- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A current TV commercial features a mother who panics when she can’t find her child at a park. She yells his name and then regains her peace of mind when she sees that “Kevin’s” location can be pinpointed on her hand-held child-global-positioning system. Thanks to the high-tech device (retail price: $280), she finds the boy and his red balloon, hugs him tight, and all is right in Kevin’s mom’s world.

The ad isn’t even for the GPS. It is for the batteries that power the device and the dozens of others that can keep an eye on the nanny, set off a hot-bath-water alarm or enable parents to monitor via video every breath of their baby’s nap.

In other words, in this age of high parental anxiety, it is Code Orange at your house. You had better buy the multipack of AAs.

The proliferation of child-safety devices is part of the perfect storm of heightened national security and gadget-happy, tech-savvy adults for whom keeping their progeny comfortable, happy and alive is job No. 1.

“We are completely owned by our gadgets,” says Joanne Cantor, a former professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who studies psychology and the effects of media, communications and technology.

Ms. Cantor says the media have a tremendous impact on today’s adults. Continual reports of child abductions and other horrors have given “everyone a tremendously heightened sense of how vulnerable kids are.” That heightened sense has spurred manufacturers to develop more products, making parents feel even more insecure if they don’t purchase the latest and safest gear.

Paul J. Donahue, a clinical psychologist in Scarsdale, N.Y., and author of “Parenting Without Fear: Letting Go of Worry and Focusing on What Really Matters,” says that, in reality, the chances of a child being kidnapped by an unrelated person are quite low and have remained consistent over many years. What have increased are media accounts and the parental anxiety.

“Out of 300 million Americans, maybe about 100 kids a year are kidnapped by a non-family member,” Mr. Donahue says. “Contrast that to about 1,300 people [who] are hit by lightning [each year]. The media feeds into this a lot. The Amber Alerts make people feel like it could happen, even if they know it is rare; and the gadgets give them the illusion of security with technology.”

Jennifer Smith, director of merchandising for One Step Ahead, a popular children’s product and child-safety catalog and Web site, says with increased awareness have come hundreds of new products. Some of One Step Ahead’s best-sellers are basic items that have been around for years, such as cabinet locks and bed rails, she says.

Still, there are all sorts of new ones, too, such as Snazzy Baby Knee Pads (to protect crawling baby’s little knees); powerful sunscreens and germ-control lotions; and the Bumper Bonnet, a protective helmet that cushions the noggins of new walkers in case of a fall.

“Ideas for products come in and are reviewed internally,” Ms. Smith says. “We look at and ask, ‘Does it solve a problem?’ Then we run it past a parents panel for a second set of eyes.”

Many items are rejected, Ms. Smith says. Among recent non-starters: a harness that essentially keeps a child tied to the crib and a device that reminds you that your child is in the back seat of the car so you don’t accidentally leave him there.

“We reject some items where we feel it is creating a problem that might not be there,” Ms. Smith says. She adds that she is aware that parental fears and gadgets can create a vicious circle for some families. For instance, One Step Ahead does not carry a device that helps a pregnant woman listen to and track her baby’s kicks in utero.

“For someone who has lost a child previously, that could be helpful,” she says, “but for a healthy woman, that can make you hyperneurotic.”

For many families, striking that balance in a fearful environment can be tough, Mr. Donahue says.

“Sometimes we can become easily irrational,” he says. “It is not so easy to check our thoughts.”

An older relative can be a good resource for a reality check, he says. Looking to the generation that let today’s parents play with plastic dry-cleaning bags, run barefoot in public parks and ride around without car seats in their youth can be quite helpful (but don’t practice all of those 1960s parenting procedures - some are illegal today). Older relatives will be able to point out that today’s adults got their bumps and bruises but learned from them and turned out fine.

Mr. Donahue says today’s parents should be cautious but also should take baby steps to give children the independence necessary to grow up into functioning adults. Sure, they should use common sense and keep children safe, but they also should practice things like eventually letting school-age children play in the yard without a parent sitting right there.

One gadget that has proved to be constricting though it was meant to promote independence is the cell phone, Mr. Donahue says. Phone users are getting younger and younger. Parents who are purchasing them feel secure knowing junior is just a phone call away in case of a problem. Then again, junior knows he can call mom and dad, who will solve the problem, making junior ill-equipped to make age-appropriate decisions.

“We have to find ways to give kids opportunities to be on their own,” Mr. Donahue says. “It is not just about keeping kids safe. If they are safe but you are anxious, it is not helping them in the long run. If they are safe and independent, you are giving them tools for their whole life. They have to practice being independent, and parents have to practice managing their own anxiety.”

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