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Walmart vs. birthday party parents: Who’s got the most hysterical overreaction?

By Lenore Skenazy

Readers--Here's a story from the NY Daily News that highlights two of the things that drive me craziest about our culture:

A family in Maine was serving a Walmart cake at their 2-year-old's birthday when they found a paring knife baked into it, on the bottom, clearly left there by mistake. Said the traumatized dad, the incident "put a dampener" on the party and people started to leave.

As if folks usually stick around for hours after the cake. Nothing more fun than the dregs of a party with over-tired toddlers! But the dad, sounding weepy, added, "We're not going to get that second birthday back ever."

Ohmigod--he’s right! How is anyone expected to recover from a blow like that? The family will NEVER get back a non-paring-knife-marred-cake-cutting-moment when their kid is two again! Naturally, that kind of thing is so unfair, so deeply disruptive to the natural order of things, that the dad said he may sue.

If he does, I hope he is thrown right out of court, and into a cake. (And if, ironically enough, there's a pointy thing in there, well...)

For its part, Walmart sounded almost sane and strong for a second, offering the family only its apologies and a replacement cake. Right on! But then a spokesman added that the chain was "now banning the use of pairing knives at its bakeries across the country."

Wha!? Just because ONE person in ONE Walmart screwed up ONE time with a paring knife--not an AK47--now the chain is banning ALL paring knives at ALL times in ALL Walmart bakeries? Are apples going to peel themselves for the pies? Is the store going to ban cleavers from the meat department, too?

What's disturbing about Walmart's response is how quickly and cravenly the corporation was willing to pretend that the problem was X, and now it is solved forevermore, by X banishment.

But the problem is obviously not paring knives. The problem is that human beings screw up sometimes, and this shouldn't be a sue-able offense unless there was gross negligence or malice, or some really unconscionable filling, like prune pudding. If a minimum wage bakery employee spaces out, it's time to talk to that employee, not issue an across-the-board edict.

So my ideal punishment for the Walmart legal team? Send them a cake. Prune pudding filling. No one goes home till it’s eaten. - L.

Lenore Skenazy is the author of the book and blog “Free-Range Kids,” which launched the anti-helicopter parenting movement. She’s going to be posting here from time to time on issues of interest to Common Good supporters. As Lenore puts it, she’s ready to make “America the Home of the Brave again, not the Home of the Bureaucrats So Stupid that a Hazmat Crew Gets Called to a High School When a Student Brings in a Mercury Thermometer. (Which really happened a few months back, in Florida.)” And here’s her outrage of the week. Chime in!

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Lenore Skenazy’s Outrage of the Week

Lenore Skenazy is the author of the book and blog “Free-Range Kids,” which launched the anti-helicopter parenting movement. She’s going to be posting here from time to time on issues of interest to Common Good supporters. As Lenore puts it, she’s ready to make “America the Home of the Brave again, not the Home of the Bureaucrats So Stupid that a Hazmat Crew Gets Called to a High School When a Student Brings in a Mercury Thermometer. (Which really happened a few months back, in Florida.)” And here’s her outrage of the week. Chime in!

Hi Common Good Readers! Here’s a letter that may remind you of “safety” measures being taken in your own neighborhood. If so, we’d like to hear from you. There’s strength in numbers, and if enough parents, teachers, principals and plain old citizens feel that the new rules aren’t doing any good, we can push back together. So read this, then write us!

Dear Lenore: I took my kids to Sunday school a few weeks ago and the door we usually go in had a sign on it saying that we could no longer enter there.  Everyone needs to go in the door on the other side of the building.  Never mind that to get there, people now have to walk their children through the entire parking lot, which was already congested. (So much for “safety!”)

As I was walking my son to his classroom, I saw the woman in charge of Sunday school guarding one of the doors, waving away the people hoping to be let in.  I asked her about the new rule and she said, "I implemented it for safety.  Before, we had people going in and out of six different doors.  It just wasn't safe."  As we walked away from her, my 7-year-old son whispered, "Why is that not safe, Mommy?"

I couldn’t answer.

Then I picked up my 11-year-old daughter from her Sunday school class across the street.  She told me that instead of a normal lesson that day, they had a police officer come talk about personal safety.  “Personal safety” evidently means telling the kids details about several child abductions that have happened over the last 30 years.

