How did this get published?

If you’re at all like me, one of your favorite aspects of going on vacation is getting back to work and confronting a huge pile of material that has accumulated in your absence.  It’s been an absolute joy to work my way through a backlog of notes, e-mails and lab reports today.  However, as sincerely thrilled as I am to be slogging my way through all of this, it has left little time for blog post composition.

It is for this reason that I am thankful for the New York Times, which has seen fit to publish such a craptacular Op-Ed that even a heavily-sedated chimp could see its myriad flaws.  As soon as I glanced the headline The Kids Are Not All Right screaming from the “Most E-mailed” sidebar, I knew I was in for a treat.  Thanks, NY Times, for this gentle, low-effort re-entry into blogging!

Let’s begin, shall we?

WHEN I sit with my two teenagers, and they are a million miles away, absorbed by the titillating roil of online social life, the addictive pull of video games and virtual worlds, as they stare endlessly at video clips and digital pictures of themselves and their friends, it feels like something is wrong.

No doubt my parents felt similarly about the things I did as a kid, as did my grandparents about my parents’ childhood activities. But the issues confronting parents today can’t be dismissed as mere generational prejudices. There is reason to believe that childhood itself is now in crisis.

Childhood itself, you say?  Whatever do you mean?  That people will now be birthed as fully-formed adults?  That are children are transforming into Morlock-like creatures of the night?  One thing’s for sure — that must be one compelling reason, to warrant such an otherwise hysterical-seeming overstatement.  I must admit to being somewhat surprised that childhood itself is threatened, what with the dozens of generally healthy, thriving children I see every day.  I must be missing something.

Throughout history, societies have struggled with how to deal with children and childhood. In the United States and elsewhere, a broad-based “child saving” movement emerged in the late 19th century to combat widespread child abuse in mines, mills and factories. By the early 20th century, the “century of the child,” as a prescient book published in 1909 called it, was in full throttle. Most modern states embraced the general idea that government had a duty to protect the health, education and welfare of children. Child labor was outlawed, as were the sale and marketing of tobacco, alcohol and pornography to children. Consumer protection laws were enacted to regulate product safety and advertising aimed at children.

I think anyone with two functional neurons to rub together would agree that children today are much, much more well looked-after than they were even a hundred years ago.  Kids aren’t forced to labor in factories.  They don’t die of diptheria or suffer from scurvy.  The combination of food stamps, Head Start and Medicaid, while certainly no cure-all, has helped ensure that generally-speaking even our poorest children get medical attention, nourishment and education to a degree that far surpasses what the vast majority of children enjoyed through most of human history.  If
“childhood” could survive Dickensian London, it can probably weather our current society’s ills.  Or can it?

But the 20th century also witnessed another momentous shift, one that would ultimately threaten the welfare of children: the rise of the for-profit corporation. Lawyers, policy makers and business lobbied successfully for various rights and entitlements traditionally connected, legally, with personhood. New laws recognized corporations as legal — albeit artificial — “persons,” granting them many of the same legal rights and privileges as human beings. In an eerie parallel with the child-protective efforts, “the best interests of the corporation” was soon introduced as a legal precept.

Aaaand, here we go.  “The for-profit corporation” is coming for your kids, everyone.

A clash between these two newly created legal entities — children and corporations — was, perhaps, inevitable. Century-of-the-child reformers sought to resolve conflicts in favor of children. But over the last 30 years there has been a dramatic reversal: corporate interests now prevail. Deregulation, privatization, weak enforcement of existing regulations and legal and political resistance to new regulations have eroded our ability, as a society, to protect children.

What is this “clash”?  Whose abilities comprise this eroded “our”?  What protections are so vital, without which corporations will prey upon children willy-nilly?

Childhood obesity mounts as junk food purveyors bombard children with advertising, even at school. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation study reports that children spend more hours engaging with various electronic media — TV, games, videos and other online entertainments — than they spend in school. Much of what children watch involves violent, sexual imagery, and yet children’s media remain largely unregulated. Attempts to curb excesses — like California’s ban on the sale or rental of violent video games to minors — have been struck down by courts as free speech violations.

It seems to me that if “our” ability to protect children refers to parents, then I don’t see how those abilities are eroded by corporations.  Unless PepsiCo is now supplying kids with free soft drinks and snacks, parents still retain the ability to refuse purchase of junk food for their children.  The power of advertising stops at the pocketbook.  The same goes for violent TV shows, games and other entertainments — parents don’t have to buy them, and TVs still come with “off” switches as a standard feature.  As someone who wheeled a screaming two-year-old through the grocery store yesterday rather than give him the muffin that he wanted, I understand that it is sometimes very frustrating to confront a persistent demand from one’s child.  And yet, that’s what you sign up for when you have kids. 

