I grew up on a cattle ranch in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. After spending nearly 20 years working as a copywriter in advertising, my first book, Confessions of a Slacker Mom, came out in spring of 2004 and made the San Francisco Chronicle's best-seller list. My second book, Confessions of a Slacker Wife, was released in spring of 2005.

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Calling All Idiots

I was watching TV the other night when I saw a commercial with a well-dressed housewife at the controls of an enormous road roller start to drive over the top of her old washing machine. Then – just as I was about to go jump on my own road roller – the words “Do Not Attempt” come up at the bottom of the screen. Dang it!

But of course, I understand why we television viewers are treated like imbeciles. It’s the abundance of nonsense lawsuits. The attorneys for the company who created the washing machine ad advised them that they’d be in trouble if a housewife got hurt mimicking what she’d seen on TV. There’s just so much in the way of highway construction equipment sitting around suburbs with the keys in the ignition, after all, where we housewives are apt to use it to drive over the washing machines that we’ve somehow dragged out into the middle of the street. So the company had to cover their behinds, and they were undoubtedly told that the only way to protect themselves was to explicitly tell housewives NOT to do what they depicted one doing.

I’ve also found myself, in the past few weeks, going about my daily chores around the house, being advised not to do the following:
— Use a toilet brush for personal hygiene.
— Remove food from the blades of a blender while it is operating.
— Iron clothing while it is on my body.

And that was all without leaving my house. But it’s easy to find stupid warning labels; all you have to do is be a consumer in America. And it just gives us all a good laugh, right? No damage done? Hmm. I’m not so sure. As a parent, I see the potential for harm.

I don’t like the idea of raising my kids in a culture where they’re indirectly told, every time they watch TV or open a package, that they’re idiots. That they’re going to do something incredibly dumb unless they’re specifically advised NOT to. What else are they supposed to think when they encounter all these warnings? Plus, I think the glut of warnings is actually anti-safety, because it leads to an expectation of warnings. In other words, unless a plastic grocery bag says NOT to use it as a flotation device, it must be perfectly fine to use it.

But the worst overall effect of the proliferation of warnings in our society is that they tell people, including my own two children, not to think for themselves. No, because WE’LL tell you what is or is not stupid, no matter how patently obvious the evidence should be to you. So there’s no need to trouble yourself with using your own brain cells.

And the corollary to this, of course, is that if you actually DO go ahead and do something stupid, then you’re absolved of responsibility. “I don’t think for myself,” you can argue, “so it must be someone else’s fault, probably the person who was supposed to warn me.”

That’s approximately the opposite of how I want my kids to approach life. I want them to think for themselves, and to make up their own minds about what is or is not a good idea. Regardless of what other people might choose. And regardless of whether or not they’ve been warned.

And I don’t want them to look for someone else to blame when they have ended up doing something dumb. I hope they’ll be responsible for their own choices and watch out for themselves. In fact, I think if you go around expecting everyone else to watch out for you, you’ll get hurt for sure.

So as a parent the only thing I can think of to do is point out all the stupid warnings I see and make a fun game of talking about how stupid they are. “These warnings are not for anyone who has half a brain,” I tell my children. I tell them there’s no amount of warnings that can keep them as safe as their own noggin, if they use it right. And I tell them that the truly dangerous pursuits in this world don’t come with any warnings at all. So know the risks, know yourself, and then make up your own mind about what’s safe and what’s not. And then if you do get hurt, be ready to accept your part of the blame.

But as for driving over a washing machine with a giant road roller, I think that was just a waste of a stupid warning, because I really don’t see how that’s dangerous.

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