Protected from playing

Natalie Solent objects to the idea that only a bad mother would let her children play or swim without a helmet. She writes:

My difficulty is not with the principle of patented cushioning craniophagic headwear, but with these words:
“No caring or sensible parent would send their child to play football without shin pads, hockey without a gum shield or the non-swimmer without armbands.”

I always knew I wasn’t sensible. Now I know I am uncaring too. I would send my child to play football without shin pads. I would send my child to play hockey without a gum shield. I would send my child to play the non-swimmer without armbands. As you no doubt know, “the non-swimmer without armbands” is a minor character in Beckett’s masterly portrayal of wistful futility, Waiting for Swimming Lessons.

My father often says, “You were perfectly normal till I dropped you on your head when you were two.” I like to think that’s true.

About Joanne


  1. My daughter just finished reading Beckett’s other portrayal of futility for her AP class next year. About halfway through she looked at the cover again to read the blurb on it, and said, “If this is ‘one of the true masterpieces of the century’, we’re screwed.” Well, normally we would like to hear more ladylike language from her, but we let this slide.

    On a sad note, the newspaper reported yesterday that a girl who had just graduated from the high school my daughter attends, and whom she knew slightly, drowned in a friend’s swimming pool. No one knew what happened. She and her friends were having a swimming party and someone just happened to see her at the bottom of the pool. It took several years of swimming lessons before my negatively-buoyant kid could float or tread water, or handle herself in the deep end, and until then my husband and I had a policy that she could never go swimming without one of us there to watch her – it didn’t matter who else promised they would. We only lifted that ban last year when we were satisfied that she could take care of herself. If I wondered whether we were over-protective, I don’t now.

  2. Rita C. says:

    My daughter and I both ride horses (hunter/jumpers), and both of us wear our helmets every time we’re in the saddle. Since I’ve broken a few helmets over the years (and luckily nothing else), I’m pretty convinced and she’d be in deep hooey if I caught her riding without one. I’m slightly paranoid about water accidents, and we spend a lot of time in the Mississippi River.

  3. Tim from Texas says:

    Helmets and other protective equipment are fine and the use of them are difficult to argue against,especially in activities where severe injuries can occur.

    However, I think the effectiveness of any protective equipment is diminished for the child who hasn’t experienced a whole lot of simi-rough to outright rough play, where the body and mind have learned how to fall and roll in all situations. This ,of course, is one of the reasons children need lots of play and activity in and out of school.

  4. A lot of professional football players don’t wear shinguards. In fact, I can’t remember seeing any. Maybe the quote was from a British source, which would suggest football=soccer.

    I always put my children in helmets when they go off on their bicycles or the bike trailer. And it’s easy to deal with any fuss since I wear a helmet, too. As for swimming, my non-swimmers wear floatation devices (a vest and a suit) and supervision while my swimming daughter just gets supervised.

    As for other activities, I largely agree with Tim from Texas that children need to roughhouse a bit to get a sense of what is and isn’t dangerous. I’m probably a bad parent in that my son and I (he’s about to turn six) play with wooden swords and shields. We’ve cracked a few knuckles and he’s given me some interesting bruises (I should wear shinguards), but he knows how to not hurt me. And, most importantly, we have great fun. I get a workout, and he gets to chase me around.

  5. Miller Smith says:

    Google “risk homeostasis.”

    From one site: This is the theory that humans behave in such a way that if a risk is identified in a given system, and is reduced by design, then a compensatory increase in risk-taking will occur somewhere else in the system. Thus, in an experiment in Germany, drivers of taxis provided with better brakes tended to drive worse than drivers not so supplied, although their accident rate remained constant.

  6. I am a swim coach and lifeguard instructor. Armbands in the water are no replacement for an adult within arms reach of the child.

  7. Helmets for swimming? When did this happen?

    Really, someone explain it to me!

