Are We Overspending on Child Safety?

Britax Car Seat

This Britax car seat will run you $599.99 on

November is National Child Safety Month — an observance that I personally look on with great suspicion.

That is because I am one of the few parents out there who is willing to accept a level of “safe enough.”

I worry that things like National Child Safety Month is just another way to sell parents products to keep their children safe from obscure dangers.

Making such a confession in front of my local moms group would probably be enough to get me ostracized. After all, is there anything more important than the safety of our children?! With the cult of absolute safety in modern America, it seems as though convenience, parental sanity, and money (especially) are all no object in trying to protect our children.

But the thing is, the cost of all this safety can be enough to bankrupt average parents — let alone lower-income parents. Lenore Skenazy, author and blogger at Free Range Kids, is similarly fed up with the sense that we need to sacrifice everything just to make our kids safe:

“It’s as if only rich people can afford to make their children safe, while the rest of us have to put them at risk,” she said. “That’s ridiculous!”

It is entirely possible to raise safe, happy, and resilient kids without breaking the bank. Here are some ways to make sure you aren’t overspending on safety with only diminishing returns:

Some Things We Think of as Necessary Are Anything But

According to Skenazy, “there is no easier dollar extracted than money from a new parent.” Marketers and retailers know that parents can be cash cows. Between the fact that we are hardwired to love, protect and plan for our children, and the fact that our culture makes sure we know about all potential hazards, no matter how small, we are willing to make any purchase to help us feel better about our children’s safety.

But that’s neither sustainable nor necessary. For instance, you can find safety products that our grandparents would laugh at:

  • bathwater ducks that tell you if the water is too hot,
  • helmets for toddlers when they are learning to walk,
  • knee pads for new crawlers,

and my own personal favorite, shopping cart covers (as if there aren’t germs everywhere else the kid sits). All of these products are new in the last couple of decades, and parents buy them because marketers have convinced them their children are in danger without them.

To avoid the trap of unnecessary safety purchases, Skenazy suggests taking your oldest relative with you to Babies R Us and asking them which products they needed as babies. You’re likely to leave the store with much fewer purchases than what those helpful must-have lists—which are provided to you by the store itself—recommend.

There is a Base Level of Safety on Children’s Products

Earlier this year, my son outgrew his infant car seat and I had to buy him a new one. I was horrified at the $200+ price tag of Britax car seats, which are some of the best-reviewed seats on the market. But when I looked at a $40 car seat that could be purchased at our local K-Mart, I saw that it had the exact same five-point harness and LATCH system as the Britax.

Most importantly, however, I was reassured by the information provided by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA): “The right car seat or booster fits your child and your car, and is one you will use correctly every time you travel.” A good fit and using the seat correctly are much more important than pretty much any other aspect of a safety seat. That’s because the NHTSA and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) both work the make certain that car seats and other children’s products all meet safety requirements—or else they’re not allowed on the market.

So I bought the $40 seat, and made triply sure that I installed it correctly — because that has much more to do with my son’s safety on the road than the price tag.

Buying Used is a Perfectly Safe Option

That was hardly the first time I’ve felt overwhelmed when purchasing a car seat. When I was pregnant with my son, my husband heard that a friend of his at work was selling his infant car seat. I put my foot down and insisted that we buy new: that was the only way we could be sure the car seat hadn’t been compromised in an accident.

Even though my husband is a mechanical engineer who has worked in the automotive industry for years, and even though he knew and trusted this friend to tell us if the car seat had ever been in an accident, I simply couldn’t imagine taking such a “risk.”

But the thing is, buying used really isn’t risky in most cases. If you know and trust the seller, then there is no need to worry about purchasing a compromised safety item. And as long as you double check that the item has not been recalled — the Consumer Product Safety Commission keeps a list online — you can rest easy that you are providing your child with a safe item without overspending.

The one caveat about purchasing used items is recognizing that some safety products do expire. In terms of car seats, they will generally have an expiration date because the Styrofoam that is used to pad them degrades after a period of time and will no longer adequately protect the user. If you are interested in purchasing a used car seat, check the manufacturer label for the expiration date, which is usually about six years after the date of manufacture.

The Bottom Line

In many cases, it seems smarter and easier to spend money than to take even the remotest chance with your child’s safety. But even in the cases of major recalls and bans—such as the 2011 decision by the CPSC to ban the sales of all drop-side cribs — the probability of anything bad happening to any particular child is remarkably low. As Lenore Skenazy put it, “being alive is a safety issue.” Chasing absolute safety for your child will be an expensive and ultimately useless proposition, considering how easily children find new and inventive ways to hurt themselves.

A better way to enjoy your kid’s childhood (and have some money left over to send her to college) is to recognize that there is a level of “safe enough” — and to just say no to overspending on safety.

What’s your take? Are we overspending on child safety?

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Last Edited: March 8, 2014 @ 11:04 pm
About Emily Guy Birken

Emily Guy Birken is a former English teacher, and an excellent freelance writer. She's also a stay-at-home-mom. She resides in Lafayette, IN, with her engineer husband and son. Emily's thoughts on parenting and life in general are found at The SAHMnambulist.