High risk. A term used to describe skydiving. Brain surgery. Texting your mistress while your wife is in the room. And now: the hot dog.
Last week the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a report on the dangers of childhood choking and called for warning labels on the foods kids most commonly gag on. These include grapes, carrots, candy and especially the frank, which Gary Smith, a research director at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, and lead author of the study, described as particularly "high risk." So high a risk that he'd like to see it completely redesigned.
Now, no one can dispute that it is a good idea to cut a hot dog into little pieces if you are feeding it to a little person. I sure did, when my middle-school-age sons were younger. My friend who has a toddler told me she was making a hot dog for herself the other day and just automatically sliced it lengthwise. Parents know their kids are not champ chewers. That's why we buy baby food. But to deem an item that has been around almost as long as intestines to be suddenly "high risk" suggests that, when it comes to parenting, "risk" now means something a lot less risky than it used to.
Sometimes it means a risk so small that the old word for it was "safe."
A quick jog through a baby store finds item after item protecting kids from things never considered particularly hazardous before: baby knee pads, for instance, providing "the ultimate protection for babies learning to crawl" (according to one brand's marketing materials). Then there's the Thudguard, a helmet designed to "lessen the chance of head injury when infants are learning to walk." That's right — a helmet for walking. And don't forget gLovies, disposable children's gloves that mean "you'll have one less thing to worry about when you take your toddler into public places lurking with germs."
At some point in the past generation, a significant part of the parenting public came to believe that crawling, toddling and touching are all too dangerous for a child to attempt without protection.
Parents have always worried about their kids, of course. My mom even put a string of cloves above my crib to ward off the evil eye.
But this explosion of products and warnings is new. Are children today so much more vulnerable to death and dismemberment than we were? Or are we just more nervous about everything?
Nervous? We're shaking in our nonskid socks! And here's how it happened — I think.
Back in the 1960s, Ralph Nader shocked the nation by exposing the fact that car companies cared more about their profits than our safety. That's about the same time we learned the same thing about cigarette companies.
The government jumped in and took on the cause of protecting us from hidden dangers. Seemed good! But then, says Philip Howard, author of The Death of Common Sense, it just kept going. Its mission became "to protect us from any activities that involve risk," he says. Any risk. The Consumer Product Safety Commission went so far as to issue playground standards recommending the removal of "tripping hazards like … tree stumps and rocks."
Meanwhile, says Walter Olson, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, starting in the early '60s and continuing through the '90s, "you had a long series of liberalizations of the right to sue." Judges willing to hear quirky, one-in-a-million cases meant that where we used to see "bad luck" (or tree stumps), we now saw nefariousness.
To defend themselves, companies started slapping pre-emptive warning labels on everything. "Cape does not enable child to fly." "Remove baby before folding stroller." Those are cautions from real labels. And a lot of hot dog companies did the warning thing, too, telling parents to slice and dice the wieners before serving them to kids.
We got so used to all these labels that we almost came to expect them. Which meant we started to see everything as potentially unsafe, at least in a worst-case scenario. (After all, if you do fold baby in stroller — yikes!) Which ultimately meant that if you could trace about 12 child choking deaths a year to hot dogs, as statistics cited by Smith suggest, then hot dogs should have a warning label, too.
So hot dogs are relatively safe but, tragically, not perfectly safe.
Today we see every person, place, activity, toy and food as too dangerous for our kids. Our only choice at this point is to keep them locked inside, in their knee pads, watching TV and sipping a hot dog smoothie. It's a perfectly safe childhood.
Minus the childhood part.
Lenore Skenazy is the founder of www. freerangekids.com and the author of Free-Range Kids.