It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Risk me not

“Mary, my hood!”

Tyler struggles to pull his hood back up over his head. It’s a blustery day, and though the sun is warm, the wind is not. He needs his hood up.

Only it won’t stay up. Over and over again we pull it up over his wind-tossed blond mop, and over and over it’s quickly blown back off again. On a windy, blustery day, when the warmth and protection of a hood would be greatly appreciated, it won’t stay up. It can’t. It has no drawstring.

There are few things more pointless than a hood without a drawstring. Why bother? Really? Why tantalize us with the possibility of a hood? Because that’s all a hood without a drawstring is — a theoretical hood. A virtual hood. Looks like you have one, but really? You don’t.

I know why hoods for toddlers no longer have drawstrings. It’s a strangulation hazard, particularly on slides. Now there’s an unpleasant image: your poor little guy/girl halfway down the slide, with the toggle of the string wedged somehow at the top.


Not something we want to happen!

So the solution is to ban drawstrings altogether? Not to take the hoodie off, wear a different sweater, tuck the strings inside? No, none of that! We just WON’T HAVE THEM AT ALL!!!

And so Tyler is chilly and uncomfortable, because his parents naively thought that his hood was, well, functional.

If there’s anyone reading this whose child has died tragically because of a drawstring, you have my heartfelt sympathy. My complaints are not intended to diminish anyone’s loss, nor to put blame where it doesn’t belong. Any parent who has lost a child in such a way is probably putting all the blame required, and then some, on themselves anyway. I can’t imagine the devastation. When you balance the inconvenience Tyler is experiencing against true tragedy… well, there’s no comparison, is there?

“If it would save even one child’s life, it’s worth it!” we declare. And who can argue with that sentiment? Well, the sentiment is sound, but…

But what are the risks, really? In 2004 in the US, six children died, and 673 were injured in cars EVERY DAY. I don’t see anyone banning children from cars. Whyever not? It would save far more than ONE child’s life; we could be saving hundreds. Thousands, over time. But, every day, we keep putting children into cars. Every time you put your child in a car, you are putting him/her at risk.

And do we give it a second’s thought? Nope. Do we hesitate in the driveway, pause before we pop the child in, feel that frisson of worry, of unease? Do we take a second to consider if this trip really is worth the risk? Nope. We pop the child in the carseat and drive off in complete expectation of arriving at our destination without incident.

We don’t think about it, and we don’t ban kids from cars. Instead we have rules. Rules against drunk driving, rules about car seats, airbags, and where children can sit in a car. In short, we manage the risk. The not inconsiderable risk.

But those DRAWSTRINGS???? Do away with them! Totally and forthwith! Far too risky!!!

Methinks we are not being entirely rational or consistent here…

There have been approximately 22 deaths by drawstring in the US… since 1985. I’m not sure when that stat was published but that’s probably in the order of one a year… vs six per day for cars.


I am not saying we should ban children from cars. (Though you might consider walking anyplace less than a mile from home. Just a thought. Good for you, good for the environment!) Cars are not just a fact of life, they’re very often essential. So we do what is sensible, and manage the risk.

Why not let us manage the risk — the far, far, faaaaar lower risk — of drawstrings?

Tyler would be very grateful.

I’m curious. This is a pet peeve of mine. Are there any risk-avoidance strategies that drive you crazy?


June 6, 2011 - Posted by | controversy, health and safety | , , , ,


  1. Of course, you can still have a drawstring, but have a plastic keep on each end so that, when pulled tight, it keeps in place until you release it. It isn’t long enough to tie, so that risk is eliminated but the hood still works.

    I’ve never understood why pills in jars have to have a child-proof lid that many less dextrous people can’t open (so leave the lid off, defeating the object) but pills in bubble packs are not only easy to remove, but temptingly enjoyable for a child.

    Comment by Z | June 6, 2011 | Reply

    • Ah, but then perhaps wee ones would find a way to choke on the plastic keep! AND DIE! Sigh. *I* think it’s a fine idea, but I can see the silly arguments from the zero-riskers.

