For prevention of forest fires, there was Smokey the Bear. In the water, there was Walter Safety. In the city, there was Elmer the Safety Elephant. Children of my generation certainly had no shortage of safety mascots. Were we any safer than previous generations - or subsequent ones? Were we happier? Or at least, more happy-go-lucky?

In a recent entry, I paid tribute to Patty Duke and mentioned an article I had saved in an old scrapbook. On the back of that scrapbook, a smiling Elmer reminded children of his six safety rules. Those rules have been reworded and re-illustrated since then and a seventh rule regarding seat belts and safety restraints in cars has been added, but apparently the Elmer program is still going strong as Elmer approaches his 70th birthday - right down to the little flags that may be flown by schools where there have been no traffic accidents involving their kids over the past 30 days.

That was interesting to me for a couple of reasons. First, I can't remember seeing an Elmer flag on a school flagpole in many years - maybe even decades. Does that reflect the fact that there are a lot more traffic accidents nowadays, or does it simply mean that there are fewer schools participating in the Elmer program? Or maybe they're participating in other ways, perhaps with computer games rather than flags and cuddly plush toys? You know, even back in the 80s or 90s. folklorist Phil Tilney expressed scepticism on CBC radio about the fact that the Elmer flag would come down for a month if a student was injured, dismissing it as some sort of an urban legend. But it definitely happened at the elementary schools I attended!

Secondly, given all the safety measures these days that are actually required by law, it would seem intuitively logical to me that there should be MORE safety mascots out there, not fewer, and they should be higher-profile than they were in my generation. These days it often seems to me that it's Safety First, Safety Last, and Safety Everywhere In-between. Are we still able and allowed to have fun? To lead an active lifestyle without constantly looking over our shoulder for the policeman to leap out of the bushes and arrest poor old Paul Soles? Is there still room for good judgement and the human factor, for assessing our own (and our children's) personality, level of skill, maturity, risks of the activity itself, etc., and then governing ourselves accordingly?

I definitely think things like bike helmets are a good thing, regardless of what the law says. But I also think there's a huge potential danger in putting too much of our faith and trust in laws and automated safety features and the like. Remember that old-fashioned saying "God helps those who help themselves?" As an atheist or agnostic who moves largely in secular circles, I might replace the word "God" with something like "Nature", but I agree with the basic idea. We need to harness our inner resources and human qualities rather than letting our judgement and problem-solving skills atrophy because we have a false sense of security about mindless and often quirky safety features. The laws and safety features are the tools we use to achieve certain objectives, so we shouldn't be at the mercy of them.

We also need to encourage our children to gradually hone their problem-solving skills, their judgement, and their capacity to take sensible risks if warranted (the old "nothing ventured, nothing gained" adage). This does, of course, take time. And yet, our social, legal and safety infrastructure does not necessarily take this into account. Independence is a process, not a birthday or a bar/bat mitzvah or a driver's licence or any isolated event, as any experienced parent will tell you.

I was struck by an article in Tuesday's paper with the alarmist headline "Study Finds 30% of Children Neglected". But after reading through the article itself, I decided the reality was rather different. Yes, quite a number of parents "sometimes" leave children aged 10 to 15 home alone. Well, by the age of 13 or 14, lots of kids are themselves babysitting. Does that mean that if you let your kids babysit before they're 16, you're automatically neglecting them? There's no mention of how LONG they were left alone, whether it was day or evening, what sort of neighbourhood they were in, how mature the kids were, and so on.

I've also been struck while watching various TV shows like Coronation Street by all the relatively old children - say, 10 or 11 or 12 - who have to be taken to school and brought home afterwards. That would have been unheard of when I was a kid, unless there were special circumstances. Even when I was in kindergarten, I was walking there and back again by myself after the first few days or weeks. And I'll readily admit that I wasn't the most mature 5-year-old out there!

I think we do our children a grave disservice if we insist until they're 13 or 16 or 18 that they mustn't do ANYTHING without adult supervision and then once they've reached that magic age, we suddenly give them all the freedom they think they've always wanted but now don't know what to do with! Come to think of it, maybe that's why half the 13-year-old girls on Coronation Street seem to get pregnant!

Is the world just more dangerous than it was a generation or two ago? Have we as a society become more paranoid? Are we losing or devaluing our humanity?

I don't know. But let's not forget that to a great extent, our job as parents is to ultimately put ourselves OUT of the job.
And just as importantly, will we ever find out which it was?