Another area of concern: we medicate increasing numbers of children with potentially harmful psychotropic drugs, a trend fueled in part by questionable and under-regulated pharmaceutical industry practices. In the early 2000s, for example, drug companies withheld data suggesting that such drugs were more dangerous and less effective for children and teenagers than parents had been led to believe. The law now requires “black box” warnings on those drugs’ labels, but regulators have done little more to protect children from sometimes unneeded and dangerous drug treatments.

In this case, “we” could well refer to medical providers.  I happen to agree that too many providers are too liberal with psychotropic medications.  But putting the blame on corporations absolves said prescribers of their responsibility to provide informed and appropriate care.  Shire Pharmaceuticals may aggressively hawk its pills, but I still have the ability to write out a script or not.  Furthermore, the author paints with far too broad a brush here.  There isn’t one “black box” warning on all psychotropic drugs’ labels.  Antidepressants have one warning, ADHD medications have a different warning for different risks altogether, and antipsychotics have yet another.  It’s my responsibility as a provider to know about them, and to use them judiciously.  Some are dangerous, some are almost certainly overprescribed, but most are safe and reliable and all can be used appropriately if under the medical supervision of a competent provider.

Beyond that, what would the author have “regulators” do to protect children from “sometimes unneeded and dangerous drug treatments”?  Am I to expect that my medical decisions will be subject to regulatory scrutiny?  Are “the children” so broadly under threat that the physician-patient relationship must be breached?  I find that prospect chilling.

Children today are also exposed to increasing quantities of toxic chemicals. We know that children, because their biological systems are still developing, are uniquely vulnerable to the dangers posed by many common chemical compounds. We also know that corporations often use such chemicals as key ingredients in children’s products, saturating their environments. Yet these chemicals remain in circulation, as current federal laws demand unreasonably high proof of harm before curbing a chemical’s use.

This, my friends, is a pile of bullshit.  What dangers is the author referring to, and from which common chemicals?  What are the rampant harms being inflicted?  From time to time specific toxins are identified in some product (eg. lead paint in children’s toys), but those are rare, discrete circumstances.  Our children are not being toxified by malevolent corporations.  Their environments are not “saturated.”  I don’t know about our current federal laws, but I certainly require more proof of harm than a bunch of unfounded, vague assertions.

The challenge before us is to reignite the guiding ethos and practices of the century of the child. As Nelson Mandela has said, “there can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” By that measure, our current failure to provide stronger protection of children in the face of corporate-caused harm reveals a sickness in our societal soul. The good news is that we can — and should — work as citizens, through democratic channels and institutions, to bring about change.

A sickness in our societal soul?  I fear I may damage my vision, so vigorously am I rolling my eyes.  How on earth was this mess of claptrap approved for publication?  It alleges a world of harms and decries the ominous demise of childhood itself, while pinning the blame on a convenient boogeyman with no actual data presented.  The author is a law professor, which flabbergasts me.  I can only hope he teaches his students how to produce evidence in a more convincing manner than he demonstrates with this hysterical joke of an Op-Ed.

Russell Saunders

Russell Saunders is the ridiculously flimsy pseudonym of a pediatrician in New England. He has a husband, three sons, daughter, cat and dog, though not in that order. He enjoys reading, running and cooking. He can be contacted at blindeddoc using his Gmail account. Twitter types can follow him @russellsaunder1.


  1. “I don’t know about our current federal laws, but I certainly require more proof of harm than a bunch of unfounded, vague assertions.”

    If anything, it’s exactly the opposite. Manufacturing toys for children is de facto banned , because the regulatory agency in charge has made standards so tight that they’re impossible to meet. The current limit for lead — 100 ppm — is lower than the margin of accuracy on the typical testing methods.

    Mattel and Playskool have secured exemptions from testing requirements; they’re allowed to use their own labs, co-located with the factories in China that make the toys. And those factories are perfectly accurate, as well as being completely honest about their results. Just ask ’em.

    The regulatory body, when asked about this, claims that millions of children are being harmed every year by dangerous chemicals in toys–although they can’t produce a single report–and that therefore banning toy manufacture is critical to the safety of the republic. When it was pointed out that the President himself had signed an Executive Order that onerous, high-cost regulations not be applied, the CPSC head replied that her job was more important than anything the President said.

    • … they published the specs to the lead contaminated toys in their federally mandated SEC documents. Your loss, that you don’t know what lead oxides look like.

      • ? That’s…not actually a refutation of anything I said?

    • As a professional in the manufacturing of products for children, I have to say your post is wildly overstated, DD. You’ve essentially committed similar crimes against discourse as the original column that Mr. Saunders has torn down in this post.

