IMG_5456Last week was the Super Bowl, and one of the highlights every year are the commercials.  Nationwide Insurance gained notoriety for the commercial they ran which featured a dead child reflecting on everything he missed out on because he died in an accident.  The commercial has received lots of negative attention for very important reasons.

Spokespeople from the insurance company continue to stand behind the commercial, stating that the purpose was to raise awareness about the danger of household accidents. My intention was to post this letter one week ago immediately following the Super Bowl, but it took me days to put my thoughts on paper.  I have poured more hours into this single blog post than probably any post in the history of my blog. I believe that Nationwide did two critical things wrong in their commercial, which I address in my letter below.  The issues I raise in this letter are some of the most significant issues facing childhood.  Children need vocal advocates – here is my contribution on their behalf.

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Dear Nationwide Insurance,

Your Superbowl commercial missed the point. You said the purpose was to “start a conversation,” but the conversation we need to have about the state of childhood in America is different than the one you want to have. In fact, your commercial misses the point on so many levels and distracts us from what we should be discussing. However, I want to focus on just two problems with what you shared with America.

As you pointed out in your commercial, accidents are the leading cause of death in childhood. The death of any child – in the US or anywhere else in the world – is tragic, and no one disputes this. Historically speaking, however, children are safer than they have ever been, with drastic decreases in accidental deaths. We will all stay vigilant until childhood deaths from “preventable” accidents is zero, and we did not need your commercial to remind us to “Make Safe Happen.”

It is a shame you addressed the obvious but left the crucial conversation, the conversation that we must start having, unaddressed: how can we address of the quality of the lives of children in the United States? Let’s look at the numbers. The percentage of children under age 15 who are killed in an accident is 0.005%. Compare that with the percent of children who don’t have health insurance – 7.6% – or the percentage of children who live in poverty – 24%. To make it easier to conceptualize, let’s think about a group of 20,000 children.

  • 1 would die of an accidental death,
  • 1,520 would not have access to health insurance, and
  • 4,800 would live in poverty.

Again, the accidental death of a child is terrible, and when those accidents can be prevented through increased access to information, then we must increase access to information. But, there are much larger populations of children who are suffering (and dying) and these children desperately need outspoken advocates. We need to broaden our focus to the large percentage children whose daily lives are impacted through lack of health care and resources. Children in this category experience an increased risk of the following:

  • exposure to trauma, abuse, poor nutrition, and crime
  • living with poor health or chronic health conditions
  • limited access to quality educational facilities and services (including day care)
  • mental health problems
  • poor school attendance and academic outcomes
  • criminal and delinquent behaviors during adolescence

In addition to overlooking the biggest problems facing young children in America, you also use the wrong approach to solving the problem you are addressing.

Keeping children “safe” by bubble-wrapping them is not the answer. Without practice taking risks when the stakes are low, children do not develop the skills necessary to take risks when the stakes are higher.*

Playgrounds across the United States are removing swing sets because of the risks involved of being kicked in the head or falling off while swinging. What if we considered, instead, that watching for swings can be a helpful, lower-risk way to practice the eventual skills necessary for crossing the street?

Your website advises that to keep children safe from burns, children should be kept out of the kitchen. What if, instead, we considered time cooking with parents a valuable experience in learning the risks and dangers present in the kitchen, thereby raising children who can safely manage a stove as they grow into adolescence?

I would argue that your approach actually makes children less safe. Risk is an inevitable part of life, and will never be eradicated. Skinned knees and twisted ankles provide valuable information to a developing child about her/his physical limitations. Assuming that we can pad childhood enough to eliminate those bumps and scratches is not only foolish, but it is actually leading to children who have an underdeveloped sense for how to manage risk.

Your commercial capitalized on parents’ fears, misrepresented the actual dangers facing children, and abused parental desire to keep children safe without stopping to consider the developmental necessity of learning to take risks. Please, rethink your focus. Explore the other areas necessary for children to live full and healthy lives. In your quest to guarantee childhood safety, read some research about the necessary function of risk-taking for developing healthy adults.

It will take courage to champion the right of children to live lives of quality.
It will take courage to think more creatively about risk.
It will take courage, but children need advocates who see the big picture of childhood.

Sincerely,

Emily Plank
Early Childhood Consultant

*Recommended Reading:

In Defense of Childhood: Protecting Kids’ Inner Wildness by Chris Mercogliano
No Fear: Growing Up In A Risk-Averse Society by Tim Gill
Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood by Steven Mintz
Reclaiming Childhood: Freedom and Play in an Age of Fear, by Helene Guldberg
Article: “Cotton Wool Kids,” which is accessible it its entirety online.