The recent, widely-publicized episode of the hair-eating Cabbage Patch doll brings back into public consciousness the perennial issue of the safety of children’s toys. Like similar scares in recent years, such media focus on a particular product heightens parental anxiety about all the toys they have purchased for their offspring.
This worry–whether about Cabbage Patch dolls in particular or kids’ toys in general–is largely misplaced. I don’t mean that toys never harm children; obviously they do, despite the best efforts of toy manufacturers and consumer watchdog groups. But the harm done to children by toys, even to those at the ages most vulnerable to toy-based injuries (especially the under fives), pales by comparison with other items around the house which parents, ironically, are less apt to worry about.
To see what I mean, ponder some recent data from the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).
They show that the probability that a child under five will be seriously injured by a toy this year is about one in 250. If that seems on the high side, consider the fact that a child is eight times more likely to be seriously injured by home furnishings and fittings. Stairs alone are responsible for three times more injuries to infants than all toys combined. Chairs injure 50% more young children than toys. Doors around the house injure more children than toys–so do accidental drug poisonings. Still worse, the severity of injuries from these other sources tends to be much greater than toy-related injuries are. Kid’s bows and arrows, for example, prove far less daunting in the statistics than one might first think.
The fact is that parental preoccupation with toy safety–aided and abetted by media fixation with toy dangers–displaces attention from many of the factors that are most likely to do harm to little Johnny or Susie. Some parents are apt to suppose that, provided their tots’ toys pose few threats, parental vigilance around the house can be put on autopilot.
What the data from the CPSC make clear is that–if our interest is in minimizing threats to life and limb of our children, especially the younger ones–we need to look for improvements outside the area of toy design and manufacture. We must think about how to design household furniture and fittings so as to make them more young-user-friendly. Architects and builders need to figure out how to build safer stairways. Parents need to keep infants out of parental beds, which are responsible for far more infant injuries and deaths than purpose-built cribs are.
The silliness of this obsession with the safety of toys becomes even more apparent as our focus shifts to children beyond the stage of infancy, especially in the 5-14 age group. There the annual risk of toy injury hovers around one in 1,000, while other risks increase dramatically.
For instance, a child in this age group is 10 times more likely to be injured playing basketball, football, or baseball than by anything they might find in the toy chest. As I have suggested on other occasions, sports constitute the single largest source of injury to young Americans.
If we were serious about injury reduction, we would stop worrying about toys and focus on what our youngsters are doing on the sand-lot, the basketball court, and in the living room.
A postscript: Just before we went to press, Mattel–in conjunction with the CPSC–announced a “voluntary” nationwide recall of its hair-eating dolls. This, despite the fact that, as the CPSC acknowledged: neither Mattel’s nor CPSC’s testing of the product had identified a serious safety hazard associated with the dolls. Mattel’s chief executive officer, added: “If any of our products are causing concerns, we are committed to responding in a responsible manner.” At a $40 refund per pop, this amounts to about $50-$100 million for a product that, to the best of anybody’s knowledge, has never caused serious harm.