Saturday, June 13, 2009

Protection Money

As I was driving down the street the other day, I noticed a van parked in front of a house. On the side of the van was a sign advertising baby protection services.

I've heard of baby protection before. We all have. It first became popular in the mid or late '80s, and at that time it consisted largely of taping towels to the edges of sharp coffee tables so a crawling baby who bumped his head on the edge of a table wouldn't sustain any traumatic head injuries. It always seemed like a pretty good idea to me. Sure, it made the coffee tables look kind of strange, but that's a small price to pay for the safety of a small child.

Actually, now that I think about it, there was another kind of baby protection before that, which I think became sort of popular sometime in the early '70s. It was just a little thing, so it's easy to forget about, but do you remember those plastic covers you could plug into unused electrical outlets? The idea was that they would prevent a curious toddler from sticking a metal fork or knife into the outlet and inadvertently electrocuting himself. It's a great idea, of course, and so simple too, but if your toddler is toddling around with a knife or fork in his hand, a plastic outlet cover may not be what you need to protect him from danger.

And just as an aside, what exactly is a toddler? Or more to the point, what does it mean to toddle? I always thought a toddler crawled around on the floor, but apparently that's not toddling, that's just crawling. According to a couple of online dictionaries I just checked, to toddle is to walk with short unsteady steps -- the idea being that a child just learning to walk would move in such a manner. Well, I never had any kids, so I guess I can be forgiven for not quite knowing the meaning of the word, but just to build upon my original point, if your child is crawling or toddling around with a sharp metal object in his hand, that electrical outlet on the wall might not be his most immediate threat.

But let's return to the more general topic of baby protection. Just how much protection does the baby need? What I mean is, is making a "baby-safe" home such a daunting task that the parents can't do it themselves? Do they really need to hire a professional baby protection company? The answer is probably no. I realize there's more to it than just covering the edges of sharp furniture -- you also want to make it difficult for your child to accidentally tumble downstairs and hurt himself. You probably don't want to polish your hardwood floors so that they're too slippery for your toddler to toddle upon either. And as I hinted at before, you'll want to keep those forks and knives at a safe distance from your children. I just thought of those things off the top of my head, but there are probably a lot of other things you should do as well, and if you don't have thoughts like that on the top of your head, you could probably read a magazine article or two and get all the information you need to know.

So I think professional baby safety companies probably benefit the owners of those companies more than they benefit anyone else, such as the customers or their children. I think it's just another way for people to make some money by scaring new parents with horror stories about how unsafe the typical home is. And the more you can scare them, the more money you're likely to make. It's a simple economic principle.

But the big question in my mind is, does all this baby protection stuff actually help protect babies? Have any statistical studies been made? Or failing that, is there any anecdotal evidence that a smaller percentage of the baby population today is being accidentally electrocuted or injured by sharp-edged furniture?

The reason I ask is because I grew up before all this baby protection stuff was available. So did my sisters, so did all my college friends, and so did everyone else I ever knew who was born around the same time as I was. And yet, I don't know of a single person my age who ever stuck a knife in an electrical outlet or bumped his head on the edge of a coffee table. It's possible, of course, that the children who did suffer such misfortune never lived to tell about it, but I've never heard about any such cases, not even from a friend of a friend of a friend.

Still, I don't feel comfortable recommending that people leave the sharp edges of their furniture exposed. But if children need that kind of protection today, and they didn't need it when I was a kid, it probably either means that coffee tables today are sharper than they used to be or babies' skulls today are softer than they used to be. I doubt if the tables are getting any sharper, and if you have any doubts about that, go check a furniture store. I also have doubts about babies' skulls being softer, although there's no good way to test this for yourself. But if furniture is no more dangerous than it was when I was a baby, and if babies themselves are just as rugged and hardy as they used to be, it probably means that maybe the only thing different is that we've become a lot more over-protective.

You can argue whether or not all this over-protectiveness is actually good for the children, but I think the question may be moot because I don't think it will last too much longer. Now that we're tottering on the brink of an economic depression, it might not be too long before children are considered nothing more than an easily-exploitable source of cheap labor, just like they were in the past, and just like they still are in many impoverished countries throughout the world. So if some politician proposes that we reduce our budget or decrease our trade deficit by overturning the child-labor laws, don't be too surprised.

I hope it never comes to that, and I don't think it will, but you never know. It depends on how bad things get. In the meantime, while we're still over-protecting our children, if you need some extra money, you could probably open a baby protection service. You can do all the research you need by reading a few magazine articles, and after that all you really need is a van with a sign on it.