Guest Post: Is EVERYTHING Too Dangerous?

Hi Folks! I was reading this blog post about product-recall-mania today and nodded along with so much of it, I asked the writer, Julie Colwell, if I could post it and she said sure. So here it is, slightly edited:

Micromanaging Moms 101, by Julie Colwell, from her blog, “The Mother Load.”

So, in my inbox today, I got an email that was a collection of all the baby and child recalls this year.  At first I thought it was a joke since there were literally millions of recalls.  Apparently absolutely everything you’ve ever bought is dangerous, including sweatshirts (your kid might hang himself on the drawstring), foam board books (he might chew on them), and plastic fork and spoon sets (if your 6-year-old is using them, he could bite off a prong or two).  Just about anything might cause your child to lose a finger, fall down, or choke.  And if they do, you should sue the manufacturer for millions of dollars, because every accident is actually someone’s fault.

I wish mellow moms, friends and, well, I would speak up: We are tired of listening to how dangerous it is to be alive, and how careless we are with our kids.  We are used to pinch-hitting with whatever we have on hand, even if it is a contraband second-hand car seat that has been in a fender bender, or a stroller with a finger-chopping hinge.  Any mom of more than two kids knows that any stroller can work as a triple stroller in a pinch.

When did “safety first” creep into the top spot on the priority list of our national parenting consciousness? If you’re a parent now, chances are your parents left you in the car while they ran into the post office, and you babysat three or four neighbor kids by the time you were twelve.  Most moms today wouldn’t think of leaving infants or toddlers with seventh graders, even though THEY were seventh graders 20 years ago who managed not to maim the little ones in their care.  Is it because we didn’t “know” how dangerous all those activities were, we didn’t think twice about doing them?

A friend of mine went to a water park in Honduras.  There were no rules and people (after waiting their turn) splashed down the slides forwards, backwards, upside down, holding babies, holding each other… any way they liked.  She said it was fantastic, fun, and liberating.  That would never happen here.  In the U.S. today, you won’t even find diving boards in most pools.  They’ve all been taken out because they are such a liability.  If they’re there, they are accompanied by so many rules that they’re not much fun if you’re older than five… and then you may not be allowed in the deep end without a parent “within a hug’s reach.”

How did we get to be so paranoid?  And why is safety more important than community or honesty or compassion?  All these crazy recalls drive up the costs of stuff we actually do need.  They increase the already rampant litigiousness of our society, and they imply that everything that happens could be avoided… a delusion of control that we -– and our kids — would be better without.

There’s a movie coming out soon called Babies.  It’s a documentary about four babies born to different families around the world.  I am hopeful that watching a baby take a bath in a bucket with a goat nearby it will reset the standard American moms’ expectations on what is safe and normal.  There’s always hope. — Julie

41 Responses

  1. Probably the worst part about all the recalls is that there are so many that the real dangers get lost in multitudes. Something that truly is dangerous to your kids becomes just one in a million things. Sad.

  2. You know what I notice? I have a 13-month-old, and I keep having to stop myself from saying, “Be careful,” every step she takes. That’s my parents’ signature line — still, even though I’m 33 — and now it’s becoming mine!! No!!! Everything my little girl does, the first thought in my head is often, “Oh, be careful!” Why? I don’t want to say it all the time! I said it the other day when she was walking in the yard. What the hell am I afraid of? Her tripping? Bumping her head? Scratching something? Is saying, “Be careful,” going to stop her from exploring? No. It just multiplies the fear for me. I also notice more now how my own mother has a “beware” comment for everything I bring up to her — I told her a friend made me a sling for the new baby we’re expecting. The first comment out of her mouth was that I should beware of suffocation and make sure baby’s head is out where she can breathe. Really? Good Lord, it’s an epidemic.

  3. Yes!
    with all my girls (I have had 4) the ones too tired to walk used to curl up in the basket in the bottom of the pram. My almost 4 year old stil does sometimes. The looks I get!