As we were picking up my son from his class, I told my daughter that we must now walk around the building because they want everyone to go in and out of the same door.  She asked, "Won't that make it easier for someone who wanted to shoot or bomb people, because everyone will be in the same place?"

No answer.

Monday morning, I headed to the elementary school to change the marquee, as I have done for the past seven years.  I pressed the buzzer and instead of just opening the door as usual, the secretary asked me who I was over the intercom.  Never mind that there was a video camera and she could see me!  She let me in and I saw that she had a woman standing over her who’s evidently a security advisor.

I walked back to get the marquee letters in the office and she told me I needed to sign in, even though I do not even enter the main part of the school.  I do the marquee outside.

The only ray of hope came when I was leaving and overheard the office manager, principal, and secretary complaining to each other about how the new safety rules they are being forced to implement don't even seem to make anyone safer.

I keep thinking about the schools of my youth that had all of the doors open all day, every day, with no one monitoring who came or went.  The schools today have all implemented locked doors and buzzers and signing in, yet school shootings still occasionally happen.  Why does anyone think more and more "safety" rules are going to stop them?  If all of the safety procedures so far have not stopped these incidents, why will more safety procedures work? – Puzzled in Plano

P.S. The school district just voted to put armed guards at each of its 72 schools.

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Defining “Big Change”

Common Good Chair Philip K. Howard, in a new article for The Huffington Post, outlines a bold platform of eight structural reforms to address the unsustainable waste and inefficiency that plague government. "These changes would balance the budget, end government paralysis, and begin to transform America's public culture," he writes. "Americans know we need it. Are any leaders bold enough to say it?"

Howard’s proposed reforms include radically simplifying regulation, freeing schools from crushing bureaucracy, cleaning out obsolete laws and programs, and ending tax subsidies for the rich. Read the rest of his proposals here.

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Start Over: New Ideas to Overhaul Government, Regulation, and Litigation

Start Over

Read Philip K. Howard's collection of essays--proposing bold, big ideas to fundamentally reform our governmental and legal systems. Available for download.

Click here to view and download the 20-page Start Over publication.

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Providence Journal: Rules without responsibility

The following editorial was published in today's Providence Journal:

The drowning last June of Marie Joseph, 36, in a state-run Fall River pool has elicited the response that such sad events often do -- the imposition of complex changes but not the expectation of greater responsibility. Guidelines for supervision of such public facilities by lifeguards and other staffers have long been clear.

Incredibly, at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Swimming Pool, the body of Ms. Joseph, who apparently couldn't swim, was undiscovered for two days after she drowned. The excuse given was that the water was murky.

But if it were that murky, why didn't some staffer notice? Indeed, state officials said the water did not meet state standards and that the pool shouldn't have been opened last year.

So the people who use these public pools will suffer as officials try to show that they're doing something. Officials are suspending the use of all water slides at the state-run pools. Less fun for the low-income folks who tend to be the biggest users of these pools. That is despite Massachusetts Recreation Commissioner Edward Lambert's saying that the slide at the Fall River pool did not appear to be a direct factor in Ms. Joseph's death.

Meanwhile, the depths of 11 of the 24 pools run by the state will be lowered to 5½ feet by June 23, and security cameras installed, The Boston Globe reported.

The remaining 13 will eventually also be transformed if money is found. More lifeguards will be hired and there will be a couple of weeks of additional training. And, of course, a new administrative structure will be created to oversee all this, with the new post of state aquatics director.

The net effect will probably be fewer pools and fewer days of operation, as money and other resources are diverted for these changes -- all aimed at giving the appearance of preventing tragedies that attention and common sense should block in the first place. So fewer people will probably have a chance to enjoy this healthy exercise.

Without a culture that re-emphasizes personal and institutional responsibility, such changes won't measure up to the publicity associated with their creation.

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America the Fixable: Ron Faucheux finds voters want to fix obsolete law

Ron Faucheux, president of Clarus Research Group, decided to find out how much voters care about obsolete law, and what they think can be done about it. The results form the latest installment of America the Fixable, and they leave little doubt that Americans see what needs to be done:

  • "More than four out of every five voters, 81 percent, believe 'there are too many laws, rules and regulations in America today that no longer work the way they were originally intended.' This majority cuts across partisan lines: 77 percent of Democrats, 88 percent of Republicans and 80 percent of independents are in agreement."
  • "A clear majority of all voters surveyed -- 67 percent -- want Congress to create an 'independent commission made up of experienced managers from outside government' that would clean out outdated laws and regulations."

