Kids Stuff

Nick Gillespie's "Child-Proofing the World" (June) is a refreshing antidote to doomsayers who exaggerate the perils of childhood in the '90s and posit bigger government as the solution. But his discussion of divorce needs clarification.

It is true that, for the majority of children, most of the problems measured by researchers abate within two years after divorce. But the risk of long-term negative outcomes for kids after divorce is still twice that of children whose parents do not divorce. For medical problems, a factor that doubles a hazard is noteworthy even when a majority escapes the problem. For example, dietary cholesterol is thought to increase the risk of heart disease less than twofold, yet millions adjust their diets accordingly.

More significant, according to the best evidence, two out of three children from divorced homes suffer chronically poor relationships with their fathers that do not improve with time. Such alienation is cause for concern, particularly given the well-established finding that a good father-child relationship contributes substantially to children's moral, intellectual, and social development. Father absence is a greater predictor of crime than poverty.

The good news is that divorced parents can do a lot to improve their children's chances, particularly if the government will remove some roadblocks. In fact, REASON interviewee Eloise Anderson ("Hints from Eloise," June) touched on a solution. In discussing family law's bias against men, she said, "We have to rethink custody." I agree. A blueprint for such revision can be found in my book, The Custody Revolution (Simon & Schuster, 1992). Two proposals would help: 1) Privatize the resolution of divorce disputes through mediation. 2) Replace conventional sole mother custody with a presumption of joint custody. This would institutionalize the expectation that both parents maintain responsibility for their children. And it would safeguard children's birthright to two parents.

Richard A. Warshak
Clinical Professor of Psychology
University of Texas
Southwestern Medical Center
Dallas, TX

I found "Child-Proofing the World" very informative, and I pretty much agree with it. I'm a baby boomer and, as you noted, the world I grew up in was different from the one my boys inhabit. I think I've done a fairly good job of resisting the child-proofing extremes so dominant today.

However, simply because the world is so much meaner than the one I grew up in, I cannot avoid child overprotection. Perhaps that even becomes indistinguishable from child-proofing at times.

But when I was a kid I could run all over town all day with my friends. My parents didn't really know where I was at times, but it wasn't so bad because all the other parents around had unspoken permission to exercise authority over me. I would not even think of letting my boys run around here the same way I did in the '60s–the societal stability that allowed that is gone.

Bruce Newman

Nick Gillespie replies: I thank Richard A. Warshak and Bruce Newman for their compliments. While Prof. Warshak is right to note increased risks for problems among children of divorced parents, I'm not convinced that such risks are analogous to medical risks. I should also note that it is not settled that father absence is a greater predictor of crime than social class; many criminologists maintain otherwise, or suggest a very complicated relationship between the two. And, while I find the summary of his book intriguing, I'm not sure that a presumption of joint custody would necessarily help children in divorce situations. A wide body of literature suggests that familial stress levels are the real cause of heightened risks of adjustment problems in children, regardless of parental status. (For a related discussion, see "Family Ways," p. 63.)

I sympathize with Bruce Newman's concerns. But whether the world is meaner than it used to be depends on a range of factors, including economic class and geography. My world growing up in suburbia in the '60s, '70s, and '80s was infinitely kinder to children than the impoverished urban areas in which my parents came of age; my son's world got much safer when his parents moved from a big city to a small town.

Sensitivity Training

I am writing to correct misstatements and misimpressions presented by your interview with John Stossel ("Risky Journalism," April). The individuals sent to me by ABC, Julie and Deborah Stone, were described as having received a brief exam when in fact they received a head-to-toe physical exam, which included a complete neurologic exam and a mental status exam. This is far more comprehensive than would be done for an individual on an annual physical. The interview neglects to mention that Julie first raised the question with me of whether she could get pregnant. Because serious endocrine disruption occurs in the majority of persons with chronic illness following chemical exposure according to test results on my patients, I recommended that she undergo further testing. I also told her that the only pregnancy that had occurred in my hundreds of patients with chemical sensitivity and chronic illness was in a very mildly ill high school student who became so seriously ill by the 10th week of pregnancy that the pregnancy was terminated by her Catholic obstetrician to save her life. The article mentions the charge for the service, but neglects to say that we spent four hours with each of these individuals.