    I also have 2 children who do not like to wear shoes. So many people like to tell me it s dangerous, they will get sick (one girl even wears no shoes most of winter -I live in Australia though where it doesnt snow or anything) yet in the years of doing this I think they have had one or two cuts.
    Maybe you can find statistic on whether this is dangerous or not.

    (as a side note I read a study which I now cant find about shoes, and being indoors allday is bad for you, as it upsets your body energy and causes many problems. You should aim for a few hours barefoot a day)

    I think you should do a post about whether having more kids makes you less worried. A parent of only one child at school, would tell me frequently that my 3 year old (my 3rd kid) scared her. Because my 3 year old is a climber, she climbs everything and puts that mother on edge even though my kid has never fallen. The mother is so precious and protective of her kid. Maybe people (if they can) need to have more kids… it seems to make you more mellow in some cases.

  4. I think the thing about all the recalls is so the companies can protect themselves from lawsuits… “See, you should have let us fix the product or return it to us. Your fault you kept the old one and that improbable thing happened.”

    I’m getting more and more used to how much kids like to roam. My youngest is going to be quite the wild one. Not even 15 months old and trying to keep up with an 8 and 5 year old. She gets some bumps and hollers for a minute, but most times that’s it.

    On the other hand, when my son was riding his bike downhill not watching where he was going, saying “watch out” was rather appropriate.

  5. I’ve been reading and loving your blog! I have been so irritated by the rules and regulations that you come across everywhere you take your kids. Last summer a lifeguard blew her whistle at my then 7 year old daughter, apparently it was against the rules for her to wear goggles that also covered her nose. I was told it was because in an emergency they would need quick access to her nose, this made NO sense to me! We live in the St. Louis area and are so fortunate to have an awesome place here called the City Museum. It is a free range parents dream come true. A HUGE place with tunnels, slides and everything you can imagine to climb on and no ridiculous rules! Kids and adults are free to explore everything, I saw one kid literally pulling himself across the rafters of the ceiling once. Outside they have a 5 story huge structure of pipes and metal slinkys and 2 old airplanes suspended above the parking lot. My kids love climbing so high up in the air and running free at this place. They even have a working ferris wheel on the roof of the building.

  6. Miss Jean Brodie says, “Safety does not come first. Goodness, Truth and Beauty come first.”

  7. I just spent a week with my two son (11 and 13) at a primitive skills camp – they are into Anthropology. We watched two year olds toddle around a camp fire – and not fall in, burn themselves, or otherwise get hurt. We watched 9 year-olds know how to handle a knife, hatchet, and ax like a pro. Everyone made it through without incident – even the youngest kids knew what poison ivy was and some how avoided it.

    Safety creep is really the scary thing.

  8. Here’s what we’re up against: in the NYTimes discussion yesterday one mother said she couldn’t POSSIBLY leave her children at the park alone because a child might need to go to the bathroom!! or scrape their knee and need a bandaid !!!!! or be mad that someone wasn’t playing the way they wanted to !!!!!!! The HORROR!!!!!!!

    The idea that her children would handle these disasters on their own simply didn’t occur to her.

    In this context in which the routine, everyday bumps of childhood are disasters requiring adult fixing it’s no wonder we as a social mass have come to see every little thing as a possible dire threat.

    It all comes down to control. People have internalized the idea that if they try hard enough they can control EVERYTHING!! so if accidents do happen it’s because we didn’t try hard enough. So if there’s a 2% chance of some accident occurring then we must ELIMINATE that chance!!!

  9. Oh, Deb, you reminded me of a book that made all the difference for me in addressing that period of child development: “The New First Three Years of Life” by Burton L. White. He has a lot of really great stuff to say but for all that toddling period his main point is that toddlers look to us to gauge the seriousness of their falls and bumps. There’s that split second where the child looks at you to say “am I all right?” If you panic and react as though they might be in dire trouble then the child cries. If, instead, you remain calm and reassuring the child gets up and goes on. Of course, if the child is really hurt and starts to cry you comfort her but in reasonable proportion to the actual injury.

    Which, of course is true for the whole parenting picture. If the Mommies are going around panicked all the time how on earth are the kiddies going to feel?

    In amongst all my attachment parenting books (like William Sears and yes, freerangers can also do attachment parenting. They’re not mutually exclusive) this book held a special and different place. I highly recommend it for people trying to get a grip on where the balance lies among hovering, freeranging and neglect. (With, of course, the caveat that all parenting books should be taken with many grains of salt with regards to the authors’ prejudices.)

  10. The reason I would not leave my young child with most 12-year-olds today has EVERYTHING to do with the way those 12-year-olds have been parented and infantilized: most of these kids, the non-free-ranger mainstream, have had very little experience thinking or doing for themselves. And I want them to do for themselves before they do for my child.

    It has nothing to do with the inherent capacities of 12-year-olds, and I don’t think it is as simple as our changed notions of what is / is not safe.

  11. i teach riding to kids and you would not believe some parent comments. do’t get dirty, don’t pet your pony..it might bite, you mean they have to touch them! brushthem they might get hair on them.. the ones that stay during lessons try to tell you how to teach. now..most parents don’t act like this at our barn[they get invited to leave or learn reality] while they’re there it seems like all of them have you surrounded. kids are much more capable then parents want to believe. i have 3 and all of them survived and thrived despite being and working with me [and getting dirty in the process and climbing every thing in sight including the horses]. they are all adults and employers love them because they know how to work independantly.

  12. HartKit – Exactly.

    My six-year-old flew off of his scooter yesterday at breakneck speed – tumbled a few times on the ground, and jumped up. Right away, he looked at me. It was all I could do to stay calm – but, I said “Hey, you ok?”. He answered “Yup, but I got really dirty, I’ll go clean up”. When he came back outside, he told me that he’d gotten a scrape, but he was ok and ready to get back on the scooter.

    It was that one second, when he sort of asked me if he was ok that that made the difference between tears and the end of play and dusting himself off and getting back in there.

  13. Perhaps it’s time for a movement in the writing of liability disclaimers.

    They should state that some or many people “will die” if and when they use said product or service. Period.

    If that’s how ALL disclaimers read, they would in effect become meaningless and ignored.

  14. Amen, Julie! I know parents have good intentions, but in the long run the fear and coddling is a disservice to the kids. We don’t simply hover and overprotect, we tend to smother and overwhelm.

  15. I think you’ve touched on one of the key parts of the problem… “And if they do, you should sue the manufacturer…”
    It’s not just fear on the part of parents, it’s fear of liability on the part of manufacturers and property owners, and as long as they worry about being sued they’ll keep telling us not to let our children run or jump or play because it’s not ‘safe’.

    When I bought my home the property included a separate fenced off area on one side with a swimming pool and two gates, one leading into my back yard and one to the street. The local kids were accustomed to using it as the neighborhood pool. After I moved in that lasted for one summer. Then I took the pool out after talking to my home insurance company… I wasn’t afraid of someone getting hurt, I just didn’t want to risk losing my house if someone did and I got sued! And the cost of carrying liability insurance was just too high. I would have much preferred having a joyous place where the neighborhood kids could play in a pool over the closed off, empty (weed overgrown) space I have now, but until and unless parents (all of them) take the responsibility to teach their kids how to be safe, and accept the occasional accidents as just something that happens and a part of life property owners and manufacturers have to be worried about every little cut and scrape. Our pocketbooks, our livelihood, our homes, and our businesses are on the line.

  16. I just purchased a cookbook for kids that includes the following in the
    publisher’s note, in the front of the book it states:

    “Warning: Some recipes contain nuts.”

    I could be wrong but I was under the impression that even a person that is extremely allergic to nuts, would not actually be affected by the word “nut” printed in a recipe! Egads.

  17. Yes, I think it’s a good point that helicoptering not merely confines and limits our kids, but teaches them to confine and limit themselves — and their own kids, eventually.