  8. mike from oregon says:

    On the one hand, I like my children safe. We do not move in the car unless everyone has a seatbelt on (it has been that way since before their birth). My children do not use a bike unless they wear a helmut; and as much as I hate it and grew up riding without one, I now wear one with no complaint to be a good example to my kids. As for swimming, they were both started swimming lessons at age 3, and they are both super swimmers now.

    However, it does bug me that all this has come about. Gads, when I was a kid, helmuts were almost unheard of. We did tons of things that are now considered unwise – yet I can’t remember one kid dying from it. We had an occasional broken bone from doing something boneheaded (and I can remember some super spectacular ones – trust me), but we just wouldn’t die (or suffer a life long disablility). I just don’t see these kids doing things THAT much different than what we did as kids, but I hear about a lot more accidents.

    What happened??

  9. I happen to agree with Laura, above. Getting one’s teeth knocked out in hockey, or a bruised shin in soccer/football isn’t a big deal. Drowning or a broken neck is.

    Once while camping with my family up in Vermont, my cousin and his family visited, and the kids (who looked up to me) brought their bikes. We started riding around the park, and one of the boys (about 8 at the time) kept trying to show off to me how he could ride his bike with his feet off the pedals. No big deal.

    Well, he turns down one hill, coasting faster and faster, with me shouting for him to apply the brakes, until he dissappeared around a bend, whereupon we heard a sickening thud and immediate blood-curdling screams.

    I raced down the hill and found his bike wedged under the bumper of the park ranger’s truck, with him curled into the fetal position on the ground, screaming. (He’d hit the truck head-on, and flipped over the handle bars into the windshield, and flopped onto the ground.)

    No injuries.

    I swore from that point on that I’d never permit a child to ride a bike without a helmet, for my cousin’s son could have very easily been paralyzed or killed in that short time under my supervision.

    It’s not worth it.

  10. Natalie Solent is writing about a “swim helmet”–which sounds like loony overkill to me. That is to say, how many serious, lifechanging head injuries ARE there while swimming?

    Solent is also talking about the sense of entitlement–that the world should be safe for me, lovely me. That sense of entitlement leads people to file suit when they are injured while doing intrinsically risky things–take skiing, for example.

    Then there are true risks, and sensible precautions. This includes helmets while biking*, every time. Why? This is long, but bear with me:

    In my work as a paramedic/firefighter I often marvel at how resilient, and in many other ways, how fragile the human body is. There are pieces of your skull that are nearly as thin as a piece of paper and others that are nearly as strong as steel and take tons of force to break.

    When you are involved in an accident, you never know which part of your head you may hit, the paper or the steel.

    When I see accidents that could have been prevented, I feel an obligation to let others know what could have been done to prevent or reduce the injury. I think one of the best ways to bring this point home is with a story of a patient encounter that I had.

    The patient fell on the bike path while biking. She was not wearing a helmet. She was found by a passer-by. When the passer-by found her, she was unconscious, with her eyes glazed, and a big abrasion and laceration on the side of her head.

    It was unknown how she fell; the bike path was straight and there was not a sign that would lead us to believe that something “funny” had happened.

    She wasn’t breathing well and blood covered her face. We treated immediate problems and transported her to the hospital.
    She received a battery of tests, CAT scans, X-rays and lab work. The woman had two small children.

    She underwent two different surgeries to correct the problems in her brain. She spent two weeks in intensive care recovering. Even though the surgeries went well and she received exceptional care, she ended up with some deficit in her mental capacity. She would require help to perform many of the tasks that she bad previously taken for granted.

    The woman on the story will go from a wage earner and a homeowner to a renter on disability….because she had a head injury that could be prevented by wearing a helmet. Her family’s insurance and additional resources have been used up by the expenses of her care.

    Be responsible. Model behavior for your kids. Wear a helmet when biking, people.

