Guest Post: The Bucky Balls Ban

Hi Readers! The Buckyballs ban is getting a lot of press. Here’s a piece in today’s NY Times, which references this oped by Michelle Malkin, And here is the official Consumer Product Safety Commission’s complaint. It notes that since 2009, there have been two dozen reports of magnet-induced injuries to children, including “at least one dozen involving Buckyballs. Surgery was required in many of incidents.” (It doesn’t say how many.)

In press coverage of the issue, generally someone whose child was hurt gets interviewed. Here’s a reader whose child was affected another way.  – L

Dear Free-Range Kids: Did you see the news about BuckyBalls being banned? BuckyBalls are little metal balls that look like bb pellets, only they’re magnets. It’s a desktop “toy” meant for adults… which it clearly states on the packaging, the website, their twitter feed… I heard a rumor that the company CEO has it tattooed across his forehead. http://www.wired.com/geekmom/2012/07/buckyballs-banned/

So why does the goverment want them banned? Well, in the past 4 years, and after MILLIONS of sales of these little magnetic balls of joy, 20 kids managed to swallow the magnets, which is a dangerous thing to do. The balls are magnetic and can wreak havoc on a digestive system, especially if they were unfortunate enough to swallow more than one.

This is a bad thing, but I’d like to point out, AGAIN, that it states on the packaging that it is definitely, totally, and 100% not meant for little kids. They even went so far as to give it an age cut off at 13 and up! THIRTEEN! These are magnets! The size of bb’s! I personally find it a little overboard. I mean, hopefully by the time the kid is 12, his parents have broken him of the habit of sticking strange metal objects into his mouth.

So why is the government suing the company that makes BuckyBalls? I mean it’s a U.S. based company that employs lots of people, you’d think that shutting them down would not be in our best interest. But no, the government’s complaint is that the 13+ age limit is not enough. They insist that the the packaging should read 14+. Because, you know, there’s a huge difference between 13 and 14, I guess. [Lenore interjects: I actually think they want them to not be sold to anyone of any age.] And also the government believes that 13 year olds are idiots and can’t be trusted around shiny things.

Disclaimer: I have several packages of these BuckyBalls. AND I have a 13 year old. We bought the BuckyBalls for my husband as a neat thing to fiddle with on his desk at work. But my son was fascinated with them from the get-go. Of course we reminded him that shiny things are not necessarily edible things (for which he stared at us like we had grown two extra heads. I mean, DUH, guys. Parents are so weird.) We also stressed the importance of being careful not to lose the balls as we do have pets, and although neither my dog nor my cats have ever tried to swallow anything that wasn’t made of fish and/ or whatever is in those brown kibble things doggies eat, I didn’t want to take the chance as none of my pets have learned English yet and I was unable to give them the shiny-things-are-not-food talk. Well, I mean, I did give them the talk, but I don’t know if it really sunk in. They just kind of looked at me. Then my cat started to lick herself and my dog got distracted by the squirrels in our front yard.

As I was saying. My 13-year-old son became fascinated with the BuckyBalls and was allowed to play with them in my husband’s office. We noticed that he was going in there to play with them almost daily, making all kinds of intricate shapes with them, picking up paperclips with them, modeling things… all that jazz. We ended up purchasing a larger set of magnets and he’s been constructing and experimenting with them as well. (These new magnets are the size of marbles, and although they’re still not a good thing to swallow, the package for these magnets says they are only made for children over the age of 3. I have no idea why there’s a difference, except that perhaps the BuckyBall magnets are stronger.)

And Caleb’s fascination with magnets hasn’t ended there. It sparked an interest in geology in general, which has recently morphed into an interest in archeology. This week he’s hanging out with his grandfather at the beach where Caleb is taking his new metal detector out for a spin! (A metal detector with an electro-magnetic coil in the head, he tells me. MAGNETS. They are AWESOME, Mom.)

So you might understand why I’d be so baffled about the government deciding that BuckyBalls, or any small magnet, I assume, was too dangerous for kids to experiment with. I thought you might be interested to know about this development as well. I remember that a few years ago you talked about the Kinder Surprise chocolate eggs that Canadian children get to partake in, but U.S. children can only read about online. I have a feeling that if the government has its way, BuckyBalls will go the way of the Kinder Egg. Sorry this was so long! Cheers, Julie

Guest Post by Greg Olear: Swan Song for Swings?

 Hi Folks! Here’s a guest post from Greg Olear, senior editor of The Nervous Breakdown and the author of the novels Totally Killer (Harper, 2009) and the brand-spanking-new Fathermucker, which concerns a single tumultuous day in the life of a stay-at-home dad. I absolutely adored Fathermucker — soooo funny and soooo spot-on about parenting foibles (every single, crazy one of them!!!!!!) — that I am delighted he’s writing here today! — L.

Swing No, Sweet Preschooler By Greg Olear

Last year, for a variety of reasons, we decided to move from the idyllic Hudson Valley to my hometown in no-longer-idyllic New Jersey.  Our son would be entering kindergarten in one of the best school districts in the country—the main impetus for our move—and it fell to me to find a suitable preschool for our daughter.

This proved more difficult than anticipated.  For one thing, my hometown had become, to my solidly-middle-class astonishment, the sort of tony suburb where you had to fork over 75 bucks to apply to a preschool. As we were new in town and thus late in the application process, this meant we’d quite possibly be paying $75 a pop for fancy letters regretting to inform us that enrollment was closed.  So we had to choose prudently.

