Copyright 2002 Linda Marcas - All Rights Reserved
In the past few weeks, I've watched several episodes of the Oprah Winfrey Show. Two of them stand out in
my mind; the first dealt with kids getting hurt while trying to copy stupid stunts that they'd seen on TV, and the
second featured unexpected but mortal dangers that resulted in children's deaths. Despite my opinions that there
are too many people in the world already and that some people are too stupid to live, I really don't want anyone
to suffer, at least not very much. But cautionary programs and warning labels don't really seem to do much good.
The world is a dangerous place, and accidents do happen. In his book, The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe said that
"it could blow at any seam," meaning that totally unforeseen mechanical failures, human errors, or pure bad luck
could suddenly kill you, and part of having the "right stuff' was to be in some way magically protected from
sudden death or misfortune. Without thinking about it or giving it a name, many people believe that they have the
right stuff, that it can't happen to them, that they lead a charmed life. Everyone does this to some degree; look at
how many people don't wear their seatbelts.
Perhaps because we do tend to think of ourselves as invulnerable, we become shocked and angry whenever
we suffer an accidental death or injury, and we express our outrage by looking for someone to blame for our hurt
and then to sue for retribution. Coffee-to-go now caries a warning label, "this is really hot and can hurt you if you
spill it on yourself!" because someone won a lawsuit. The flip side of unconsciously believing in invulnerability is
consciously perceiving perils everywhere, and trying to anticipate and avoid all possible dangers. I can envision
entire rooms full of people writing product warning labels for manufacturers that are trying to avoid being sued by
folks who might be hurt by their products; for example, a warning label on a box of popsicles, "the wooden
popsicle stick is not part of the food product, and attempting to eat the stick may result in injury or death." (I
made this one up, but you know what I mean.)
Life will never be safe, and we might as well get used to it. We are doing future generations a disservice by
making their childhood toys and tools too soft and cuddly: they'd be better off if they learned at an early age that
anything can be dangerous, if used improperly. Maybe pre-teen boys try to videotape stupid stunts because they
didn't learn, at the age of two or three, that fire is hot, falling hurts, and pain lasts longer than the giggles of the
Somehow, I managed to survive my childhood. I didn't hang myself in my grandmother's Venetian blind
cords, and I didn't drown in her bucket of Spic N' Span suds. I did, however, pinch my fingers in my
grandfather's folding ruler, fall off of my top-heavy tricycle (many times), and burn myself with my Easy Bake
Oven, Creepy Crawler Machine, woodburning tool, and many candles. I dropped the lid of my toy box on my
hand, fell out of my bunk bed, twisted my ankle in a hole I'd dug in the playground during the previous recess,
skinned my chin on the bottom of the pool by diving into the shallow end, jumped out of a tree house onto a rusty
nail, and cut myself on my pocket knife. I seldom repeated many of these specific injuries; the first times weren't
lethal, only painful, and pain is a valuable learning tool. As my husband often says, "pain is your body's way of
telling you not to do that."
By protecting children from non-lethal pain and injury during their early years, we might be killing them with
kindness. They don't learn, early enough, that they are not invulnerable. If they haven't hurt themselves in several
minor but painful ways by the time they are ten or twelve years old, they develop a skewed perception of the
world as an intrinsically safe place, which it is not. Then, once they are old enough to be let out of sight, they end
up doing dumb stuff that might kill them. A little painful caution, learned while they are younger, might just keep
them alive later on.
With this theory in mind, hubby and I plan to provide his year-old grandson with a variety of potentially painful
but not too dangerous toys, so that when he visits us, he can learn that not everything in his universe is harmless.
We'll lock up the drain cleaner, but we'll also let him pinch his fingers and bump his head, in the hope that some
minor mishaps will teach him caution, and therefore keep him from more serious harm in his later years.
I really don't hold much hope of success; perhaps no matter what their prior experience or dire warnings from
knowledgeable authorities, children and young adults simply don't believe they can ever get hurt, until they do.
This evening I heard a report on the news that said skin cancer is on the rise, because high school and college age
people continue to flock to tanning parlors despite all warning studies and a sunburn now and then. These are the
kids whose parents slathered them with SPF 50 sunscreen all through their childhood, to keep them safe from
those harmfull UV rays. Instead of "safety first," we might as well practice "safety second," and get used to
danger at an early age. It just might be safer in the long run.