Why keep the good news quiet?

Shhhh! don't tell the world the happy news about your blessed event.

That's the warning Desert Samaritan Hospital in Mesa, Ariz., has been giving new parents in recent weeks.

As one way of supposedly protecting infants, the hospital no longer supplies birth information to newspapers. And in a book of safety precautions that it gives to parents, the facility even advises against posting signs at home.

Skip the jubilant "It's a Boy!" and "It's a Girl!" banners on the lawn and forget about pink and blue balloons swaying merrily in the breeze by the front door. Lower the shades and triple-lock the doors. You never know where "stranger danger" might lurk.

Ironically, the hospital's new policy doesn't stem from any reported crimes. Local police, in fact, see no need for concern. But the decision to stop reporting births publicly clearly reflects a nationwide increase in what has been called the "precautionary principle," the belief that no risk should be taken until all the ramifications are known.

Raising a family has always involved a delicate balancing act for parents. Their task involves protecting children from legitimate dangers and at the same time finding ways to nurture their independence and freedom - even encouraging risk-taking when it's appropriate.

But increasingly, the danger factor appears to loom larger than ever. From parents who feel they must walk children hand-in-hand to the school door every day, even in upscale suburban neighborhoods, to those who plant hidden "nannycams" at home to keep surveillance on baby sitters and au pairs, public concern grows that you can't trust anyone.

Or anything. Even that comforting, once-innocuous staple of childhood, the peanut-butter sandwich, now carries a dangerous image as parents worry about allergic reactions. Some schools have banned nuts from cafeterias. Others don't allow students to trade lunches, fearing that someone might eat the wrong food.

These school rules parallel recent efforts by the Department of Transportation to restrict peanuts on airlines. Yet according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, negative reactions to peanuts affect less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the population.

Fear-mongering takes other subtle forms as well.

A billboard for Sony's PlayStation gaming system carries the headline, "Tell Dad if you stay home you can't total the car." Obviously the ad is meant to be humorous. But what a negative image it casts on the supposed danger of teenage drivers, and what parental fears it feeds.

No one can argue against the need for legitimate precautions to ensure the safety of children and adults alike.

A Pollyanna naivete belongs to a simpler time. Well-meaning institutions such as schools and hospitals find themselves in ambiguous positions, simultaneously concerned about the well-being of those in their care and worried about lawsuits in a litigious society.

Yet hidden behind all the screaming headlines announcing bad news are reports bearing good news for parents and everyone else: Crime rates are down. So are teenage pregnancy rates. And so are teenage drinking rates. The Institute for Youth Development reports "a continuing trend of decreasing alcohol use among youth."

On the eve of a new millenium, is there more good news than bad? If so, that could be the good news for now - reassurance enough, perhaps, to once again make those joyous birth announcements public, and to help parents find less worry and more pleasure at every stage of childrearing.

To protect infants, this hospital no longer supplies birth information to newspapers.

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