Why my son will not be wearing a sledding helmet.

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Jan. 4 2011 12:30 PM

Hardheaded

Why my son will not be wearing a sledding helmet.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

A few months before our son, Isaiah, was born, my wife and I, as dutiful parents-to-be, attended a child-safety class at the local hospital. The instructor, an emergency room physician, seemed to see the world as a place you stop by briefly between visits to the hospital. Her message for parents: There will be blood. Her bleak vision of our future included an admonition I'd never heard before: that children should always, always wear helmets when sledding. Surely, this was over the top, I thought.

I was wrong. The advice reflected a nascent but real movement to require children to wear sledding helmets, and as the snow fell this winter, it moved beyond child-safety classes: There's been a blizzard of stories in the media about the serious risks of sledding. It's a campaign I see as the latest example of the new normal of childhood safety in America, where no parent is ever paranoid, because everything really is out to get your child.

But I shouldn't be glib. A lot of serious people think children shouldn't be allowed down a snow-packed hill without a helmet. A recent high-profile study in Pediatrics—the first long-term, nationwide research on the dangers of sledding—documented 20,000 sledding injuries a year, and the American Academy of Pediatrics is pushing the helmets (skiing helmets, usually). A bill in Massachusetts would make them mandatory. There's a seemingly good argument: Sledding on a crowded, icy slope, lined by trees or roads, can be extremely dangerous, especially if the ride crests at 25 mph. Sometimes things will end very badly: Of the sledding accidents involving children that wind up in the ER, fully one-third involve the head. Some of these result in serious trauma. Children have died.

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It's not easy—after the words "trauma" and "head" and "children"—to argue against helmets for sledding. Then again, arguing against helmets in modern America is always a fool's game: You'll be told—as was a poor commenter on Babble—"Why not, because it's too inconvenient for you to strap a helmet onto your kid? Something that takes like 2 seconds to do? What's the harm in wearing a helmet?" The phrase "what's the harm" is the parenting blogosphere's version of Godwin's Law: Sooner or later, all threads converge there.

The social imposition of safety—what's the harm—has its virtues. Helmets for children riding bicycles were unimaginable a few decades ago, when I was growing up. Now in many places, it's their absence that is unimaginable. That's a big cultural shift in a very short time, and many children have undoubtedly avoided serious injury because of it. But the creep of safety equipment doesn't always make sense. The Consumer Product Safety Commission now has to warn against wearing bicycle helmets on playgrounds, for example: Several children have died of strangulation after their helmets caught in playground structures.

The doctors, parents, and safety consultants advocating for sledding helmets argue that the activity is fundamentally like bicycling, which makes helmets a necessary protection for a potentially dangerous sport. And it is true that, among children, sledding injuries are slightly more likely to affect the head than bicycling accidents. But bicycling is often most dangerous because of cars, a variable that young bicyclists and their parents can't control (except by staying on the sidewalk, which is often illegal). Sledding, by contrast, involves risks that kids could and should be taught to manage: Go down feet first, and don't sled on crowded slopes or near roads or trees. The Pediatrics study itself suggests that the majority of injuries come from sledding "in areas with trees, fences, and light poles."

In other words, what's called for are more common-sense instructions from parents to their kids, not another layer of padding. And yet that's our default approach. The padding problem is all too apparent for cars: States pass increasingly strict regulations for car seats, even though some three-quarters of them are already used incorrectly. We strap our children in our improperly installed car seats for a half-mile ride to the store, even though the leading cause of death for toddlers is, well, car accidents. I've done this exact thing myself; I know it might be safer to walk, but I sometimes don't. It's an attitude to safety that's neatly self-cancelling.

When we bubble wrap children, in cars or on sleds, we forget what we really need to protect them from. Take the tricycle. In our neighborhood in Connecticut, kids on tricycles almost always wear helmets; in New Mexico, they're the law. Unlike sledding, the rationale isn't that tricycles are dangerous the way bicycles are. It's that early use is supposed to acclimate children to wearing helmets.

This might seem like a smart strategy—a child who's never been without a helmet is less likely to be bothered by it—but it teaches the simplistic, misleading lesson that tricycles and bicycles are equally dangerous. To me, making these distinctions is what's most important: I want Isaiah, who's almost big enough to reach a tricycle's pedals, to learn to tell serious risk from reasonable risk. This is the central problem of parenthood: I can't protect my son against everything. I have to teach him to protect himself. It's a hard enough task without confusing him about what's dangerous and what isn't.

Besides, I think there's a danger in requiring children to wear a helmet sledding. It's clear that if parents are required to buy helmets for children—and have them handy and remember them—fewer children will end up whizzing down a hillside. That's happened with bicycles: In a recent paper (PDF) on helmet laws, a pair of economists found that the new regulations were effective at preventing injuries, but they were also effective at preventing bicycling. In the wake of mandatory bike helmet laws, fewer children rode bikes. Given all the concern that children these days are often inside and inactive, and the looming health risks of childhood obesity, it seems self-evident that there's a risk to not bicycling or sledding.

It's only if you want to prevent injuries above all else that less or no sledding is a good thing. That's why doctors and safety experts aren't necessarily the best people to decide whether a helmet is necessary. At the very least, they shouldn't be the only ones, since their definition of risk—the one I encountered in our blood-soaked child-safety class—is just too narrow.

Dire warnings or no, I'm more worried that Isaiah won't sled than that he'll do it without a helmet. That's why, when he goes sledding for the first time outside of our laps, I'll look out for the trees, and the bumps, and the bigger kids with the snowboards. And then I'll kiss him on the head and push him down the hill. Not quite as hard as he wants.

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Nicholas Day's book on the science and history of infancy, Baby Meets World, was published in April 2013. Follow him on Twitter.

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