The Nationwide Super Bowl ad featured a somber moppet riding a trike, getting his first kiss, and sitting forlorn at a child wedding in a forest, dressed in a tux, with teddy bear guests in attendance. But this kid wasn't only jilted at the age of what looks to be about 8. He is also dead.
He was to America what that final Seahawks pass was to Pat Carroll: The worst thing that happened during the Super Bowl.
In the ad, the boy describes the age-old rites of childhood with mysterious detachment, dejectedly telling us: “I’ll never learn to ride a bike…or get cooties…I’ll never learn to fly…or travel the world with my best friend…” He ends with the illuminating kicker: "I couldn't grow up, because I died in an accident." Then Nationwide flashes on all the places that this might have happened, like a nightmare version of Clue: In the bathroom, forgotten in the tub; in the living room, smashed by a giant TV; in the kitchen, near a bucket of what look like Tide pods, some missing, presumed eaten. The message: Kiddie deaths are caused by parents who just didn't do enough to keep their kids safe.
For any parent whose child has died in an accident, I can't imagine a sharper knife.
For any parent whose child has died in an accident, I can't imagine a sharper knife. For any parent who was starting to feel she could loosen the reins, this was a sharp tug back: Let your guard down for a second and experience a lifetime of regret (and haunting background music).
It came as no surprise when I read in a press release from the company that the ad was created in conjunction with the Nationwide Hospital's Center for Inquiry Research and Policy, founded by Dr. Gary Smith.
Gary Smith's name comes up often in my line of work, as we share the same goal -- safe, happy kids - but see a starkly different path to achieving it. As founder of Free-Range Kids, the book, blog and movement, I try to remind society that our kids are NOT in constant danger from (as I say on my blog) "creeps, kidnapping, germs, grades, flashers, frustration, failure, baby snatchers, bugs, bullies, men, sleepovers and/or the perils of a non-organic grape." Therefore, we don't have to regard every parenting decision as a life or death proposition.
Gary Smith is a pediatrician, professor and past chairman of the National Committee on Injury, Violence and Poison Prevention of the American Academy of Pediatrics. As such, he is the author of papers as varied as: "Microwave Oven-Related Injuries Treated in Hospital Emergency Departments in the United States, 1990-2010;" "Softball Injuries Treated in US Emergency Departments, 1994-2010;" "Volleyball-Related Injuries..." "Pediatric inflatable bouncer-related injuries..." "Sledding-related injuries among children..." "Stair-Related Injuries to Young Children... " and possibly my favorite: "Children Treated in United States Emergency Departments for Door-Related Injuries, 1999-2008."
If to a hammer, everything's a nail, to a child injury researcher, everything from sleds to stairs represents an injury vector.
If to a hammer, everything's a nail, to a child injury researcher, everything from sleds to stairs represents an injury vector. If we did away with them all – voila! Safety!
My goal is not to say that kids are never hurt by everyday activities and items. Rather, it’s to restore some very necessary and healthy perspective. Softball, for instance, is good for kids. So is volleyball. Doors are a part of life.
We live in the safest times in human history, according to Harvard professor Steven Pinker, author of "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined." A society that doesn't recognize this great gift and instead engages in what I call "worst-first thinking" – thinking up the worst-case scenario first in any situation and proceeding as if it is likely to happen – ends up paralyzed with fright. Every activity looks like a calamity waiting to happen. In this state of anxiety, newly primed by a commercial showing us how it would feel to have a child who died due to our negligence, it becomes impossible to let kids do anything on their own.
We witnessed the apotheosis of this outlook just last month when Maryland parents Danielle and Alexander Meitiv were visited by the police and child protective services for letting their kids, 10 and 6, walk home un-chaperoned from a local park. The parents face charges of neglect because they trusted their kids in the un-childproofed world.
This persecution (and prosecution) could only happen in a society that has ingested the Tide Pod of terror: children are all just moments away from death. That's why moms who buckle in their children into the car and then return the shopping cart get screamed at by harpies in the parking lot: "Why did you leave your child alone? Anything could have happened!
It's true. Anything can happen in any situation. But can we please quit blaming parents for not seeing doom in a one-minute errand? As a commenter once wrote to my blog, “Most of the time, when something bad happens to a kid, it isn’t because of bad parents, it’s because of bad luck.” Trusting our children, the odds, and even our imperfect selves should not be cause for shame.
Of course an insurance company would like parents to prevent accidents. Who wouldn't? So by all means, let's keep close tabs on our very young children. But, Nationwide: Parents are already freaked out enough. It's impossible to stop obsessively helicoptering once there's a rut worn in our collective brain running from "Do you love your kids?" to "Imagine how you'd feel if they never got to grow up."
The rut does not need deepening.