The article states that Julie and Debbie answered the questions honestly. They have represented themselves to the public as being reasonably healthy. However, one of these supposedly healthy individuals, on her questionnaire, described constant mild to moderate pain in the neck, shoulders, back, arms, and stomach, saying that fumes made her nauseated and that perfumes gave her headaches and that she had "a lot" of problems driving a car in heavy traffic. She also said that several times a month she experienced weakness, headaches, muscle twitching, memory problems, dizziness, nasal, throat, and chest discomfort, hoarseness, and reduced bladder control. She states that she frequently had fatigue, that she often forgets what happens after a few minutes, and she often has fatigue so severe that she goes "into a coma on the weekends." She states she last felt well in the mid-1980s. She also states that she felt mildly to moderately sick when exposed to passive smoke, vehicle exhaust, pesticides, fresh paint, perfume, and natural gas. She described mild sickness with exposure to air fresheners, using self-serve at the gas pump, and reading a fresh newspaper. Is this the description of a healthy person?

The other supposedly healthy individual stated that she had daily headaches and pain for three months or longer in the knees, back, and neck. She also described chronic fatigue and said that several times a month or more she experienced dizziness, muscle twitching, visual changes, ringing in the ears, nasal congestion, hoarseness, chest discomfort, chest tightness, and abdominal discomfort. She said she often had sleep problems and was often easily tired. She described moderate sickness symptoms when exposed to passive smoke, vehicle exhaust, road tar, fresh paint, and perfume. She described mild sickness with exposure to air fresheners, self-serve gasoline, and fresh newsprint. She also describes having headache and/or nausea when exposed to car exhaust, drying paint, and perfumes, saying that she was much more sensitive to smells than she had been before. Is this a true statement of a healthy person?

Your article also does not address ABC's own conflicts of interest with regard to chemical sensitivity and chemically related illness. You neglect to mention that 20/20's executive producer, Victor Neufeld, is married to a P.R. person for the chemical and nuclear industries.

You minimize the importance of reducing exposures for individuals who are affected with chemical sensitivities, even though two surveys have now documented that reducing exposure is extremely important in reducing chronic illness in individuals with chemical sensitivity. You also do not mention that six other random surveys of U.S. adults, including urban and rural, young and elderly individuals, indicate that the prevalence of chemical sensitivity in the U.S. population appears to be about 15 percent, and the California survey indicates that 7 percent have been diagnosed as having MCS by a physician. I enclose a copy of my résumé listing many of my publications in peer-reviewed medical journals and my consulting for numerous governmental agencies, none of which was even mentioned by Mr. Stossel. Indeed, his MCS "expert," Dr. Gots, has never treated a chemically sensitive patient in his life and has not been a treating physician for any patient for the past 20 years, making him poorly qualified to comment upon any issues regarding the clinical management of chemically sensitive or other patients.

Grace Ziem, M.D.
Baltimore, MD

Jacob Sullum replies: Dr. Ziem's lengthy letter was apparently provoked by the two opening paragraphs of the introduction to my interview with John Stossel. Despite her verbiage, the closest she gets to citing a "misstatement" is her implication that Julie and Deborah Stone did not respond truthfully to her questionnaire. Although their "symptoms" seem impressive when strung together, they are quite ordinary upon closer examination. I know many basically healthy people who would have given similar answers.

The Stones were given 300 questions about real and hypothetical situations to answer, and they were told to classify as a "minor health problem" anything they would rather not experience, such as sitting next to smokers or being stuck in a freshly painted room. But when asked, "Does your current health significantly reduce your ability to do your job, housework, errands, chores, and/or other needed activities?", they both said no.