      I actually do try to put my nine-year-old (and myself, for that matter) in a car as little as possible. But I do let her climb trees, play on rope swings, and roam around the neighbourhood with her friends…

      Zero-riskers… Even if it were possible to keep our children 100% free of risk, it seems to me their lives would be so void of interest and stimulation as to be barely worth living. Nor would they emerge from their childhoods in any way prepared for the risks that exist in the big old world out there. My conclusion? Doing your utmost to prevent your child experiencing any sort of risk puts them at risk.

      Comment by Robyn | June 6, 2011 | Reply

      • Exactly! Part of the pleasure of parenting is watching your kids become functional, independent humans, I figure.

        Comment by Robyn | June 7, 2011

  2. Read Margret Wente in the Globe this weekend on dangers of cell phones – I could not agree with both of you any more!

    Someone else recommended that article to me. I need to check it out!

    Comment by Darcy's Mom | June 6, 2011 | Reply

  3. Since becoming a mother, I have found new heights of worry. I notice every little risk and danger (and often blow it waaaay out of proportion!) and try to manage it… it’s what I do. But risk is a part of life that we can’t get rid of. I think our society is way over the top about trying to eliminate every possible (no matter how minute) risk in life. It simply can’t be done. We have to live with it. Going along with that, death and injury is a part of life as well. Not to say that I wouldn’t be completely heartbroken to loose a child or my spouse, it happens. Every day. And we don’t actually have control over it. We can be very careful about some things, but then there’s always something else that we didn’t even think of (drawstring danger never actually occurred to me!). And knowing that God is in control of life and death definitely helps me to let go of the worry.

    What I’m saying is– over-management of risk in general is a pet peeve of mine! Life is dangerous, and we have to live with it.

    Agreed. As I said to Robyn, even were it possible to remove all risk from our children’s lives, what would that accomplish, except render them utterly unprepared for the risks they will encounter? Which strikes me as a very bad parenting strategy, in the long run…

    Comment by rosie_kate | June 6, 2011 | Reply

    • (Um, sorry… awful lot of typos, there. Proofreading, much? Maybe I should slow down a notch or two…)

      I’d blame it on sleep deprivation. Or pregnancy brain.

      Comment by rosie_kate | June 6, 2011 | Reply

  4. Try getting some elastic head/sweat bands. Put the hood up, then put the head band around the top.

    That solves the immediate problem, for sure. It’ll look a little dorky, but at least he’ll be warm!

    Comment by Odie | June 6, 2011 | Reply

  5. Forgive me being incredibly cynical for a moment.

    Humans are incredibly bad at managing risk, so in general are afraid of whatever the corporations tell them to be afraid of, which is in turn those things that the corporations think will save them the most in lawsuits.

    A kid dying from a drawstring? Much more likely to result in a lawsuit than a kid dying in a car, which can be reasonably ascribed to so many more factors than faulty manufacture of the car.

    I’m not so sure if we’re so bad at managing risk once it’s identified, but we are spectacularly bad at evaluating risk. Judging from your comment, I think you would really enjoy Dan Gardner’s book, Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear. Excellent analysis and very sensible conclusions.

    Comment by Heather Freeman | June 6, 2011 | Reply

  6. Your post reminds me of something I read a couple of years ago about driving vs. flying in the wake of 9/11, and how fear in the wake of 9/11 led to more deaths because people drove more and flew less, even though flying is safer. I don’t know where I originally read this (I actually think I first heard it on NPR), but a google search took me here —

    Your post definitely hits a nerve with me, as western society regularly engages in such illogical risk avoidance. I usually think of it in terms of crime. There’s less of most types of crime than there was a generation ago (with exceptions such as identity theft), but news (TV especially, but also papers) focuses on it because it sells, not just because people are drawn to it, but because it literally sells products — home alarm systems, Lo-Jacks.

