Parental alert: Beware of how you say 'beware'

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

So I read an article in The New York Times about how parents who overstress good nutrition are turning some kids into little food-phobes.

It quoted an 8-year-old holding forth on the link between sodium and high blood pressure. An expert said kids show up at birthday parties refusing to eat the cake unless it's made with granola. (Who makes a cake with granola?)

What we're seeing here is one of the drawbacks to parental safety alerts: Children's imaginations can take them to unpredictable places.

I wasn't afraid of food as a kid, but I had a profound fear of tetanus. Why? Because my parents stressed that if I ever was cut by a rusty nail, I should tell them, lest I get a dread disease. It may have been a reasonable thing to tell some kids, but not me. I was what would now be called a nerd: I liked to look up stuff in the dictionary. For hours. So of course, I looked up tetanus and, upon further investigation, learned that it was also called "lockjaw" and would subject the sufferer to an agonizing death.

From that point on, I saw the specter of tetanus in every scratch. I would check for signs of the impending clampdown of my jaw muscles by measuring how wide I could open my mouth. I even learned the incubation period of the disease (two weeks, as I recall), so I would know each time I had dodged the Grim Reaper.

Fortunately, this was long before Google, which makes it possible for any kid with rudimentary spelling skills to instantly call up a photo of everything from poison ivy rashes to third-degree burns. (A Google image search of tetanus yields photos that tighten my jaw even now, despite updated vaccinations.)

I was also vigilant about rabies, because my parents warned me not to pet unfamiliar dogs or approach wild animals. I think it was less the disease than the treatment that scared me.

(I heard secondhand that the shots were many and painful.) Naturally, I saw death in every stray.

The parental impulse is always to protect, and perhaps the "scared straight" method of presenting the worst-case scenario works on some little risk-takers. We'll never know, since no one keeps statistics on how many kids resisted the urge to play with a diseased

raccoon. All I'm saying is strident warnings can be interpreted in unexpected ways by the young mind.

Nutrition, of course, is a tricky issue because you're battling the forces of an entire industry that wants to feed your kids Twinkies and cheese puffs. Given that they taste divine, convincing an 8-year-old of their dangers might require a bit of a hard sell.

Still, I'd advise restraint. Be cautious with your cautions. Put everything in context. Were I a kid now, I'd probably be strapping on a blood pressure cuff every two hours out of fear I had irreparably harmed my cardiovascular system by giving in to a Tostitos temptation. I suppose that would be a case of death by unlocked jaw.

Joe Blundo's column, So to Speak, appears in the Life section of The Columbus Dispatch. It's a mix of humor, human interest and information. A collection of his columns has been published in the book Dancing Dads, Defective Peeps and Buckeye Misadventures. He lives in Worthington with his wife and two children.