February 2013

Children occupy a unique place in public policy. They are among the very few constituencies who cannot vote, but they will in time. As adults, we make many decisions for them, whether through the institutions of the state or private life. How do we balance liberty and safety for this vulnerable and very important population? It is clearly possible to have too little safety, but can we have too much?

Lenore Skenazy, this month’s lead essayist, says yes. She’s the author of the book and blog Free Range Kids, which argues that children need a healthy dose of independence, and that many of the dangers of childhood have been exaggerated to the children’s own detriment.

To discuss with her, we’ve invited Anthony Green, director of Safe Kids USA; James A. Swartz, director of World Against Toys Causing Harm; and sociologist Joel Best of the University of Delaware.

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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.

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