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.
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")

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