    Agree entirely! The example of post-9/11 changes in flying vs driving habits is the first chapter (or perhaps the introduction) to the Dan Gardner book I cited to the above commenter. Gardner actually comes up with a number, something in the order of 1500 deaths that could be directly attributed to people evaluating the risk backward and choosing to drive rather than fly. I’m recommending it to you, too: I think you’d really enjoy it!

    Comment by argo0 | June 6, 2011 | Reply

    • Yes, that’s the book. I never did read it, but as you can tell, that one anecdote at the start of it that got reported has stuck with me. Maybe I’ll try to read that book next (I need some beach reading for when I head there in 2 weeks), thanks.

      Comment by argo0 | June 6, 2011 | Reply

  7. I have the same thought with sweatpants for children that LOOK like they have drawstrings but are really just sewn in place to have the appearance of drawstrings. I have a kid who has NO butt, every single pair of pants he owns falls around his knees, we use belts, we use the adjustable waist dohickeys and we finally resorted to suspenders.
    While I appreciate that there is some inherent risk, I realize that I risk my children EVERY day when I drive to daycare. I just want his pants to stay up.

    “I just want his pants to stay up.” Made me laugh out loud. Are you sure, Dani? Isn’t that just selfish, to want something so frivolous when it could be putting your child at risk???

    Comment by Dani | June 6, 2011 | Reply

    • I just bought two pair of sweatpants for my skinny 6 y/o with false drawstrings. My mom was able to insert elastic into the waistband through the holes where the false drawstring came out so now they stay up.

      Comment by Rayne of Terror | June 13, 2011 | Reply

  8. Taking the responsibility for risk avoidance out of the hands of individuals is my pet peeve, period. Not letting children learn about how to assess, evaluate, and lessen risk makes, to my mind, for teenagers who are even more reckless than they would be anyway.

    The worst example ever was at my son’s elementary school this past winter. There was a large icy patch on the playground, and naturally the kids wanted to “skate” on it with their boots. The lunch monitors said they could only go on the ice on their knees (!!) because otherwise they could fall and hit their heads.

    Process that one, fellow Canadians. I was horrified. And made it my business every afternoon to take my kids (and the dayhome kids, too) outside for a good bout of sliding on my icy driveway.

    Learning to navigate ice is an essential winter skill. Really. I recall watching some tourists in Ottawa one January day, trying to navigate the snowy sidewalks. Now, these weren’t truly icy, but they had slick spots. I was striding along without any difficulty at all, while they were slithering, the women clutching their menfolk. Now, the women’s troubles could have been greatly reduced were they not wearing truly silly footwear, but it was clear that none of them had any idea how to evaluate the snow and ice and modify their walking accordingly. Not that I blame them for this: where they come from (Malaysia, I’d guess), it’s not a skill one has opportunity to develop, nor need of.

    It was watching them struggle where I walked with confidence that made me realize that I constantly evaluate a winter’s sidewalk: is that black ice, or simply wet asphalt? Does that snow hide ice? I look for rough spots and walk on them, avoiding too-smooth bits. If I judge the upcoming surface is slippery, I adjust my pace. No more striding out with a strong heel-strike, but shorter steps, with my weight more over my foot. This is all part of navigating potentially treacherous pavement, but I’d given no conscious thought to, prior to watching them. And it all comes down to experience… and a few falls to make me wiser!

    Comment by hodgepodge | June 6, 2011 | Reply

  9. Car seats, and the continual arguments between rear-facing until 1 year and 20 lbs, or extended rear-facing (ERF). They’re trying to pass a law where I live that kids have to be rear-facing until 2 years old.

    I, personally, think it’s madness. My oldest hated (HATED) being rear-facing. There was no ERF for us, as he would SCREAM uncontrollably for the entire car ride. If he fell asleep, he would scream upon waking. THAT is a hazard, and more likely to cause a car accident than just driving along with a not-screaming-baby would.

    As soon as that boy hit 20 lbs, probably 2 weeks before his 1 year birthday, we switched him around. He screamed for about 2 seconds until he saw the front of the car, and suddenly, he was ok.

