- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 16, 2008

“Oh, good heavens,” my husband gasped as we drove past a scenic overlook. “Did you see that?”

I assumed the majesty of the view of the Grand Canyon had caught his breath, but it turned out he was startled by something even more profound: the stupidity of the parents who had allowed their young children on top of the retaining wall.

“What can they be thinking?” he asked.

The point is, they’re not thinking. Their priority isn’t safety, it’s a photo opportunity. Either that or these particular parents didn’t believe there was anything wrong when Michael Jackson held his infant son over a hotel balcony.

Our summer odyssey took us from the Grand Canyon to Yellowstone National Park, where apparently there aren’t enough signs to warn parents about the dangers of wild bears. Otherwise a bear sighting would not have prompted several families to allow their offspring to run within 20 yards of a black bear for the chance to take a picture.

Even a lecture from a park ranger didn’t deter people from encouraging their children to get dangerously close to an unpredictable wild animal.

That people risk life and limb for the sake of a quick thrill, a good story or a great photo is not new. That they’ll teach their children to take such risks confounds me.

Ironically, reducing risks for children remains a public health priority. Dr. Kimberly Thompson, founder of Harvard’s Kids Risk Project, spends a good portion of her professional life researching the impact of various hazards to children from the resurgence of polio to the influence of media. The purpose of the Kids Risk Project is to improve the lives of children by understanding and reducing their health and environmental risks.

On July 30, Dr. Thompson will host the Kids Risk Symposium, where she and other national leaders will present perspectives on improving children’s lives through public health initiatives, corporate responsibility and a renewed commitment to optimism for the future.

The symposium will connect the dots so adults can minimize risks for children.

I’m attending the symposium as well, and even though I have no academic research to present, I’m going to tell the attendees my conclusions about one of the biggest risks facing our children. I’m thinking I’ll start with the folks who perched their children on a precipice over the Grand Canyon, then move on to the parents who decided the black bear in the wild was just too cute to resist.

Taking foolish chances aside, there are risks many parents aren’t taking seriously enough.

We hover over our children, strap them in all sorts of protective gear to roller skate or ride a bike, put orange cones on the driveway to limit their play space, but for some reason we feel safe and confident when they sit in the family room surfing the Internet.

We let the culture dictate what’s cool and fun, allowing our children to engage in adult behaviors that are known to compromise their innocence and damage their psyches.

We’re often going along with trends and fads we don’t like on the assumption that there’s simply nothing we can do to swim against the cultural tide.

Dr. Thompson reminds us that we’re capable of seeing and doing what’s best for our children.

Of course, every parent knows there’s virtually no way to completely eliminate risks. Each time we walk out our front doors, we face the possibility of an encounter we can’t anticipate or control. Such is life, and no amount of research will change that.

On the other hand, after spending several weeks traveling the country and observing some of the dopiest parenting decisions I could imagine, I wonder if perhaps Dr. Thompson and her peers might consider a way to quantify parental irresponsibility as a measurable risk to children.

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