Whether their answers signify something that should be called "multiple chemical sensitivity" is the issue. Readers interested in learning more about the MCS controversy should see Michael Fumento's "Sick of it All" (June 1996). 

Airbags Aweigh Again

From reading John Merline's and Sam Kazman's letters criticizing my writing on airbags (June), you'd have not the slightest idea what I wrote, nor that I am by no means an airbag defender per se. What I have tried to do is bring a little sanity to the issue—with limited success. Merline writes that, "Under current government rules, many car owners are forced to pay extra for no benefit whatever. That's a point almost everyone, including [REASON Assistant Editor] Brian Doherty and Michael Fumento has missed."

I didn't miss it; I just didn't address it. I have written all of two columns on the subject, both concentrating on the hysteria that the popular media have stirred up. But were I to address it, I would point out that we constantly pay for regulations that don't benefit us individually but that (according to the regulators, at least) benefit some portion of the population. For example, any regulation I pay for that benefits only children doesn't apply to me since I am not one and do not have any.

Kazman writes, "Airbags are designed to satisfy not consumer demand but an across-the-board federal rule." Again, what's new? How often do we explicitly demand regulations? Instead, we usually speak in more general terms such as, "Make driving safer."

But pointing out silly arguments doesn't make me an airbag supporter. I have written that I was never in favor of making airbags mandatory, and that indeed I was in an accident in which my life was saved not by my airbag–which deployed after the vehicle stopped–but by my seat belt. What I deplored in my columns was the media hysteria that both Merline and Kazman celebrate. "Kudos to the reporters who explained [sic] these risks," wrote Merline, while Kazman went even further to say that "media hype…over airbags [is] to be applauded, not derided."

Really? Do we benefit from columnists who claim that a deploying airbag is the equivalent of slamming into a brick wall at 200 mph? Do we benefit from incessant USA Today coverage that leaves parents thinking that children are more likely to be crushed or decapitated by airbags than to contract chicken pox, with inch-high headlines like "Deadly Air Bags" and "Deadly Force: Air Bags are Claiming the Lives of Children"? Does that really contribute to intelligent public debate, or does it simply sell newspapers and incidentally aid knee-jerk anti-regulationists? Sorry, but media hype is never to be applauded. Never. And the only time one's knee should jerk is when it's hit below the patella with a rubber mallet.

Michael Fumento
Resident Fellow
American Enterprise Institute
Washington, DC

Brian Doherty replies: Michael Fumento's defense of his position on airbags allows me to correct and clarify a figure, given me by National Highway Traffic Safety Administration spokesman Timothy Hurd, that I cited in my response to Merline's and Kazman's letters (June). In his letter, Kazman had written that "for front-seat occupants aged 10 and under, the airbag raises the risk of death by up to 120 percent." I checked this with Hurd, who told me–mistakenly–that the increased risk was 22 percent, which I expressed as "around 20 percent."

Hurd was basing his figure not on the risk to kids under 10 but on the risk to those under 12, which is a significant difference; the risk to youngsters falls dramatically with each year they age. According to Table 2-14 of the NHTSA report "Fatality Reduction by Air Bags," the reduction in risk for kids under 12 is 28 percent (not the 22 percent Hurd stated).

Kazman's figure is derived from an analysis based on Table 2-12 of the same report, which the report itself says is problematic because "the `control group' data set of child passengers in cars with driver air bags is itself rather small, and…may be contributing to the sampling error." The report recommends instead relying on Table 2-14, which unfortunately does not break down the data by age as thoroughly as Table 2-12. That 120 percent figure is the clearest conclusion the NHTSA report can come to about the 1-10 age group, even though the report itself says that figure isn't the most reliable.

The whole scary statistics game can be a dead end. We do know that airbags have killed children. The government ought not force that risk–whatever its (still uncertain) magnitude–on parents who don't wish to bear it, or who don't want to be required to keep their youngsters out of the front seat.