Monday, January 14, 2008

Let Your Kids Play with Dangerous Things?

Climbing in trees--probably a dangerous thing for children to do too! Haley is a champ at it, and regularly scales the apple tree in my yard.

It takes a brave man to make such a statement, but Gever Tulley, founder of the Tinkering School, says exactly that--let your kids play with dangerous things.

Recently on the NPR radio show Car Talk, an adoptive mother wondered about turning her 5 adopted children loose to take apart an old, non-functioning car. The kids, she said, loved to take things apart. A car could keep them busy for months. The Car Guys advised on the side of caution and safety, but even I could hear their creative brains exploring all the possbilities of the idea. Turn kids lose to disassemble a car? What a concept!

Tulley's"dangerous things" are everyday occurrences for kids who live in the country. Pocket knives? No self-respecting male in West Virginia is without one (and a lot of us females carry them too). At a family reunion a few years ago, someone needed a pocket knife to cut some strong. Who had the knives? The three West Virginians present.

Another dangerous thing: fire. Most country kids have built bonfires or campfires, lit a wood stove or a kerosene lamp. Fire is not dangerous, it's a tool to be used properly.

At 12, almost all of my sons had driven a tractor or a truck. They had to or else the hay didn't get in the barn or the tobacco hauled from the field. Driving wasn't the dangerous part, but navigating across our steeply sloping land--now that will give your adrenaline a boost.

Taking stuff apart was routine. They could take three broken bikes and make two sort of functional ones (okay, so one bike might not have brakes, but they had feet, didn't they? and it made going down hill a fast affair).

Operate power tools? If they didn't they wouldn't be able to get through the to-do lists I left them. Throw spears? Yesterday a grandson used his pocket knife to sharpen a stick and practiced throwing for an hour, trying to figure out how to get his spear to stick into the ground. We watched, advised on how to best sharpen and throw the stick. Dangerous? It could be. But with adults nearby, a large open field with no other children in sight, it was hardly as dangerous as swinging in a crowded playground.

Tulley is right--in many ways we over-protect our children, thereby keeping them from learning valuable life skills, developing the self-confidence to try out new things, learning that failure happens sometimes, and finding those critical thinking and problem-solving skills so sought after in today job marketplace.

Danger is part of life. We can teach kids to be careful too. Will they get hurt sometimes? Certainly. But the same parents who won't allow a child to steer a car or operate a power drill think nothing of allowing the same child to ride a four-wheeler or a skateboard, play football or other violent contact sports--sources of high levels of childhood injuries.

What has happened is that what we view as dangerous has shifted. We watch grown men pound each other on TV and don't consider the danger of the sport. We provide helmets for bikes and four-wheelers and assume children wearing the helmets wil be safe. We let coaches decide if a play or a move is safe. We give in to demands for skateboards and other toys because "all the other kids have them."
We forget that our children need to learn practical skills that will help them throughout their life, and we forget that most important of all, we need to be there to guide them along the way--not doing things for our children, but letting them do things themselves and see the result of their work.

Raising kids is inherently dangerous. Raising thinkers, planners and doers is downright difficult. But when we see our teenager figure out that how to charge a car battery, then get in and drive away--ah, that's priceless.

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