Read the full article to see more results.

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America the Fixable

congress

Our new collaborative series with The Atlantic -- "America the Fixable" -- is live. The Atlantic's editors introduced the series with a press release, saying:

TheAtlantic.com, in partnership with Common Good, is launching a new online feature today, "America the Fixable" devoted to identifying solutions to some of the country's most entrenched problems--problems the government has so far been unable or unwilling to fix. Each month, the series will identify a different challenge facing the United States and, drawing together a range of expert voices on the topic, will offer potential solutions via articles, online discussions, and video reports.

Solving the nation's most entrenched problems
See full coverage

This month’s topic is on obsolete law, with an opening essay by Common Good Chair Philip K. Howard. In coming days, the series will feature essays on obsolete law by Senator Mark Warner, Governor Mitch Daniels, Congressman Jim Cooper, and experts from various fields. Future topics will include realigning incentives in healthcare, streamlining environmental approval, and campaign finance reform.

Be sure to follow and add your voice to this important series—which will also include online discussions and video features—either on Common Good’s blog or The Atlantic’s website. And join the conversation on Twitter at #FixAmerica.

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I Accept the Terms and Conditions

terms and conditions

Over at The AtlanticAlexis Madrigal unearths a study called "The Cost of Reading Privacy Policies". You know all those online privacy policies you skip past without reading? These researchers decided to find out just what it would take for us to educate ourselves about the policies we accept thousands of times each year. As Madrigal put it,

So, each and every Internet user, were they to read every privacy policy on every website they visit would spend 25 days out of the year just reading privacy policies! If it was your job to read privacy policies for 8 hours per day, it would take you 76 work days to complete the task. Nationalized, that's 53.8 BILLION HOURS of time required to read privacy policies.

Raise your hand if you think we have an effective system of online privacy agreements. Anyone?

Continue Reading...

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Hope Your Clock is Accurate…

If it isn't, you'll have a hard time following the speed limit in this Michigan town:

speed sign

Let's cross our fingers that no traffic accidents occur while drivers squint at the sign, trying to figure out whether it's 8:20 or 8:24.

When a rule becomes too specific, it can be nearly impossible to follow. Obeying this sign would be so much of a hassle that it's hard to imagine drivers going to the trouble. Instead, they'll use their judgment--slowing down if it's pick-up or drop-off time, if they see a traffic cop, or if there are children about. The sign won't help inform drivers about when to drive slowly, for the simple reason that no driver will be able to read it.

Simple guidelines would be more effective and reliable. But in a society obsessed with legal fear, sadly, speed limit signs aren't the only example of specificity gone awry. Our laws and regulations balloon to thousands of pages, trying in vain to address every possible contingency. Instead, they gum up our businesses and courts, costing billions of dollars and countless hours. Many of those pages do about as much good as this sign.

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Today’s Read: Lenore Skenazy on “Overhyped Panics”

Lenore Skenazy, author of FreeRangeKids.com, wants us to ask ourselves: Are we overreacting to life's rare and improbable threats? And in attempting to protect ourselves and our children against remote risks, do we incur greater societal costs?

In an op-ed in last week's Wall Street Journal, Skenazy argues that the answer to both questions is a definite "yes." She describes an incident in April 2011 in which an Applebee's waiter inadvertently served an alcoholic drink to a toddler. Instead of being resolved with a simple apology and recompense, the incident ballooned into a lawsuit, a national retraining of Applebee's staff, and a media frenzy. What's wrong with that? As Skenazy writes:

This collective decision not to distinguish between rare screw-ups and systemic dangers is turning us into neurotic Nellies who worry about, warn against and, finally, outlaw very safe things.

This reactionary instinct is all too visible in the way we treat our children, eliminating monkey bars and dodgeball because they might cause an accident. But the attitude is pervasive across society. We write laws and regulations to address rare or one-time events, instead of defining our principles and objectives and using common sense to resolve specific issues accordingly.

No matter how many rules we think up, accidents will happen. When they do, let's remember to use common sense, not irrational panic, to fix them.

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