    *My daughter and I are also equestrians. We wear helmets, every ride, every time. Equestrian Safety Resources

  11. Walter E. Wallis says:

    I started putting seatbelts in my cars in 1953, when you had to drill holes for them and get under the car to tighten the bolts.
    The impetus was the survival by an acquaintance of a nose-in airplane crash, survival attributable only to his seat belt.
    I still buckle up. I don’t wear a helmet in the car, though, even though that would drastically reduce traffic deaths.

  12. Equating seat belts in cars, where the forces involved are very high, with wearing floaties in a swimming pool is ridiculous.

    Neither I nor my friends wore helmets when bicycling and we’re all fine. Perhaps a helmet isn’t a bad idea, but I take great offense at people calling my parents and all my friends’ parents child abusers because we didn’t wear helmets when biking.

    Furthermore, I never in my life wore floaties when swimming. My parents taught me how to swim and I would have been horrified to wear such a thing.

    Are we all becoming sissies? Do parents no longer know how to teach and trust their children? It’s all rather pathetic.

  13. speedwell says:

    Oh, boy. Next they’re going to make me put a helmet on my cat so he doesn’t bang into the wall as he tears around the house at top speed. Or the ASPCA will take him away. Sheesh.

  14. We didn’t put floaters on our kid (after toddlerhood). False sense of security. I wouldn’t want her to feel safe going into the deep end if she couldn’t manage without them. Better to watch the kid and keep trying to teach her to tread water, which floaters inhibit. Sometimes kids fall or are shoved into the pool, and you can’t count on the floaters being there.

  15. I think the problem comes when there is an excess of caution. If you read for any length of time the parenting/women’s magazines, you soon realize they advocate the following:

    Children cannot play outside between the hours of 10 am and 2 pm because of exposure to sun.

    Children cannot play outside in the early morning or at dusk because of exposure to mosquitoes (West Nile Virus).

    No matter how hot the weather, you must wear long sleeves and pants in the summer — protects against both sun AND West Nile exposure!

    Young children cannot play on playground equipment above the height of 3 feet for fear of falls.

    Children can’t have turtles as pets because of the risk of bacterial contamination.

    It has gotten to the point that any activity that MIGHT result in a broken arm is discouraged by some segment of some “pediatric medical group.” When did a broken arm become an unacceptable risk level? In my day, kids who had a broken arm were looked up to as heroes — grand adventurers with a wonderful story to tell.

    But seriously, as a mother of three, I quickly discovered that I needed to quit reading all of these magazines — or commit to raising my children as couch-potato vampires.

    I wonder if we are becoming a society of non-risk takers — and what that forebodes for our future.

    Risk takers = discoverers.

  16. jeff wright says:

    According to numerous surveys, the fastest-growing age cohort in the U.S. is persons age 65 and above. Further, there are always more and more people in the whole world, with drops in death rates among children a major contributor. We just keep living longer.

    Clearly, American senior citizens (and I specify American because we’ve had a fairly tranquil society for more than a hundred years—no civil wars, no foreign invasions, etc.), as well as folks like me who aren’t far behind, always wore helmets while biking, floaters while swimming, and stayed out of the sun all of the time. We also always played on “approved” playground equipment and never took risks as kids. And of course, none of us ever went to war or participated in anything dangerous. Those stories about WW2, Korea and Vietnam were just made up. Or if they weren’t, rest assured that the government was there, ensuring that everyone was protected from any physical or environmental hazards

    Yep, keep your kids in the house and safe. Don’t let ’em do anything that might be physically demanding or dangerous. Let ’em watch TV and play video games, all the while snacking on Twinkies and potato chips. But be careful. Your own fixation on health and insistence on eating rabbit food may result in you still being around when their arteries harden and they collapse at age 55. Alternatively, if they’re healthy, maybe you’ll get to see them become second-class citizens in what really is a cold and cruel world.