A 25-year-old Thurso father has been charged with aggravated assault of his six-week-old daughter, after the baby was removed from the home and rushed to hospital in critical condition. She later died.

It's possible that the father wilfully shook her, intending to kill her or inflict serious damage. Possible, but not very likely.

More plausible is that he did in fact shake the child a little. I know that's a stupid thing to do, but I can see how it might have happened. Maybe he was frustrated because she was crying. Or maybe he had actually done all the recommended things, including CPR, to an already unconscious baby, and the shaking was a last-ditch attempt to evoke some sign of life.

Or maybe he is totally innocent of any wrongdoing. Maybe there was some underlying and previously undiagnosed condition whose symptoms mimic those of shaken baby syndrome. She did after all have the distinct advantage of having a next-door neighbour who's a paramedic. And she was still alive when she reached hospital, yet all the expertise and technological gadgetry of the highly-regarded Ottawa children's hospital were unable to save her. SIDS happens!

And let's face it, the "experts" often get things wrong too. When my daughter was a baby, those experts said that you should never put a baby down on her back, because if she spat up in her sleep - as even the most expertly-burped baby is apt to do - she might choke to death. Nowadays, the experts say that you SHOULD put a baby down on his back - or at least, not his stomach - because the tummy-down position is linked to an increased risk of SIDS! As far as I know, the side-sleeping position is not deemed dangerous, but maybe with the next generation, that too will be demonized!

I would hope that next week's autopsy will shed some light on the mystery of the baby's much too early death. I hope the poor man is exonerated. And I hope that if he ever does father more children, he won't have the police and child welfare authorities constantly breathing down his neck!!
With the advent of 2015, I'm sure a few new measures and price changes kicked in automatically, though I don't know at this point what they all are.

Federally, of course, this is an election year, which means the Tory regime is scattering a few little goodies and promoting its economic action plan with our tax dollars.

They've come under a lot of criticism for finally allowing income splitting for parents of young children, the argument being that only a few, already fairly well-off couples will actually benefit from it. Personally, I'm in favour of it - I just think it should be extended to ANY family who might wish to take advantage of it. After all, the family is still the most fundamental unit of society - and I hasten to add that I define "family" in the broadest sense of the word - as S. Bear Bergman so eloquently put it, folks connected by "blood, marriage, wine or glitter".

For similar reasons, I think the rationale for giving money to parents to choose their own child care arrangements (as opposed to only subsidizing licenced child care centres) is a sound one - as long as it's not misrepresented as a comprehensive solution to the myriad child care challenges that young families typically face.

Speaking of various types of families, I definitely thought it was a hopeful sign when two girls in grade six at a Catholic school were (after a bit of a battle) allowed to do a human rights project on gay rights, with an emphasis on bullying in the schools. This, added to the formation of gay-straight alliances in many schools under both the public and Catholic boards, at least represents some progress.

One of the pronouncements that caused me some dismay in 2014 came, surprisingly enough, from someone for whom I actually have the greatest of respect - Alex Munter. He would have made a wonderful mayor - better than our current one and certainly many times better than our mayor's immediate predecessor, who actually managed to defeat Munter. But I have some serious reservations about his plan to somehow integrate Children's Aid workers with CHEO people in an effort, I guess, to be more holistic with their care. I don't know what that means in practical terms, but the announcement raised some red flags for me.

First of all, won't it make parents think twice about taking their kids to Emergency even when that might be the best course of action? It's stressful enough to have your child suddenly become seriously ill or get involved in an accident, without having the additional
worry that you'll be erroneously suspected of physical or sexual abuse, Munchausen's syndrome by proxy, or any number of other syndromes that you may or may not have heard of! If the parents take the kid in anyway, there's a very real risk that they won't get the kid out again - meaning considerable stress for child and parent alike. Alternatively, parents might either delay getting treatment or try to treat the problem themselves, possibly resulting in more harm than good.

Admittedly, I have a rather jaundiced view of Children's Aid, something that Alex Munter probably doesn't . And who knows? Maybe he can actually foster a more constructive understanding amongst the various parties who in most cases, genuinely believe they are acting in the best interests of the child. But I'm not very optimistic.