    Oh, and we tried the gadgets that you hang over the back seat, to “keep the baby occupied” or whatever. No such luck.

    And my second baby, though he managed to not hate facing backwards, was too big by the time he was 1. At 11 months, he was wearing 2T clothing, and weighed 28 lbs. He outgrew the infant carrier at 4 months old, for crying out loud. So by 11 months, you can imagine how crowded he was facing backwards. So we turned him forward, and he’s much more comfortable.

    And don’t get me started on the whole carseat issue, too. There’s no way to eliminate death. I’m sorry. It absolutely sucks. But even wrapping our children in bubble wrap isn’t going to keep them from getting hurt.

    My guess is the reason your child cried was that he felt carsick. That’s what sitting backwards does to me. Even though I rarely actually vomit, I feel like it the entire time. Ugh.

    However, as far as car seats go, we must part company. Cars are intrinsically dangerous, and seatbelts and car seats are proven to save lives in crashes — in significant numbers. “Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for children ages 3 to 14“, with “32% of fatalities involving children who were unrestrained.” While yes, this means that 68% of fatalities involved children who were restrained, I wouldn’t refuse to take a safety precaution with that kind of success rate. Moreover, the younger the child, the more protection a car seat offers.

    It’s crazy-making to have a child scream and scream and scream… but we’re now balancing inconvenience vs significant risk. We tend to think cars are pretty much risk-free because most of the time we use them without incident. However, car accidents are the leading cause of death for children 3 to 14. This isn’t a once-a-year-maybe risk, as it is with drawstrings. This is thousands-a-year risk. Something that can reduce the likelihood of death, when such deaths occur at a rate of over 2000 a year, by a solid 30%? That’s worth doing.

    Comment by MJ | June 6, 2011 | Reply

  10. Removing all slides and monkey bars and anything fun from the school playgrounds because of the one kid who fell and broke his arm and the parents sued.

    Wouldn’t you like to sue those parents for spoiling everyone else’s fun?

    I also occasionally put my babies to sleep on their tummies because they slept better but always felt tremendously guilty about it. And I put a blanket in bed with them – the crib felt so barren without it.

    Thankfully my kids were born before blankets became an issue. They each have a beautiful blanket knit by a grandma, and a lovely quilt hand-stitched by a great-grandma. What a pity not to have used those labours of love!

    There is also the immunization issue. Do we really need to give babies so many shots when they’re so little?

    For this one, I believe the answer is ‘yes’. The risks to the individual, and to the group, is significant and measurable. For example, we don’t worry about whooping cough (pertussis) any more, but there was a time when it was a significant killer of infants. These days it seems quaint and archaic, and not a real risk… but that’s only because of vaccinations.

    Comment by Angie | June 6, 2011 | Reply

    • Oh, I’m not against vaccinations. But the increase from 1985 to 2005, when there was no increase in the diseases, is astounding. Why did we need to increase the number of shots when the currents ones were doing the job? I don’t want to sound the alarm and convince people to not get vaccinations but I think we were all scared into believing our kids needed as many shots as possible and as soon as possible. It’s really hard to know what to believe because there is a fear factor either way.

      Comment by Angie | June 11, 2011 | Reply

  11. Mary! When I was mowing our large lawn & pondering this-n-that, I came up with another solution to the nonfunctional hood issue! (Ok, the little one of the hood, not the big one of risk-aversion, but still.)


    You know, those small pieces of elastic with the clip on each end that is used to attach a mitten/glove to the end of a winter coat sleeve? Clip one end to each side of the hood, as tight/loose as necessary, & it should stay up!

    Comment by Ms. Huis Herself | June 7, 2011 | Reply

  12. You might be interested in the discussion here:

    One aspect that intrigued me was how *right* everyone feels they are.

    (I’m not a libertarian and I think the whole discussion is somewhat overly emotional, but as a mother who has come under attack for “needlessly risking my child” by allowing him to travel alone, so I do have a bias)

    Comment by Sylvia | June 18, 2011 | Reply

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