March 1, 2013
Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council has recommended children no longer be allowed to blow out candles on birthday cakes. This recommendation is limited to daycare centers for now, and is supposedly because blowing out candles spreads germs. My first thought was that it might have been prompted by fears that open flames can be dangerous, especially since birthday candles are the only time most people will see open flames anymore, and one member of the Council happens to be Frankenstein’s monster and the rest of them see fire as "scary magic". Aren’t the germs going through an open flame? And isn’t it fine if kids are exposed to some germs? That’s the basis for most vaccines, after all. Any germ that survives an open flame is going to be seriously weakened and easy pickings for our immune system which will be better able to fight off those germs in the future.
Maybe the Council members have seen too many of those home videos where someone goes to blow out the candles and accidentally spits on the cake. Trust me: they can cut around that part, and, in most cases, I’m sure they do. Getting rid of the entire cake because of a little spittle would be a waste of good frosting, but that’s another story. Making it about the threat of germs-a claim which many doctors have dismissed as ridiculous, by the way–makes it sound less like the Council is genuinely concerned about health and more concerned about ruining yet another childhood rite. Eating raw cookie dough has been ruined by salmonella. The space program has been ruined by budget cuts. And playing with razor blades in the middle of the interstate has been ruined by disposable razors and concrete barriers. Even being able to walk to school alone, or even to go outside alone, has been ruined by kidnappers and child molesters. Are these people more prevalent than they were when, say, I was a kid, or is it just that we’re more aware of them now? When I was a kid we knew not to get in a stranger’s car or to take candy from a stranger, unless it was Halloween and it was still in the original wrapper, or if it was Dr. Leary offering it. We didn’t know what would happen to us, just that there were certain adults we just shouldn’t trust.
When I was a kid I would often wander off on my own, sometimes miles from home. There was a collection of condominiums, or maybe they were just low-rent houses, on the hill behind my house, and I’d spend hours wandering there and wandering the weedy vacant lot behind them. I knew there were some sketchy characters around-I was caricatured three times-although I never really knew what, specifically, might happen to me, although there was one time when a whiskery man who smelled like cheddar warned me not to hang around there after dark because that was when the werewolves and farriers would come out. Maybe it drove my parents nuts that they didn’t know where I was, but I don’t remember them saying anything. Maybe they knew I was relatively safe, especially since my dog would defend me, or maybe they knew that if anyone kidnapped me it would be less like Law & Order and more like The Ransom of Red Chief. Now it seems like parents are caught between wanting kids to get more exercise and stop spending so much time playing video games in their rooms and being deathly afraid of letting them go outside for any reason, and I have to admit I don’t blame parents. It seems like the vague threats of strangers have been replaced by horrifyingly explicit descriptions of what’s happened to children. Because I’m not a parent myself-unless you count my four-legged children, and their pediatrician and I have been unable to agree on whether they count-it’s difficult for me to get any objective sense of how big a problem this is, or how much has changed since I was a kid, though.
Maybe the overprotective "helicopter parent" is largely a myth promoted by the same people who tell us the horrifying details of what’s happened to abducted children-that is, journalists who operate under the principle of "If it bleeds it leads", or, with increasing frequency, "We’ve pulled the sheet back so you can see the horse’s entire head". I can also afford to be cavalier, to say, hey, kids should be allowed to go roaming alone, to disappear for hours to explore vacant lots filled with rusty syringes and broken bottles. If I were a parent I’m sure I’d be just as cavalier, saying, yeah, that’s a great idea for everybody except MY kids. Every time my kids were out of my sight I’d probably break into a cold sweat, knowing the grim fact that I suspect is constantly on the minds of every responsible parent. Statistically the chances of any child being abducted and harmed are, thankfully, small, but statistics aren’t any comfort when it happens to your child. I could imagine being constantly sick with worry over that, but I’d still let them blow out the candles on their birthday cakes.