So often, it seems that the child welfare authorities over-intervene when intervention is not even warranted (thereby creating needless anguish for the whole family), and fail to intervene when it is. Like the ten (eleven?)-year old First Nations girl with leukaemia, whose parents will not consent to chemotherapy, even though it would give the girl a 90% chance of survival. Instead, they have sent her to a clinic in Florida for "traditional" aboriginal therapy which seems to be neither particularly traditional nor particularly aboriginal.

Certainly the situation calls for considerable sensitivity. The ideal result would be that the family would sit down with the doctors and social workers and agree that with a good track record behind it, chemotherapy would be worth a try. Perhaps certain traditional healing methods could be used in conjunction with, rather than instead of, the conventional medical treatments.

But if that's not possible and appointing an interim guardian becomes necessary in order to save the girl's life, then at least it should be someone already known to, and trusted by the girl, likely a fairly close relative.

At her age, she should also have some say in how things will unfold. Still, if she rebels against getting a treatment with a 90% chance of success, I still believe she should be overruled if need be. However intelligent she may be, she may nonetheless lack the long-term perspective that an older person would have. Short-term pain for long-term gain? When you've only been around for ten or eleven years and you're in constant pain and misery, it may feel as if things will never get better. But they probably will, if the treatment is allowed to take place.
In recent weeks, with the summer heat upon us, we have seen a disturbing upsurge in the number of cases of children and pets left in hot cars, sometimes with fatal consequences. Clearly, some folk need to be educated about the dire impact of extreme heat on young nervous systems. Many more probably just need better systems for jogging their own memories, so that they don't absent-mindedly drive off to the office, forgetting about the kid in the back seat whom they were supposed to drop off somewhere en route. Over the last few decades, all kinds of "safety" measures have been adopted in the automobile industry, many aimed at making that smartcar smarter than you are. Have they done more harm than good?

When I was a kid, cars didn't have lap-belts or shoulder-belts, let alone airbags. Air conditioning? Forget it! Interestingly enough, I did have a carseat, at least until I was about two or three. It hooked over the front seat, in the middle (yes, cars usually had bench-style seats in the front, so you could comfortably seat three people), where both my parents could keep an eye on me. The three older kids sat in the back, bickering over who had to sit in the middle over the big floor-bump. The doors did lock, but there was none of this instant locking business to keep children from escaping once the doors were closed. And in summer time, sans air-conditioning, we usually travelled with all the windows wide open, so a child who was so inclined could easily have escaped. I don't recall ever trying, though I did sometimes clamber over the front seat to get from the back into the front, or vice versa. And apparently I did once toss a pair of running shoes out an open window while we were barreling along some high-speed road or other. And yes, once I was about six or seven, I think I did sometimes get left in the car while mum or dad ran into the store to get something. The point is, I could easily escape if I wanted to.

In the first place, the car windows would be wide open. I wasn't strapped into a carseat by that age and I knew where the doorlocks and doorhandles were so I could easily get out of the car if I felt overheated or impatient. Not that I'm saying it's a good idea for a young child to get out of a car and wander around a busy parking lot, you understand! And of course, if we're talking about pets, most pets (Ikea monkeys notwithstanding) don't have the wherewithal to open car doors.

Then too, it was a more innocent time. Many people didn't bother locking their house doors during the day, let alone their cars. And there didn't seem to be the same hysteria about sexual abuse or abduction of children by strangers or noncustodial parents. Sure, I got the standard admonitions like "Don't talk to strangers." And as I was a rather literal-minded child, I'm sure a lot of kindly adults in the neighbourhood (who were still strangers to me) or salesclearks in shops were a bit bemused as to why I was so timid and fearful and often wouldn't even reply to a direct question! But nowadays, in this age of "helicopter parenting", is it possible that some folks are carrying perfectly normal apprehensiveness to paranoid extremes?

It doesn't help, of course, that parents are often parenting in a kind of fishbowl, always worrying that if they utter a harsh word to a child, or swat the kid on the bum after he's just trotted in front of a still-moving car, or if they've dressed the baby in a jacket that looks just a teensy bit too light-weight for a cold winter's day, that maybe someone will call Children's Aid on them and junior will be hustled off to a foster home and eventually adopted, whereupon they won't set eyes on him until he's twenty-one - if then!

