During a visit to my parents’ house, I heard my eight-year-old daughter defending herself to her grandma. All four cousins were building cardboard box boats to race down the river, and Grandma was restricting box-cutter use to the 11-year-olds, and telling the younger kids to cut things out of paper or use tape to stick them together.
“I’m allowed to use box cutters!” Lily protested indignantly.
“Are you sure?” says Grandma, “I don’t know…”
“Yes, I am.”
My mom turned to me, ”Is she?”
“Yes.” I said, “She’s good at box cutters.”
My mother raises her eyebrows at me with the kind of look that suggests I may be a dangerous or neglectful parent. I’m not. I swear. The fact is, Lily is good at box cutters. I have thrown this child at least two birthday parties where the theme was “build a cardboard box fort” and she and her little brother build things with boxes (and use box cutters) all the time. One of their favorite games is “recycling crafts” where they empty the recycling bin and turn the trash into their very own treasured creations.
“Simon can use them, too.” Lily adds. Simon is six, but he already built himself a “pizza box dinosaur” following a YouTube tutorial using box cutters and tape. He has the skills to do this too, and not by accident.
My mother is skeptical and passes on the information to the other kids that they can all use box cutters, but still gives me that look that says she doesn’t want to hear any kids crying because they cut themselves. And if they do, it’s my fault.
Nobody does, and the cardboard box sailing regatta is a huge success.
I am probably viewed as a rather permissive parent in the things my kids are allowed to do on their own, but it’s not without thought. I see myself more as using the Discovery method for teaching them some skills. I have shown them how to use the blades safely, but then let them decide what to do with them. If crows can use tools, so can my kids. Sometimes they come up with such surprising and creative ways to do things! I want my kids to be safe, but not 100% safe. When Lily first started asking to use box cutters, I had to think of the risks:
If I let her use box cutters, she might cut herself. True.
If I let her use box cutters, she might cut her fingers off. False.
I know there is a risk to using blades and sharp things, but if she never gets the chance to nick her thumb with a blade, it will take her a lot longer to learn how to use blades. The risk of serious harm is low, but the risk of no harm at all is not possible. Or desirable. She needs to climb trees and jump off diving boards and assess the risk to herself in these situations, just like she needs to use box cutters and learn to use the stove so she has these skills. Kids don’t learn unless you let them.
Lily has been using real scissors since she was two, and box cutters since she was six. Yes, she has cut herself and sometimes still does. These days, when she cuts herself, she just goes and gets a band-aid if she is bleeding. Otherwise she just carries on with whatever creative plan she’s got in her head. A superficial wound is not going to derail her plans. Up until this year, Simon had help using the blade. He is much more careless than his sister, but still capable of learning how not to cut himself.
Both my children have used hammers, saws, knives, hot glue, and the stove. They ski. They ride bikes. They do normal kid things. Protecting kids from activities where they might get hurt needs to be balanced with how big a hurt that might be. True, it hurts, but then they have a framework and experience to know that if they touch something hot, it will hurt and they know what that feels like. Toddlers throw themselves at fires and try to suck on razors because they have no idea what could happen.
Don’t think that I am averse to safety precautions. They are always buckled up in the car, and we wear helmets when biking, skiing, or rollerblading. We all wear lifejackets when we float down the river. The risk of harm there is great, and the safety precaution doesn’t impede enjoyment. By allowing my kids to take calculated risks, they gain life experience. Yes, they might hurt themselves, but they will also gain valuable skills and learn to be cautious when they need to be.
Lily crashed her bike riding down the hill in the park. She cried. She spat out the dirt and rinsed her mouth with water. She got back on her bike and rode it home.
Simon fell out of a tree while trying to swing like a monkey. He was winded, but got back up and climbed it again.
I want my children to be safe, but I also understand that life has risks, and I want them to learn skills, learn to assess the risk, and act accordingly. I can’t protect them from everything, but I can teach them how to cope. As I write this, they are together in the playroom using the hot glue gun to make snow globes out of empty jam jars.
Yes, they know to unplug it when they’re done.
This morning they sliced their own bread and scrambled their own eggs for breakfast.
Everything has a risk of harm, but if that risk is mitigated and balanced with the positive outcomes, it’s worth it. I will not bubble-wrap my kids, and they can get their own band-aids.