  17. It frustrates me so to see people take the “over the top” approach to child safety. Yes, seat belts and helmets when riding a motorcycle are important. I want to personally pull over every motorist I see with their kid running around unbuckled in the car and give them a ticket and a good lecture. But when the local playground takes down the swingset because they’re afraid of someone getting hurt on the swings – that’s getting a bit ridiculous. Where I live, it is against the law to allow a child to ride a bicycle without a helmet. If your child is caught without one, it’s a $200 fine! I rode a bike just fine as a kid without a helmet, and kids can’t really go fast enough for the bike helmet to do much good if involved in a crash.

    What’s really sad is the companies and groups that go to the extreme on child safety all in the name of protecting their behinds from lawsuits from parents who don’t have two brain cells to rub together and let their kids go off and do stupid things. Like the swingset situation – I’m sure that the local parks and rec was afraid of some parent suing because their child decided to play superman off the swing while it was in midair. Parents need to use their brains and take responsibility,but not overprotect their kids.

  18. Tim from Texas says:

    If they’re not talking or writing specifically about politics, magazines, newspapers, tv news magazine programs ,and the so called news programs on tv, both national and local, are just selling. If they’re not selling their own products like movies and tv programs, they’re pitching everything else. Most of the time, the selling-pitching-barking is done by instilling fear of some kind or another. Otherwise, the products are sold via T&A, sexual overtones of all kinds and outright sexual situations.

    Then subtle selling, if it can be called “subtle”, is done with the promotion of “lifestyles” through the programing we are allowed to watch on tv between advertisements.

    Selling by instilling fear, however, seems to be the more than slight favorite. To me it has all become rather sickening.

  19. On the ‘taking down the swings from playsets’ comment: that’s getting to be almost the norm now. That’s why my daughter has a swing set at home. It’s got terrific sling seats, and I taught her how to jump out of the swing at the top of the arc – it’s really cool! Yeah, somethings you land on your butt, or hands and knees. But it’s FUN!

    When I was a kid, we graduated from bikes to one of our group’s 100cc dirt bike. Power was great, and we spent hours taking turns jumping it on huge mounds of dirt (the man behind our house had acres of dirt, sand, rock, etc, that he sold, and some of it had been there for years. Great riding!). No one got seriously hurt, although I came close to breaking my leg once when I jumped it and landed wrong. My cousin actually broke her leg racing a dirt bike; but she was doing Motocross, with all the safety gear and such at the time. She lived (if you can call working for the IRS and being married to a cop ‘living’); so much for her wild younger days.

    I’m afraid we’re protecting our kids to death.

    My daughter does competitive gymnastics now, at age 8. She’s learning advanced moves, including some done only at Elite level (that’s the level that goes to the Olympics). Dangerous? Hell, yes! At least one Olympic contender broke her neck and ended up paralyzed in a wheelchair doing some of these moves. Will I stop my daughter because of that? No, not at all. Yes, accidents and mistakes happen. Her coaches do everything they possibly can to protect her, and I’ve seen coaches take a diver and risk serious injury themselves to protect a student. But being fearful is the worst possible attitude to have in gymnastics – it’s an accident begging to happen. Your best defense is being in good condition, progressing according to the coaches’ guidance and direction, and believing in yourself. If you get scared, then quit, because your fear will probably cause you to get hurt.

    Yes, I worry when I see her swinging around the high bar and flying backwards to grab the low bar blindly, or doing flips and jumps on the beam. But if I wrap her up in cottonwool to protect her from everything, then I’m protecting her from life itself. And if that’s what I would do in the mistaken effort to keep her safe, then I’m not letting her live at all.

  20. Silicon Valley Jim says:

    “A lot of professional football players don’t wear shinguards. In fact, I can’t remember seeing any. Maybe the quote was from a British source, which would suggest football=soccer.”

    The use of “gumshield” where an American would say “mouthpiece” also indicates that it’s probably British.

  21. Protective gear should be commensurate with the risk involved. Riding a bike around your neighborhood is probably not going to require a helmet. Riding a bike down Almaden Expressway probably would.

    Wearing a helmet for swimming strikes me as 1) highly unnecessary and 2) potentially lethal in itself.

