The only true good to come out of a snowstorm, as everyone knows, is sledding. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of sliding downhill on top of a piece of cheap plastic, and the hills in my town were full of kids this week, freed from the yoke of school, piled onto toboggans and inflatable tubes, whizzing over ice, soaring over snowbanks.
Not a single kid I saw was wearing a helmet. That’s insane. And I write this, not as a scold, but as a perp. I bundle my kids up so they look like the spawn of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow man. I check their delicate noses hourly for signs of exposure. But helmets generally don’t occur to me until I’m already out in the park, fending off a coronary attack as I watch someone narrowly veer past a tree.
It’s surprising that we’re here, given our state of bubble-wrap parenthood. Social worker Lisa Allee, injury prevention coordinator at the Boston Medical Center trauma department, remembers skiing down black-diamond hills as a child, “no helmet, no problem.” Today, she’s cheered that helmets are fairly standard on the slopes.
And bike helmets? They’ve largely gone from safety suggestion to a moral imperative. If your kid ventures out bare-headed to ride an eighth of a mile per hour on wobbly training wheels, you’re guaranteed the evil eye from the woman across the street.
Sledding is a lot scarier, when you think about it; you have scant control over direction, no awareness of what’s under all that snow, and, if you’re anything like my kids, a fierce inner demon telling you to go down the hill head-first. (Helmets don’t prevent concussions, Allee said, but they do prevent skull fractures, brain bleeds, and traumatic brain injuries.) Every year, a few people suffer awful injuries or death. In 2007, the Consumer Product Safety Commission estimated that 160,000 sledding, snowtubing, and toboggan-related injuries are treated at doctors’ offices and hospitals every year, adding up to some $4 billion in medical bills, legal fees, and time off from work. Some cities, facing liability charges, are starting to ban sledding in public parks entirely.
You might as well propose banning cupcakes and the Tooth Fairy; it’s never going to work. Even a bill to make helmets mandatory for sledders — proposed in Massachusetts a few years ago by a state senator whose district was the site of a bad crash — went nowhere.
But helmets have fans in many corners. One is Lenore Skenazy, the New York journalist turned guru of “Free Range Parenting,” who hosts the new show “World’s Worst Mom” on Discovery Life. Skenazy urges parents to let their kids take risks in order to develop resilience; her disciples sometimes run into trouble for granting independence. A “free range” family in Maryland is facing an inquiry from Child Protective Services for letting their 10- and 6- year-olds walk a mile home from a park — though, as Skenazy has pointed out, their chances of being injured in a car are far, far greater than their odds of being abducted.
Still, Skenazy is no slouch when it comes to safety. On Thursday, I asked her what she thought of sledding helmets, and she emailed me swiftly with a treatise. She’s all for them, along with bike helmets, snow helmets, and safety gear of all sorts. At baby showers, she gives fire extinguishers at gifts.
But she also issued a caveat. Once, at a conference on bicycling, she heard a speaker say that the combination of mandatory helmet laws and public service announcements “was making it look like biking was so outrageously dangerous, no one should ever try it without a neurosurgeon trailing behind.”
Mandate sledding helmets, she fears, and you’ll discourage kids from sledding altogether. Which, I gather, means more indoor time, playing Minecraft; more longitudinal risk of obesity vitamin D deprivation; more deranged parents.
Truly, we can’t win. But we can judge. We’re good at that. So here’s the real solution: Peer pressure. Organize hordes of helmeted kids to take over the slopes. Bring the evil-eye parents along! A speck of superiority; a morsel of shame. Things tend to pick up speed when they roll downhill.