    One big thing I see is that there’s more and more of a tendency to teach “danger” or risk avoidance, rather than management or coping. So, in about a month, all the articles will start appearing in the newspapers and websites about protecting your kids from the sun. And most of those articles won’t merely tell you to make sure you have appropriate sunscreen and reapply it as necessary, they will tell you to “limit” your child’s exposure to the sun. Same with all the crazy food-poisoning-at-picnics hoopla — it won’t tell you to make sure stuff is kept appropriately hot or cold when you take it, to keep it covered and clean, etc. — usually those articles almost get to the point of recommending that you take nothing but peanut butter and chips on picnics (rolling eyes.) Since it’s POSSIBLE to get food poisoning from macaroni salad, DON’T TAKE IT OUT OF THE HOUSE.

    We don’t teach kids (or ourselves) to be careful, we teach them to stay away from things. We don’t teach them how to use knives, we don’t let them use them. And on and on.

    I’d submit that this isn’t merely a feature of modern parenting, but of modern life all around. And it’s a real shame, and is going to cause all kinds of problems.

  18. Now sally, of course they didn’t mean that the words in the recipe would cause the reaction. They’re just protecting themselves against the many people likely to sue because they are capable of reading a recipe, seeing it has nuts, going and buying the nuts, adding them to the recipe, and feeding them to their allergic child, without realizing that EVEN NUTS IN RECIPES FROM A COOKBOOK would cause a reaction! (rolls eyes again)

    It’s just crazy.

  19. @pentamom- i know what you mean about ‘limited exposure to the sun’. what many people don’t realize is that most americans are vitamin d deficient. even sunscreen blocks the good with the bad. we need about 15 minutes of sun on our arms and faces daily to absorb the right amount. the article i read suggested playing outside for 15 minutes and THEN applying sunscreen.

  20. When is “Babies” coming out! I’ve feel like I’ve been waiting months and months for it. I think I saw the trailer for the first time over a year ago?!?

  21. How did we get this way?

    Too many lawyers –> Rampant Litigiousness –> Stupid Rules –> Paranoid Parents –> Coddled Kids

  22. Our parents in the 1970s were totally liberated. They just threw us in the back of the station wagon or truck and called it good. I am all about safety, but I agree we take it too far and become full of fear when it comes to our kids. A really great book that has helped me get parenting back in balance is by Debbie Pokornik, called “Break Free of Parenting Pressures.” We place far too many expectations on ourselves and this author helps us enjoying parenting again!

  23. Apparently now elderly Alzheimer’s patients are too dangerous, and the children must be protected. Never mind that the kids could learn compassion, caring and a sense of right, or that the patients could benfit from being near the kids.
    http://www.startribune.com/local/east/92145794.html?page=1&c=y

  24. @Valerie Hawthorne: “Babies” comes out Mother’s Day weekend, and I can’t wait!

    What a great column by Colwell, and just as insightful are all the comments.

    My daughter is 20 months old. We live two blocks away from an amazing playground. There is a very large play structure with big broad steps that lead up to the top, with a rail for little ones to hold as they ascend. My daughter likes to go up halfway to the top then swing under the rail and launch herself onto the rubber mound below. It’s pretty cool to see her be adventurous. Yesterday, I saw a much older kid–maybe about 4 years old–attempt to do the same thing. And his mom stopped him cold. She said, “We do NOT go down that way.” I thought it was kind of sad that she was so afraid and wouldn’t just let him explore.

    @LS: How did we get “too many lawyers” in the first place?

  25. You know, in most states where equestrian sports are popular, there is a law stating that horse owners and facilities are not liable for injuries and death that are associated with the natural risks involved with horses. It’s a common-sense law: no matter how careful a rider is, horses and people can hurt each other.

    Would that we had such a common-sense law for things like plastic objects and mechanical devices. Yes, tines can break off plastic forks, but that’s a natural risk inherent in the nature of plastic silverware, not a manufacturer’s defect.

