Warning labels for hot dogs: Saving our children from a wurst-case scenario?

By Lenore Skenazy
Sunday, February 28, 2010

High risk. A term used to describe skydiving. Brain surgery. Texting your mistress while your wife is in the room. And now: the hot dog.

Last week the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a report on the dangers of childhood choking and called for warning labels on the foods kids most commonly gag on. These include grapes, carrots, candy and especially the frank, which Gary Smith, a research director at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, and lead author of the study, described as particularly "high risk." So high a risk that he'd like to see it completely redesigned.

Maybe the answer is hot dog strips that dissolve like breath fresheners. Call the product Dog Breath! Or Ball Park Stranks -- franks you can pull apart, like string cheese. Hollow-Wieners, with the middle carved out? Or maybe hot dog smoothies. As Smith said, there are millions to be made by the company that comes up with a child-safe dog.

Now, no one can dispute that it is a good idea to cut a hot dog into little pieces if you are feeding it to a little person. I sure did, when my middle-school-age sons were younger. My friend who has a toddler told me she was making a hot dog for herself the other day and just automatically sliced it lengthwise. Parents know their kids are not champ chewers. That's why we buy baby food. But to deem an item that has been around almost as long as intestines to be suddenly "high risk" suggests that, when it comes to parenting, "risk" now means something a lot less risky than it used to.

Sometimes it means a risk so small that the old word for it was "safe."

A quick jog through a baby store finds item after item protecting kids from things never considered particularly hazardous before: baby knee pads, for instance, providing "the ultimate protection for babies learning to crawl" (according to one brand's marketing materials). Then there's the Thudguard, a helmet designed to "lessen the chance of head injury when infants are learning to walk." That's right -- a helmet for walking. And don't forget gLovies, disposable children's gloves that mean "you'll have one less thing to worry about when you take your toddler into public places lurking with germs."

At some point in the past generation, a significant part of the parenting public came to believe that crawling, toddling and touching are all too dangerous for a child to attempt without protection.

Parents have always worried about their kids, of course, especially their babies. (And then especially their teenagers, but that's another story.) My mom even put a string of cloves above my crib to ward off the evil eye.

But this explosion of products and warnings is new. Are children today so much more vulnerable to death and dismemberment than we were? Or are we just more nervous about everything?

Nervous? We're shaking in our nonskid socks! And here's how it happened -- I think.

Back in the 1960s, Ralph Nader shocked the nation by exposing the fact that car companies cared more about their profits than our safety. That's about the same time we learned the same thing about cigarette companies.

The government jumped in and took on the cause of protecting us from hidden dangers. Seemed good! But then, says Philip Howard, author of "The Death of Common Sense," it just kept going. Its mission became "to protect us from any activities that involve risk," he says. Any risk. The Consumer Product Safety Commission went so far as to issue playground standards recommending the removal of "tripping hazards like . . . tree stumps and rocks."


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