A friend recently posted on Facebook a picture of her three young children helping their dad build a deck. The seven year-old boy was using a power drill to sink a deck screw.
Another woman posts a picture of her two kids 6 feet high up in the branches of an old oak tree. One is climbing with a garden hose in her hand, while another is hanging upside down.
You’ve all seen pics on social media that make you think, “Isn’t that dangerous for a little kid? Is he old enough for that? Is that safe?”
Those are excellent questions for every parent to ask about every activity. We should always be concerned about the safety of our children, but the real question is in how you respond to those questions.
Do you always choose the safest option?
In my opinion, always erring on the side of safety is a mistake. It seems like the safest way to raise kids, but it’s not. Failing to give young kids experiences with dangerous things will only increase their chances of being hurt later in life.
I should be more specific. I am not advocating letting toddlers play with knives or giving first graders carefree use of a golf cart. I’m not saying that kids shouldn’t wear bike helmets or that we need to just let kids get hurt all the time to toughen them up. I’m actually a huge proponent of laws requiring bike helmets and against texting while driving. And I am adamant about safety around swimming pools, cars, and guns – all truly deadly forces.
But instead of shielding kids from every dangerous thing, I think we should teach them to be safe and responsible with them.
Young kids need to learn how to safely use real tools to do real work. And the sooner, the better. Otherwise, they will hurt themselves later with those objects. Accidents happen due to a lack of training and good judgment.
For instance, while it is good to give pre-K kids safety scissors for cutting construction paper, it’s also good to teach a fifth grader to use a box cutter to break down big cardboard boxes for recycling. Some parents might balk at allowing a 10 year old to use such a sharp blade. It’s not the tool itself that is dangerous; it is the misuse or abuse of the tool that is the real danger. And that is exactly why we need to teach kids to use them safely and effectively as early as possible – not too soon, but not too late.
Kids who grow up without ever touching a knife are the ones who are most likely to hurt themselves when they do finally use one. I’ve seen it before. A 12 year old whose mom never let him use a knife before is totally unprepared for the time when he needs to use it. He cuts toward himself and does not keep his hands clear. He is not wearing gloves and is not cutting on a proper surface. He ends up in the ER after traumatizing his mother who freaks out at sight of blood all over the place.
So, how do you go about this responsibly? After all, it’s not a simple issue. You can’t just quit protecting your kids.
There are four issues of great importance when deciding if an activity is too dangerous or too safe:
- Play vs. Use
- Physical Capabilities
Play vs. Use
Young people should not play with dangerous things. Play is dangerous enough. Kids will get bruises, cuts, and broken bones from playing without dangerous things.
Kids should be trained to use real tools for real work, not play. They need to be trained to never play with matches or play with a riding mower. You use tools to build or fix, not to play with. You use a golf cart for transportation, not play.
Kids who are caught playing with a dangerous object need a good scolding and an unpleasant consequence. Immaturity is not an option with a dangerous thing.
Age is an extremely important factor. Certain tools are just way too much for certain ages. For instance, a lawnmower is a dangerous thing that no 4 year-old should ever operate but every 17 year-old should. And chainsaws are for adults only.
But age should never be the only factor involved in deciding what a kid can handle, which is why laws for age-appropriateness are not totally effective. After all, not every 16 year old who can pass a driving test is ready for the all the highways and byways, but some are. Some kids have better judgment and physical abilities than others.
Some kids are gifted with outstanding strength, dexterity, eyesight, and coordination. They can handle the weight, size, and unusual features of certain dangerous objects that other kids of the same age cannot. Others struggle physically, and would get hurt. For example, a coordinated, strong, tall 14 year-old could run a weed-eater, but a small, weak, uncoordinated 14 year-old should not.
Know your kids’ physical abilities, and adjust accordingly. Don’t let age be your only guide. Don’t let a kid control you with, “But Jimmy got to ride the ATV when he was 12.”
Before a kid ever uses a dangerous thing of any kind, he or she must be taught exactly how to use it and how to not use it. This is crucial!
Kids MUST be taught to have respect for the inherent hazards of every dangerous thing and to be responsible. Training is not an option; it’s essential.
Start young with small, less-dangerous things with lots of supervision until they are independent. Then with each step up as the danger increases, increase supervision and instruction. But with each level of mastery, back off and give the kids independence.
It’s what we do with 15 year-olds as they prepare to drive a car, which is one of the most dangerous things in our modern world. We give them a lot of training before we hand them the keys to a car with full driving privileges.
My son just got his driver’s license, after a year of training, and he is still not ready for the highways, even though the government says he is. A few weeks before he earned his license, I realized that his spatial awareness and anticipation in a car was very poor. I realized that, due to his suburban upbringing, he has had very little experience driving a riding lawnmower, a tractor, an ATV, a dirt bike, or any motorized vehicle. And his experiences with video games actually hindered him as a real world driver because he did not understand the real dangers and consequences of driving imperfectly. This illustrates the need to teach kids to drive little things when they are little so that they can safely drive big things when they are big. For instance, have little kids push a big shopping cart responsibly. This will teach them to drive well, whereas video games will teach them to drive poorly.
Training should develop maturity and good judgment with dangerous things. If the training does not seem to yield those things, then perhaps the kid is too young after all. Never be afraid to say, “Sorry, you’re not ready yet. We’ll try it again some other time.”
Kids who learn to use dangerous things properly are empowered by their parents, and they earn self-esteem from their accomplishments. They are using their intellect, their physicality, and their judgement to do something powerful, not just dangerous. Telling a kid she is capable and smart will not create self-esteem. They have to earn it. They have to be empowered to do something powerful, like build their own treehouse or till their own garden.
Useful Dangerous Things
Cook – Learn to use a knife, oven, stovetop, blender, and toaster safely.
Tools – Learn to hammer, saw, screw, pry, and fasten. Start simple.
Power Tools – Learn to use a power drill, sander, and other power tools.
Sew – Learn to use a needle and thread, then move onto sewing machine.
Cut – Learn to cut safely with knives of various types – steak knife, box cutter, etc.
Fire – Learn to setup and start a campfire, enjoy it, then put it out.
Swim – Learn to swim and do the survival float as early as possible.
Shoot – Learn all the rules of gun safety with a BB gun or air pellet gun on a farm.
Canoe – Learn paddling, steering, and water safety (wear a PDF).
Climb – Learn to climb a ladder and a tree. Three points of contact all the time.
Drive – Learn to drive small things, then on to bigger things like ATVs.
Bike – Learn to ride a bike safely (always wear a helmet).
Skate – Learn to rollerblade, iceskate, skateboard (wear a helmet)
So, let your kids use dangerous things. But always consider their age, physical abilities, attitude of use, and training level when deciding if you will allow it.
Train them well, as early as possible with age-appropriate activities. In the end, they will be safer and more empowered, since they will be learning how to do adult things the right way as they grow up. Just don’t always choose the safest of all options. Move them toward independence as early as possible.
Don’t be too safe with your kids. Empower them.