This week The New York Times published a story that provides a perfect illustration of the dangers of overprotective, “helicopter” parenting. Growing up in the 1970s and ‘80s, I remember how someone in my class always seemed to have a broken limb: we autographed their casts zealously and borrowed the crutches to swing hazardously down the school’s hallways, always secretly jealous of these special accessories. As a parent, I’ve often remarked how scarce these omnipresent totems of my apparently dangerous youth have become. When parents protest bicycle helmets on scooter-riding tots or squishy rubber floors in playgrounds, I think it behooves us to check the statistics on childhood accidents, including (grimly) the fatal ones. Childhood accidental deaths in the United States dropped 30 percent in the first decade of the millennium, largely because of Big Government interventions like seatbelt laws and other “invasive” regulations. Of course, the U.S. rate is still twice that of countries less shy about putting government in charge of safety, like the U.K., France, and Canada. But we’re the home of the free. Nevertheless, it’s clear that regulations and an improved focus on safety have benefited our children enormously.
A greater awareness of children’s special vulnerability has extended beyond the obvious parameters of car accidents and playground injuries and into less obvious areas like food. The same caution a parent exercises when placing a bicycle helmet on his child’s head seems to be at work when he checks a food label for artificial ingredients or decides to serve whole wheat bread instead of white. Yet in food choices, which are infinitely more complicated than road safety, it's easy to go astray, turning our children into obsessive health crusaders and adding to their anxieties rather than being the reasonable and responsible adults we hope to be in their lives.
You’d think my analogy might break down there—after all, one can’t be too safe when it comes to a child’s physical safety. Even if your child looks crazy wrapped in bubble wrap on the playground, at least she won’t get hurt—and that’s the most important thing, right? But it turns out that one can go too far here as well. According the the Times article, an increasingly common injury for small children is breaking a leg because a parent slides down a playground slide with the child in his or her lap. I read this with a shudder of recognition, because what parent hasn’t at least contemplated doing this with a balky toddler or a slightly-too-young-to-slide baby? One of my own parents’ typically embarrassing stories about my childhood involved my being stuck in terror at the top of a slide at the age of 2 and finally, in response to their pleas for me to just slide, peeing down it. Note that they did not climb up and slide down with me.
So it turns out that sliding down with your children is actually more dangerous than letting them do it on their own—if their little feet catch against the side, the parent’s greater weight will break her beloved’s leg. And this struck me as the ideal example of when parents go too far in trying to safeguard our little ones, whether in play, at school, or even in making decisions about what they eat. We certainly don’t want them to end up in a cast, or with an eating disorder, but we have to parse our protective actions for the less obvious dangers we may inadvertently, even lovingly, be posing to our own children.
What I cooked this week: