Sunday, August 17, 2008

Nanny State American Style & Childhood Obesity

Lawn Darts were a fun game. I played them growing up. There are some obvious risks associated with lawn dart. You have kids tossing an aerodynamic, pointed peace of metal in the general direction of other kids. It was pretty obvious to all of us back then that we did not want to get hit by them. We did not know it then, be we were conducting a "risk assessment" and acting accordingly.

My kids never had the opportunity to play with lawn darts. Lawn darts were taken off the market by the time my kids were of an age to be interested by such things. Lawn darts were not taken off the market because they were unpopular. They got sued out of existence. They are a metaphor for what is happening to our society.

Our own socialist nanny state is nowhere near as advanced as what we see in the UK, but it is following in British footsteps. One of those areas is in the insane drive to take all risk out of childhood. One, its not possible. Two, kids - and the adults they will become - need to have a common sense ability to handle risk. And three, taking out risk takes the fun - and the exercise - out of childhood.

An excellent article in the WSJ on risk and childhood:

Just when we thought playgrounds were accident-proof -- no more merry-go-rounds, high slides, jungle gyms, seesaws or pretty much anything that's fun -- it turns out that safety itself can be dangerous. A recent heat wave in New York exposed a new playground risk: The ubiquitous rubber safety matting gets hot, not as hot as McDonald's coffee, but hot enough to scald tender feet.

The outrage was immediate. "Playgrounds should be designed with canopies," one park- safety advocate declared. "How many burn cases will it take," Betsy Gotbaum, the city's public advocate asked, "before the city wakes up and acts?"

The headlong drive for safety has indeed created dangers, but not those identified by the safety zealots. Risk is important in child development. Allowing children to test their limits in unstructured play, according to the American Association of Pediatrics, "develop[s] their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength." Scrapes and bruises are how children learn their limits, and the need to take personal responsibility.

The harmful effects of our national safety obsession ripple outward into society. One in six children in America is obese, and many of them will face a lifetime of chronic illness. According to the Center for Disease Control, this problem would basically cure itself if children engaged in the informal outdoor activities that used to be normal. But how do we lure children off the sofa? One key attraction is risk.

Risk is fun, at least the moderate risks that were common in prior generations. An informal survey of children by the University of Toronto's Institute of Child Studies found that "merry-go-rounds . . . anecdotally the most hated piece of playground equipment in hospital emergency rooms -- topped the list of most desired bits of playground equipment." Those of us of a certain age can remember sprinting to get the contraption really moving. That was fun. And a lot of exercise.

America unfortunately is going in the opposite direction. There is nothing left in playgrounds that would attract the interest of a child over the age of four. Exercise in schools is carefully programmed, when it exists at all. Some schools have banned tag. Broward County, Fla., banned running at recess. (How else can we guard against a child falling down?) Little Leagues forbid sliding into base. Some towns ban sledding. High diving boards are history, and it's only a matter of time before all diving boards disappear.

Safety is meaningful only in the context of other benefits and risks. Safety always involves trade-offs -- of opportunities, of scarce resources and, especially in the case of children's play, of learning to manage risk. The question is whether the trade-off makes sense. Soft rubber matting will cushion any fall. This is probably a good thing, at least in situations where children may fall on their heads. But rubber matting also gets hot.

There's only one solution. Someone on behalf of society must be authorized to make these choices. Courts must honor those decisions. Otherwise, the pious accusations of safety fanatics, empowered by the nearly universal fear of being sued, will guarantee a cultural spiral downwards toward the lowest common denominator.

For America's children today, that means spending more than six hours per day staring at a screen. Is that the way we want our children to grow up? . . .

Read the entire article.


KG said...

And of course, a very large part of this aversion to risk is due to the lawyers--and courts which entertain the most frivolous or vindictive lawsuits.

KG said...

"vindictive of" that should read.
More coffee...

feeblemind said...

I am very surprised that 'tackle' football has not been declared illegal and replaced with flag (touch) football for all people below the age of 18. I don't see how the safety police have managed to overlook it.

tomcpp said...

Lawyers are a beautiful runaway principle. Ever notice how in every profession more means less demand ?

E.g. more plumbers will mean less expected demand for any individual plumber.

However lawyers are different : the more lawyers exist, the more lawyers are required. It's a very cool positive feedback loop.

That's one of the reasons lawyers are evil, obviously :