One afternoon, my wife and I took a drive around town to tour the various preschools.  It was Sunday, so they were all closed. All we could do was check out the playgrounds.  And that’s when we noticed something unusual.

“These playgrounds all suck,” my wife said.

She was right.  Compared to the glorious expanse of fun our daughter had grown accustomed to at her preschool in upstate New York, these Jersey playgrounds were downright pathetic: small, cramped, and devoid of any remotely interesting equipment.  They looked more like pens for dogs than playgrounds for kids.

And then we realized, simultaneously, what was missing: “No swings!”

It was true—not one of these pricey preschools was endowed with a single swingset.  We guessed at reasons: lack of adequate space was the best one we could come up with (northern Jersey has become, in the years since I last lived there, as densely populated as an actual city).

Ultimately, we opted to send our daughter to a brand-spanking new preschool the next town over, even though it, like all the others, did not have a swingset.  We asked about this deficiency during the interview.

“The state inspectors strongly advised us against it,” the director told us.

“Why?”

“There are concerns that a small child might choke.”

“Choke?”

“You should have seen this great slide I bought for the playground,” she said wistfully.  “I had to return it.”

There are two ways you can get hurt on a swing: 1) The swingset breaks, or 2) You let go.  That’s it.  (Contrary to urban legend, it is physically impossible for a child not wearing a jetpack to swing high enough to go over the top.)  But choking?  How exactly would someone choke on a swingset?  Why are we — that is, why are insurance companies, who charge prohibitive premiums in New Jersey for preschool swings —worried about this?  Has this ever happened in the history of time?*

I thought of my own childhood, the countless hours my two- and three-year-old self spent contentedly swinging back and forth and back and forth.  There was nothing I enjoyed more than that. But kids in my hometown would now be deprived of that pleasure, because of the bureaucratic fear of an outcome that is about as likely as alien abduction.

The school we chose proved terrific — great teachers, ambitious curriculum, etc. My daughter, now a kindergartener, loved it there so much, she likes to go back for lengthy visits during her vacations.  But she may have loved it even more if there were swings.

*Apparently, it has.  According to safekids.org, 147 children perished from “playground equipment-related injuries” from 1990-2000. Most were on equipment at a private home, but about 40 weren’t. (That is, four a year.) And strangulation — usually caused when the pull-cord from a sweatshirt gets caught on the equipment — was the leading cause of those 147 deaths. I couldn’t locate statistics for swingset strangulation deaths specifically, but it seems, to me, highly improbable, way more improbable than being struck by lightning. — G.O. 

Is this child in grave danger? New Jersey says, "YES!"

How the “Underwear Police” Story Relates to Free-Range Kids

Hi Readers! I just got this very legitimate question about what the heck underwear flammability regulations (see below) have to do with Free-Range Kids, and as I was writing up my response, I realized it made sense to share it. So here you go: a Q &A with — me!

Dear Free-Range Kids: How is this a Free-Range issue? It’s about a government safety rule (agree with it or not, it is what it is), and a store that has to comply and a manufacturer who could be sued — and forget could, WOULD be sued because we live in a society where people DO that, for anything that seems to go wrong and could result in money. It’s not “weird,” it’s a perfect example of how the world works.

So back to my question — how is this a Free-Range issue? I thought it was about parenting, about encouraging our kids to be responsible for themselves and not be afraid of the world. Not about a company following a government”s policies.

Dear Reader: Good question! Here’s the deal:

As I look at how parenting has changed in the past generation or so, one of the factors making us more scared is the idea that everything is dangerous. Walking to school, drinking from a plastic cup, buying a used high chair, putting your kid in a shopping cart, eating a homemade cupcake…you name it.

When the government reinforces the idea that very remote dangers are dangers that we should nonetheless address immediately and keep high on our radar, it is adding to the anxiety of the average parent. In effect, it’s telling us, “Your child is almost always unsafe!” It also reinforces the idea that a .00000003 % chance of danger is not an acceptable risk to take.  See the post somewhere below about a nurse who warned parents that a “Baby on Board” sign could decapitate a child.

When we “What if?” to that extent — What if we’re in a horrible accident AND maybe the child COULD survive, BUT  the “Baby on Board” sign becomes detached AND flies horizontally through the air AND hits the child RIGHT in the NECK, THEN how would we feel with a decapitated kid that we could have saved if only we’d been a little more proactive about safety? — when we’re encouraged to think like that, nothing is proactive or protective enough. Society is telling us we should be thinking about the most far-fetched, ludicrous, summer-Hollywood-blockbuster scenarios and planning for them, seriously, or we are bad parents putting our kids in danger.

In the case of the store recalling its pajamas that aren’t up to code (though they WERE up to code when they were labeled underwear), I totally agree: The store had to comply or risk being sued. That’s outrageous, too, and I consider lawyers crying, “Negligence!” when there is none to be part of the problem, too. Excess litigiousness is part of the whole shebang of  dangerizing everything.

Thus we have reached the point where most normal childhood activities, equipment, and, now, pajamas  all seem extremely — and equally — unsafe. And as a result, there is less and less we allow our children to do, especially on their own. We pull them ever closer out of fear of everything, everywhere.

That changes childhood, that changes parenting, and THAT is why this piece is here.

Thanks for asking. — Lenore

Cool, if gratuitous, photo of underwear!