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Does Keeping Kids Safe Mean Making Them Fat?

Posted Dec 08 2008 8:54pm

Think hard - when was the last time you saw a high dive outside of the Olympics? Our local pool sure doesn't have one. Indeed, the last time I can remember seeing one was in my high school pool when I was on the diving team for about two seconds. (Although I stuck around long after I quit to help all the guys shave their legs before meets. What can I say? Swimmers are hot. Even freakishly hairless boy swimmers.) There's a reason we don't see many high diving boards anymore. Or any diving boards at all. Or merry-go-rounds. Or ten-foot-tall metal slides. Or see-saws. Or many of the playground favorites from our childhoods. It's because they're not safe.

At the risk of sounding like a cranky old-timer who walked to school in paper bag shoes - uphill both ways! - and played hackey sack with a hairball for fun, I have to say: What is happening to children these days?

A recent uproar in New York about unsafe playgrounds brought out some intense emotions in parents and children alike. And what was the object of their protestation? Tetanus-laden uncovered screws? Uncoated swing chains that pinch little fingers? George Michael policing the restrooms? Nope. They were mad about the rubber surface that was installed to protect children against falls. See, when the weather gets hot, so does the rubber and apparently the kids felt like it was burning their feet.

I do have some sympathy for those New Yorkers. As a parent I completely understand the pain that ensues when children start whining. If mine keep it up long enough I swear my ears actually bleed. As a playground veteran I can vouch for the fact that children find any number of things outdoors whine-worthy. In addition to hot playground surfaces, there's hot playground equipment, hot picnic tables and hot (read: lukewarm) juice boxes. There's also cold swing seats, cold monkey bars and cold (read: lukewarm) bottles. You know what helps with all that? Earplugs. Oh, and shoes.

Are Safe Kids Fat Kids?
In a day where it is postulated that over 85% of the U.S. population will be overweight in 20 years, it seems like a lot of parents aren't getting the message about the importance of exercise. While the above example is a little extreme, many parents end up curtailing physical activities - especially the spontaneous outdoor kind that experts have long advocated as necessary for children's mental and physical health - because of safety concerns.

I have to admit I have done it. I won't let my six-year-old walk two blocks to his friend's house to play because I'm concerned about all the street crossing he'll have to do. I don't let any of my children play outside unattended because we don't have a fenced-in yard. So if I'm busy when they want to play outside, they don't get to go outside. If they want to practice riding their bikes? I drive them (!) to a local park because we have no sidewalks in our neighborhood. In fact, most parents I know make some marked concessions to safety that our parents didn't do when we were kids.

My mother accuses me of trying to wrap my kids in bubble wrap but I am a mother to three boys. And I say this with love but they're crazy. The two-year-old gets his kicks from scaling the bookshelves and then jumping off the top. The four-year-old literally thinks he can fly, as evidenced by his ability to jump down an entire flight of stairs without touching carpet until he lands in a heap at the bottom. We've already had multiple visits to the emergency room involving such innocuous objects as a banister, a bungee cord, and a fluffy red pom-pom. Can you imagine the carnage that would ensue with, say, a pellet gun? Or a roller-derby Barbie??

What Is A Parent To Do?
There has to be some middle ground between protesting that the ground is hot on a hot day - last time I checked suing the laws of physics isn't usually productive - and leaving your kids in the care of no one but your dog while you go out on the town (Hello Peter Pan!). Out here in the frozen wasteland, parents compromise by paying exorbitant fees to have their kids play hockey. I however have a problem with a sport that makes me pay out the ying so my kids can knock around the noggin I spent nine months gestating. (I didn't even eat soft cheese because it might be bad for them!) I suppose the biggest problem is what kids are doing instead of playing outside: generally something involving a screen.

Safety is a concern for adults wishing to play in the outdoors as well. Even with reflective gear, cell phones and pepper spray available, many women cite safety as a major reason they don't exercise outside. Not to mention that injuries and accidents can happen to the best of us. Aron Ralston, anyone? (Hint: he's the man who cut off his own arm with a pocket knife to save his life.)

Other than spending a lot of time wishing I lived in a place where I could chuck my kids out the front door after breakfast and tell them not to return until the dinner bell rings, what can I do? How do you guys balance the concerns of safety with the need for exercise? And, more importantly, how do you get your kids to stop with the whining??

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