    I should tally the number and types of objects labeled NOT FOR CHILDREN UNDER AGE 3 because they CONTAIN SMALL PARTS. My 2yo is gaga over Hot Wheels cars, but if I judged safety from labels, I would have to confiscate them all. Ditto his stuffed animal (plastic eyes, you know), his miniature volleyball (I guess the stitching could come loose and strangle him), and his crayons (he could bite off a piece and choke on it, I suppose).

    Not all product recalls and warning labels are ridiculous. I think a stroller with a propensity for severing fingers, or a baby sling known to smother its occupants to death, should be recalled. A piece of clothing with a string on it, though? Everyone knows strings can be dangerous. No need to recall the thing. That’s what “being careful” is for.

    I do think water safety is something we should be concerned about—though perhaps we should put more of an onus on those supervising water play and less on the owners of the equipment. My city has very hot summers, lots of backyard pools, and an appalling number of annual drowning deaths. I would also not leave my kids alone in the car, even though my mom did that for us. I don’t expect they’re apt to be kidnapped, but you can’t control what other people do in parking lots—fights, drugs, and other bad behavior that kids probably need their parents around for, if it happens.

    On the other hand, my kids (ages 2 and 5) do have a 12yo babysitter.

  26. “We are tired of listening to how dangerous it is to be alive, and how careless we are with our kids.”

    Amen, sister. I’m tired of everyone warning me about how every single thing I do, or my son does, could go drastically and horribly wrong. It takes all the joy out of life! Why is it that being “safe” but unhappy and anxious all the time is perceived as better than living with a little risk but relishing the joy of engaging with the world?

    I don’t want to just be alive. I want to LIVE. Thank you very much, paranoia sellers.

  27. Regarding 12-year-olds being less competent than 12-year-olds of the past – every time I reread the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, I’m blown away at the parts where Ma and Pa take off in the wagon for the day, leaving Laura and Mary (who are maybe eight and nine at the time) alone to drive cattle out of the haystacks and bring the woodpile in before a blizzard strikes. I wonder if there are any third-graders, even farm kids, who could do that sort of stuff now.

  28. “Too many lawyers –> Rampant Litigiousness –> Stupid Rules –> Paranoid Parents –> Coddled Kids”

    Ummmmmm, last time I checked, a LAWYER can’t file a lawsuit without a CLIENT. So your matrix should actually be:

    Belief that there are no accidents in the world, everything is always someone’s fault and you are ENTITLED to lots of money from that someone -> stupid rules -> rampant prosecution for violating stupid rules -> paranoid parents -> coddled kids

  29. Not kid-related, but another story about safety-obsession. I work for a police/fire/EMS dispatch center. A couple days ago, a woman called 911 from her cell phone to report that the tanker truck that she was following was too shiny in the sun, and she was afraid that that glare bouncing off the truck might cause an accident.

    Yes, folks. She wanted the police to do something about a tanker truck in the sun, because a bad thing “might” happen, and we must somehow, in every way, prevent all bad things. (Notwithstanding that the problem most likely solved itself when the truck took a curve, turned, or the sun got higher in the sky..)

  30. Hypersensitive helicopter moms should always put their kids in protective bubbles… oh wait, the kid could suffocate in plastic bags…

  31. @Donna- I agree with you, but it is also true that many law firms actively try to convince people to sue. Just turn on daytime television. I don’t doubt that those commercials add to the idea that everything is someone’s fault.

  32. sally – that is SO funny! I’m trying to remain quiet right now as my daughter is still sleeping and I’m not quite ready for her to wake up, but I couldn’t stop myself from bursting out laughing about that one!

    HartKit and K – I think the mere fact that most children turn around and look at their parents to see if they are okay should show us how important our response is.

    I’ve been trying to “toughen up” my daughter lately as she is now 16 months old and starting to “milk it” a bit too much for my liking. Even though I’ve been attempting to be free-range from the start, I’ve been finding that I need to check myself quite often to make sure I’m not being overly paranoid.