    The helmet would restrict movement, vision, and add weight to the head, which is the part you need above the water to breathe.

    The primary solution to avoiding a head injury while swimming is to not dive into shallow water or water of unknown depth. Even in that case, the injuries tend to be spinal, and not skull fractures, so a helmet wouldn’t help anyway.

    I used to wear inline skates to get around when I went to DeAnza College. I always wore a helmet, elbow and knee pads, and fiberglas wrist guards. They saved me from serious injury more than once, as the campus is an unpredictable environment of blind turns, campus vehicles, and steps and other sharp drops that can be dangerous. I even encountered one women who said “You’re smarter than I was” for wearing protective gear. Sure it looks stupid, but it’s better than cracking your skull.

    Just wish I’d had a butt protector for all the times I fell on my behind. 🙂

  22. In answer to queries: yes, the article referred to my home county of Essex, England, and the reference to “football” means soccer.

  23. Mike Rentner wrote

    “Neither I nor my friends wore helmets when bicycling and we’re all fine.”.

    Great reasoning, Mike: in situtation A, nothing bad happened to me, therefore situation A is safe. (the converse is equally weak–in situtation A, something bad happened to me, therefore situation A is always dangerous).

    Helmet wearing (and other public health measures such as seatbelt wearing) require large numbers for analysis.

    Anne Haight wrote

    Protective gear should be commensurate with the risk involved. Riding a bike around your neighborhood is probably not going to require a helmet. Riding a bike down Almaden Expressway probably would.

    That is a misunderstanding of the risk factors. The risk actual equal, if you look at the data.

  24. Richard Brandshaft says:

    “Parents need to use their brains and take responsibility, but not overprotect their kids.”

    Overprotect your kids, and they’ll grow up to be psychological cripples. The less you protect them, the greater the chances they won’t grow up at all. Reading about these trade-offs makes me less regret not having had kids.

    When I was a kid, it was considered normal for kids to play with fireworks around the 4th of July. Every year, a few kids would lose eyes or fingers in fireworks accidents. This was considered reason for an occasional feature article urging caution, but I don’t remember any suggestion that fireworks be banned.

    As time goes on, as our society gets more humane, we find less and less risk acceptable. In general, I consider this a good thing. Conservatives are wired differently.

  25. I wonder what the rate of bike-related head injuries is in the Netherlands: when I lived there, everybody rode bicycles (fietsen) everywhere, including small, small children, on major streets in big cities (although they do have extensive bike trails, at times it is still necessary to be on the main road). Nobody ever wore helmets.

  26. Richard Brandshaft says:

    I just got back from Denmark. Same there. It surprised me. I think of Scandinavia as ultra-civilized; I expected a greater emphasis on personal safety. Maybe the risk isn’t that high. But I’ll keep on wearing a helmet anyway.

  27. Rita C. says:

    With google, why wonder? I managed to find a study done at Tufts. It compared safety measures employed by cyclists in Boston, Paris, and Amsterdam. It noted that in the U.S., we think of bicycle safety in terms of helmets, and in Europe, they think of it in terms of traffic rules, appropriate bike lanes, etc. In answer to the death question, here is what the study states:
    Exhibit 5 shows death rates from cycling in the United States, the Netherlands, and France. In the U.S., there are 3.1 deaths per million population compared to 5.6 in France and 17.7 deaths per million in the Netherlands.

    However, the numbers aren’t as clear-cut as they look. Because the Dutch bicycle in such large numbers, their safety record is actually quite good when you take that into account. The study concludes that their focus on safety factors other than helmets is effective, but that if they used helmets and lights, they would probably further reduce injuries and deaths.

    Personally, I don’t see what the big deal is about wearing a helmet, probably because of my horsie background (and the emphasis on bike helmets has really driven the cost of equestrian helmets waaaay down — the helmet that cost me $75 15 years ago is now about $25.. yay!).