Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Friday, 21 September 2012

Mind that child!

(image: BBC News)

The price of child safety is - or should be - ceaseless vigilance.

Sadly, it's not always possible. Accidents happen; this month has seen calls for something to be done about children accidentally biting into or bursting liquitabs of detergent and suffering chemical burns as a result.

Parents have called for child-proof boxes, although many manufacturers (or, to be accurate, the handful of multinationals behind myriad brands) claim their packaging is already too difficult for young children to open. In any case, this seems to be evading the issue of the child having access to the box at all.

Constant supervision, of course, should prevent such occurrences but even the most vigilant parent looks away sometimes. The elephant in the room - and an important one - is that the risk is greatly reduced if the supervising parent has the intelligence, maturity and common sense to predict and anticipate hazardous situations before they occur.

Having raised a hyperactive child with the climbing skills of a marmoset and the levels of self-preservation once wrongly attributed to the lemming (not to mention his older brother, an infant Houdini who escaped onto a main road on his first day at playgroup and could extricate himself from any harness or car seat in 20 seconds flat), I am only too aware of the astonishing potential of toddlers to get themselves into trouble and of the precautions necessary to protect them.

Out and about today, I am constantly amazed at the sight of small children running loose in town centres; what happened to the reins that were - briefly - everywhere after the abduction of James Bulger? Cursory research tells me that they are now seen as unwanted restraint, an attitude perhaps imported via media coverage of 'celebrity mums' in the freedom-loving USA, where a woman once threatened to report my sister to the authorities for having her child 'on a leash like a dog'.

Meanwhile, the wooden playpen - that staple of the 50s and 60s nursery - seems to have vanished, leaving in its wake the occasional mesh-sided modified travel cot. This may have been a result of accidents caused by limbs caught between bars - though that doesn't seem to have stopped ordinary cots - or because parents were leaving children unsupervised in them for hours.

Though any such device is open to abuse, there is surely far more risk to the child in the lack of a safe place to put it while you answer the door/phone/call of nature. It may be a good joke in 'Back to the Future' when the hero realises that the infant in the playpen is his future jailbird uncle - "Better get used to those bars, kid!" - but I wonder whether its demise genuinely is in part due to cultural disapproval of an archaic form of restraint.

However, if we are to dispense with these aids to child safety, they need to be replaced with constant attention and, more than that, the ability to foresee what a child is likely to do. There have been plenty of cynical comments about Darwinism to accompany the stories of children eating detergent, but it can't be denied that the child of an immature or careless mother is more likely to encounter such a hazard.

There is another dimension to this particular story; the qualities that attract the children to the liquitabs in the first place. They are certainly eye-catching - brightly coloured, translucent and squeezable; just the sort of thing that small children want to put in their mouths - but these unnecessary bright colours are aimed fairly and squarely at the target consumers - adults.

It is, frankly, an insult to the consumer's intelligence. We are looking at a market so infantilised that manufacturers turn out products based purely on visual appeal, even when selling detergent. There's no need for it to be bright pink, or purple or yellow for it to do its job; the signals these products send out are aimed straight for the shopper's inner child.

They aren't the only ones; we are bombarded on all sides by advertisers encouraging us to indulge ourselves in chocolate, ice-cream or prettily-coloured shampoo (not so far removed chemically from the liquitabs, I'd guess) or treat ourselves to new gadgets and CDs - a world of entitlement to pursue childish tastes and pleasures with no place for adult responsibilities.

The trouble with this culture - however much it may delight those seeking to encourage economic growth - is that it leaves little room for such important matters as bringing up the next generation safely.


  1. "Out and about today, I am constantly amazed at the sight of small children running loose in town centres"

    Me too - toddling along the pavement well out of reach of a parent who is quite likely to be chatting on the phone.

  2. "...but these unnecessary bright colours are aimed fairly and squarely at the target consumers - adults."

    Modern adults... :/

  3. There is the question of just how much "stuff" the human body can cope with. Given the increasing numbers already of those with problems then if more and more "stuff" is used then we could be seeing more and more people affected.

  4. AKH - you've seen this, of course...


    It's a good point; I wonder how many accidents occur when the mother is talking or texting.

    Julia, more coming up on that subject soon, though how we tackle it, I have no idea.

    Demetrius, I can't help wondering whether this will be our eventual downfall as a species; I've always assumed it would happen as a result of something more spectacular - an asteroid, perhaps, or a nearby supernova or solar flare* - but it's far more likely to be our own stupid fault.

    *Of course, there won't be anywhere safe to watch it from, so one might argue that, to be pedantic, it couldn't be called spectacular.
    (I recommend John Brunner's 1956 story 'The Windows of Heaven' [In 'Yet More Penguin Science Fiction'] for an interesting take on the subject.)