumstances, well, as Ms. Skenazy says, then someone or something must be to blame?

Parenting has morphed into an exercise that my own parents would have completely ridiculed, because as scientists, they fully understood statistical analysis. My mother was an early adopter when it came to seat belts and helmets, and put the poisons up high, even before there was an official admonishment. But she certainly didn’t expect or even want us to be under direct adult supervision every moment of every day, and if it had been insinuated that she would be subject to charges of criminal neglect for leaving us in the car while she went into the dry cleaner’s, she would have protested. Mightily.

I recall as a child in the 70s seeing a PSA on television about old refrigerators, and how we ought not to climb into them. It showed a refrigerator at a dump, and a kid playing hide-and-seek, I think. It was emphatic about the immediate risk of death from these refrigerators, and even though I’d never seen one like that (with a latch that only opened from the outside), I imagined that there was a genuine concern for safety behind this campaign. Likewise with lead paint and the warnings not to eat the chips.

Today, I find nothing helpful or informative about the admonishments that come my way as a parent. The reasoning goes like this: in order to responsibly support my kids’ survival to the age of majority, I must toe the current cultural parenting line, which means my children would not walk anywhere alone, never take public transportation by themselves, not spend time outdoors alone, and never, ever have the choice to wait in the car while I run into the store. What kind of life would that be? Not one that I would want to live—as a child, or as that child’s parent, either.

When my children were preschool age, I regularly left them in the car at the grocery store, because taking them across the parking lot seemed a much greater risk than anything that could happen to them in the car. It’s not that I wasn’t thinking about their safety, it was that I was choosing how to express the value of safety in my own way, in that moment, as their mother.

There is, I believe, a happy medium between the kind of safety consciousness that leads to a profound diminishment in quality of life, and the blind unconsciousness that leads to tragic and avoidable deaths in the hundreds of thousands. To suggest that anyone concerned with quality of life, who is willing to accept a risk factor above zero, is callous or unconcerned about children is painful to me. I want my children to thrive, not just survive. Along with that goes my own thriving as their caregiver. It matters to me to have some measure of autonomy in how I attempt to achieve that thriving.

Mollie Kaye

Information, Not Fear

Have we come far enough in the area of child safety? NO! But not for the reasons listed by listed by Mr. Green and Mr. Swartz. We still have to recognize that times change. We need to stay informed of new technologies and new products.

As a parent of three, I take offense at the fearmongering statistical approach of the authors. To include vehicle accidents in an essay about child safety is extremely misleading. Vehicle safety is vehicle safety. They are comparing apples to oranges in order to scare parents and validate their position. In those numerous incidents where a child was injured in a vehicle accident, how many adults were injured as well? This is not to downplay the injury of a child, but to clarify that vehicle safety and, say, choking hazards do not belong in the same category.

The authors also go on to say the best weapon to protect our children lies with the manufacturer. No it does not. Our society has become one of blame and not responsibility. The “not our fault” generation believes that they live in a perfect world, and when something goes wrong, that they are not to blame. Here are some of the pet peeves of a practical parent—me:

1. Choking hazards. No amount of regulation, no choke tube tester, no label on an item will ever replace or compete with a parent. At least a parent that knows their child. Kids will put things in their mouth; it is a given. My kids played with toys that could possibly cause them to choke, but I never allowed that to happen. Why? They were taught not to put things in their mouths, and they were also watched around such toys. The “not my fault” generation expects the manufacturer and government to do their job for them. And I ask what is next, will public parks and playgrounds have inspectors checking that there is no stone or twig lying around that will fall through that “magic” test hole? Will parents sue the city when their child chokes on a stone they picked up?

2. Design and engineering. Perfection is impossible. There is absolutely no way that a manufacturer can guarantee that any product they produce is going to be 100% perfect. They can and usually do their best, but this is the real world, where accidents happen. Take for example, the drop-side cribs. By the way, all three of mine survived, and my grandkids will survive, because we still have it. The crib is now well removed from the manufacturer, and yet they are still being held accountable by the “not my fault” generation. With our third child, and the crib being older, I took it upon myself to replace the hardware and fasteners. Why? Because anything will wear out over time and with repeated use.

3. Personal Protective Equipment. What was once a personal choice is now a government regulation. Helmets for family skating. Cages on batting helmets. Bike helmets. Helmets for skiing. Elbow pads, knee pads, padded gloves, and so on and so on. When we fought the face cage on the batting helmet rule because my daughter hated how it interfered with her field of view, I had a mother very rudely ask me, “What you want your daughter to get hit by the ball, and hurt?” I told her that no I did not, “but I do want her to learn how to duck.” The more we over-armor people during activities, the more invincible they believe they become. This false sense of power allows them to go further, faster and harder, resulting in different injuries.

Our kids while precious are not delicate little pieces of china. But overprotecting them will make them resemble china, as they will crumble at the first sign of adversity.

Warren Pacholzuk

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.