      There are numerous, real problems with the CPSIA. That it has essentially made the selling of toys impossible is not one of them. That is something that could easily be discerned by visiting a store or catalog.

      • Congratulations on not reading any of my post. Try again, paying attention to who’s making toys (giant corporations) and where (offshore) and who’s doing the certification testing (the same corporations) and where (offshore).

        • Lots of non-giant corporations make toys and other childrens products to this day, I have a house full of toys that were not made by Hasbro or Fisher-Price or Mattel for our toddler, some of them are from very small companies that I am sure are heavily burdened by CPSIA requirements, but they are not legislated out of business.
          Prior to 2008 nearly all toys and apparel for children were already manufactured overseas and had been for about a decade. The CPSIA did not do the slightest thing to move that needle.
          Only the very largest of the large manufacturers can afford to get their own labs certified – my employer is spending upwards of ten million dollars annually for independent lab testing because we could never dream of being able to found and certify our own lab.
          The testing occurs overseas because products must be tested before they can be imported.

          • This is hardly an unbiased source (and it talks of predictions vice events) but I remember a lot of similar stories with the used toy and clothing market when it came out. Was this aspect ever resolved? (And granted, it’s a slight bit different than Mr. Duck’s assertion)

          • “I have a house full of toys that were not made by Hasbro or Fisher-Price or Mattel for our toddler…”

            Made when? Oh, and I hope you don’t have a drop-side crib!

            If you honestly work in the children’s product business and honestly don’t consider a retroactive 100-ppm lead standard to be a concern–even one supported by no evidence whatsoever–then I don’t know what to say.

          • We elected to not buy a drop-side crib even before they were outlawed, for what it’s worth. We buy new toys quite frequently.

            I think the lead standard was fine at 300ppm. Maybe it’s just the lab pulling our chain, but they’ve never mentioned any issues with the lead requirements as not reliably testable (nor has our QA dept), and once we’re paying for the test, it’s the same price to hear it’s below 100 as it was to hear it was below 300.

            I said I don’t care for a lot of the system. I just take issue with your assessment, especially when commenting on a post that is largely about the uselessness of hyperbolic rhetoric. Most of the smaller companies whose products I knew and liked before 2008 are still making and selling toys and clothes.

            As I understand it, books were exempted at some later time from most/all of the testing requirements. I don’t work at all with books so I don’t know much beyond that.

    • Well, thanks Jaybird. Who would have thought such feelings would arise when I’ve only been gone for a few hours!

      I’m honored, of course, but I’m also being sarcastic because some moments just make it irresistable.

      Ich wunsche Sie auch Wilkommen und mit den besten Wünschen! Veileicht für den Patienten (mir) besteht keine Hoffnung mehr. Mach dir keine allzu großen Hoffnungen– die Hoffnung aufgeben, etwas zu tun. Das Leben ist manchmal nicht gerade das reinste Vergnügen aber wenn die Hoffnung nicht wäre! Es ist noch nicht aller Tage Abend. Nun, wir mussen hoffen eben weiter! Bis bald!

  2. Most of my thoughts on this subject remain long and rambling, so I guess I will just be incoherence.

    I am not entirely unsympathetic to at least some of the claims being made, though I think the flashing red and blue lights is more than a bit over the top.

    The question is, though, what can be done about it? Even if the corporate capture is real, and I don’t believe it to be entirely fictitious, what do we do about it? It’s part and parcel of the industrial and commercial machine that has elevated the material comforts of even the poor over the last few decades. It’s the natural extension of it.

    The next part is up to us.

    If we’re worried about overmedication, do we take medication out of the hands of those who need it because we’re worried about someone who doesn’t need it getting it anyway? If we’re inexact in our distribution of these things, it’s because there is a gray area. Either you offer it to too many or you leave many untreated. It’s the entitled arrogance of the healthy that suggests that someone else’s kid should face roadblocks because another somebody else’s kid is taking drugs that they might not need. Do we assign Joel Bakan as the master parent who steps in because other parents are doing it wrong?

    If the corporations are winning, it’s because they’re offering us something that Joel Bakan is not. And if it is the case that we are mistreating our children, it’s because we’re so freaked out over every perceived ailment that, and working so hard to provide for them, and failing to overcome the obstacles that used to mean young death and malnutrition (the starving kind, not the fat kind) with much less malevolent results than hysterical op-eds in the New York Times.

  3. I believe that children are our greatest natural resources and that’s why we must begin mining them for uranium immediately!

  4. $4 billion in Disney Princess sales and BPA. Both are ubiquitous and (I feel) put my three year old daughter at risk no matter what I do.

    • Well, you’re perfectly entitled to your opinion. Suffice it to say that I do not share your viewpoint, particularly with regard to the risks posed by Disney Princesses.

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