So are cars and drivers and children in vehicles safer than they used to be? At least back then, people didn't talk on cell-phones or text while driving! The specific risks out there may vary a bit from one generation to the next, but I suppose they're always there and you just have to decide how great they are.
Until the past year or so, when I found myself in the perhaps-enviable position of not needing to lose any weight, I never realized the extent to which we are bombarded with weight-loss messages. On TV, it's Dr. Bernstein, Herbal Magic and Weight Watchers. The most popular magazines, particularly "women's magazines" like Chatelaine and Canadian Living, are loaded with health columns and recipes promoting weight loss. Turn on the news and you hear about government proposals to ban extra-large soft drinks or make junk food a controlled substance unavailable to anyone under the age of 18.

Apparently, 62% of Canadians are now overweight or obese. So having excess weight is now the RULE, not the exception. I don't dispute that a lot of health issues are correlated with being too fat, although I also think it's possible to confuse cause and effect. And surely we should be concentrating on eating a healthy diet and maintaining a reasonable level of physical activity, rather than focusing all our attention on the numbers on the scale.

And what I REALLY have to wonder is this: Especially given that the MAJORITY of us are overweight, why do we persist in treating fatness as a character flaw, or even the mark of a fundamentally bad person? Or a bad dad?

A 38-year-old Ottawa man has not seen his two sons, aged four and six, in a year. A judge ruled yesterday that they would be put up for adoption - mainly, it seems, because the man is obese and therefore deemed to be an unfit parent. The man has evidently shown a considerable amount of self-discipline and determination, managing on his own, through exercise and a healthy diet, to drop to 340 pounds from 525.

One wonders how much we, the taxpayers, have been paying to keep these two boys in foster care this past year, with a single mother with five other children. She may be managing perfectly well, of course, but meanwhile there's the natural father, willing and ostensibly quite able to care for them at no additional cost to the state. In fact, if we were to give the dad even half, or a quarter of what the foster mother is being paid for their care, that would no doubt make the family's life a lot easier right there, as well as saving money. A win-win situation, you would think.

As I've mentioned before, there's no freedom of speech or of the press when it comes to child welfare and wards of the state. They mustn't be identified in the media. But this man is talking about staging a hunger strike on Parliament Hill beginning tomorrow, to publicize his plight. After all, he has nothing to lose except weight.

An Ottawa-based survivor of foster care has put together an excellent website where you can read about some of the issues surrounding the child welfare system in Ontario. Amongst other initiatives is a lobby to have decisions of Children's Aid Societies appealable to the Ontario Ombudsman. It would be an important step towards greater accountability. See the following sites for more information:

http://www.afterfostercare.ca
http://fostercarenews.blogspot.ca
http://fostercare.proboards.com

and for a fascinating but scary video and reaction to it:

http://about.blakout.ca ("Voices silenced by fear")
What's the difference between a hoarder and an environmentalist? Well, I suppose it's a question of degree.

If you permanently stash your dishes in the oven, your plants in the bathtub and your tropical fish in the toilet bowl so that you can't answer a call of nature in the way that nature or modern civilization intends, then chances are you're a hoarder. But for the generations that remember the Great Depression or wartime and postwar austerity measures like rationing, and as a result are loath to discard things that can be repaired, renovated or repurposed, I'd say you were probably an environmentalist long before environmentalism entered the mainstream lexicon.

On March 31, an article in the Ottawa Citizen bore the headline "CAS removes children from hoarder's home". The alleged hoarder in this case was the children's grandmother, and the children consisted of a two-year-old girl and her two brothers, aged eight and eleven. All three children were seized earlier this year but the two boys have apparently been returned to their grandmother's care, while the girl is to remain in a foster home.

I would be curious to know why the boys, who had apparently been living quite happily with their grandmother for eight years before their apprehension, were considered eligible to return, while their sister was not. Frankly, I suspect it's because they were able to verbalize their wishes more effectively. Most two-year-olds are familiar with the word "no" but if you asked them to elaborate, few would be able to respond all that eloquently.

There is no word as to where the children's parents are in all of this, or even whether they are still living. Surely, though, a grandparent would in most cases be a good choice for providing some much-needed stability and continuity in these children's lives.

Or maybe not. But the point I would make here is this: WE'LL NEVER KNOW. Freedom of speech is not an absolute. Wards of state must not be named in the media. Child welfare cases are shrouded in secrecy. We have no choice but to fund the Children's Aid Society through our tax dollars (which, among other things, pay for that offensive series of TV commercials along the lines of "Meghan is YOUR Children's Aid!") Yes, I am sure they do some good things. But when they do not, when they ruin children's lives, just who exactly can be held accountable?

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