    We recently moved our coffee table (because it has very sharp edges) away from our couch because my daughter is not very careful when she’s up there and I figure she just might need to fall off a few times to learn. I realised that if I want to be okay with her climbing trees (and I do), I’ll have to at least let her climb the couch!

  33. “Belief that there are no accidents in the world, everything is always someone’s fault and you are ENTITLED to lots of money from that someone”

    @Donna — yes I agree.

  34. i love your free range philosophy. i feel the same way. my questions is do you notice that there are regional differences in how restictive parents our. i am living in las vegas and they have racks for kids to put their bikes. i think back east in ny and new jersey there are more restictions. what do you think of florida as far as free range

  35. @dmd — Agreed, the really dangerous stuff gets buried in the overkill. Most manufacturers assume that their consumers lack all common sense. But this is, of course, about liability, not safety.

    If you never let your kids fall down, how are they going to know what it feels like on the ground? Or how to get back up?

    My kids don’t wear shoes in the summer and I don’t make them, unless we are hiking.

    @bobcat — I do think there are regional differences. In my suburban CA Bay Area neighborhood, people are very worried, but when we went on vacation in the Gold Country, we visited a swimming hole where parents were teasing their kids about being too scared to jump off rocks into the water. It was awesome. I’d love to bring a little of that to more urban areas.

  36. This girl: I went barefoot all summer long, and still go barefoot most of the time indoors, unless it’s just too cold. Then I wear socks.

    This has resulted in feet capable of walking on hot asphalt (for short periods of time) and absolutely NO athlete’s foot, ever. (I am of the opinion that air-dried feet can’t harbor fungus.) Right now our toddler is required to wear shoes when outdoors but that’s more a reflection on the state of our yard* than of my need to have him shod.

    *We’ve owned the house for less than a year, but the yard was neglected for at least three years prior, and we’re finding some pretty interesting things back there. And we don’t have grass so much as “neatly mown weeds.”

  37. Well, farms aren’t quite the same as they used to be, but my husband started driving the tractors between the ages of 10- 12 and I expect our son will do the same. Most farmers I know have a really different risk assessment than non-farmers. Maybe its because of the things they themselves do on a daily basis. Most parents don’t have physically demanding jobs or lifestyles that encompass that type of risk. So they don’t have a realistic assessment of it. The mom who has horses can assess what kind of a risk a horse is (risky, but not that risky). The parents who don’t have their own experience with horses are afraid. They don’t have the information to assess the risks accurately.

  38. bobcat — I think it’s not only regional, but urban/suburban/rural. Suburban is probably the worst, but if you live in an actual city, the dispatcher would fall out of his chair laughing if someone called in to report a 10 year old kid walking down the street alone in broad daylight. DUH!!!! Excuse us while we try to get the toddlers out of the CRACK HOUSES first! I live in a very nice, safe neighborhood in a city of 100,000, and I can’t imagine our police responding to such a thing. You can’t drive down the street in one of the less nice areas in nice weather without seeing apparently unattended three year olds playing by the curb. Stuff like mandating that kids be driven to school would get you looked at like you have fourteen heads in a community where lots of people don’t own cars because they can’t. And I’m not saying this is an overall awful place at all, just that in communities where the authorities realize that not everyone lives the “Desperate Housewives” lifestyle, there isn’t as much pressure to overprotect, at least from those who have the ability to penalize you for it. I daresay nosy neighbors in more solidly middle or upper middle class neighborhoods can be as much of a pain in the city as anywhere, but the difference is, if they call the cops over trivialities the cops won’t come, and they have to know that.

  39. I’m 17 almost 18 ans live in a suburban area of Kansas city, mo in a kinda upscale area in apartment complex my mom doesn’t care if I go walk to the fitness center at midnight or take our dog for a walk at that time of night. However she refuses to teach me how to drive a car because she says I don’t take it seriously and that I will kill myself (when I was 16 I laughed when she told me not to hit a bulding 20 feet away) but I did drive her Ford explorer about half a mile when we moved (it was in a storage place and I drove it up to the gate) just one more unsafe thing for the list.

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