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Kids Safety | Dangerous Things | Overprotected

The Value of Danger for Kids

A new book argues that kids should throw rocks and play with fire

by Andrea Zimmerman

February 15, 2010

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W hen Gever Tulley posted a YouTube video on the “5 Dangerous Things Kids Should Do,” from a speech he gave at the TED Conference, little did he know how quickly it’d go viral. (Hint: Very quickly.) After surprising Internet success, Tulley, along with wife, Julie Spiegler, set out to publish their super-controversial book, Fifty Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do), which encourages letting your kids build bombs, play with fire, and drive a car – among other seemingly-ill-advised things. When no publishers bit, citing potential lawsuits, Tulley and Spiegler took it upon themselves. Now, the self-published book is a surprise hit, climbing the ranks of Amazon and attracting both praise and criticism from parents worldwide. Babble sat down with Tulley – who in his spare time, runs the Tinkering School, a part-lab, part-summer camp where kids use power tools to learn to build – to talk about society’s perception of fear, the danger of overprotecting our kids, and why it might be smart to give your toddler a pocket knife. – Andrea Zimmerman

Can you give me a little history of the Tinkering School and where the idea for this book came from?

Six years ago Julie and I started a program called the Tinkering School – based on the notion that kids could be trusted with tools like hammers and real material – which was us basically wondering if we had anything to offer to kids in the way of educational experience. And in building these large complicated projects we would have the opportunity to create meaningful learning experiences in the contexts of these big projects. It’s been more successful than I expected.

In the pre-amble of the video, you talk about the dangers of overprotecting our children and what potential negative side effects we might see after a generation or two. What are those side effects?

I think the greatest problem we encounter is that kids are deprived of the very experiences that form the foundation of creative, innovative thinking. Those channels affect problem-solving abilities and persistence. Being allowed to play with fire is exactly where your [child's] understanding of the world and of physics and principles of engineering and art come forth. So when you don’t let kids climb trees or you don’t let them put their arms out the window to feel the wind, you’re actually preventing them from developing interest in the world around them.

But do you think it’s irresponsible to be advocating dangerous activities for kids?

I invented a term so that we can talk about this in a more rational way. The term is derived from a book called Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows by Melanie Joy, which is about carnism [the psychology that animals were put in the world for the sole purpose of feeding and entertaining humans]. So I use the word “dangerism.” You heard it here first.

And what does that mean?

Dangerism explores how society decides what is and isn’t dangerous. Just like in carnism, there’s often no rationality for why we eat pigs but don’t eat dogs. You only have to go half-way around the globe to find the opposite experience: they eat dogs but they don’t eat pigs. If you were an alien and you landed there, you wouldn’t know what that culture eats and doesn’t eat. In the same way, what we consider to be dangerous changes over time and from culture to culture. In India, it’s common to find people who consider it very dangerous to ride a bicycle and yet the children are allowed to run around barefoot.

As I meet more families from around the world, I find nobody can agree on what’s a dangerous topic in this book. For some, it’s clearly social dangers, so topic number four – learn how to kiss like the French – is difficult because it encourages children and adults to share a close physical space when they greet each other. For others, it’s simply throwing rocks because it’s an encouragement of hooliganism. Another person told me that [encouraging] putting pennies on the railroad tracks is like telling kids to go and play baseball on the freeway, whereas other families have already done this.

I was recently in Wyoming chatting with a science teacher. On a typical weekend, her children – nine and twelve – leave the house at nine in the morning carrying a backpack with water, a sack lunch, and a flashlight. And I said, “Really? Your son is out there in the wilderness and you’re not worried?” And she said, “Well, at least they’re not going to the mall!”

That’s so interesting.

It is! And that’s when I started to think about the cultural differences of the perception of danger and how arbitrary they were. You only have to compare that to the folks who drop their kids off at the mall and pick them up at the end of the day. It’s a complete dichotomy – what is and isn’t dangerous.

Do you think the pay-offs from these activities are worth the risk of kids getting hurt?

I do. For every topic we have an excessive analysis of the possible risks, and part of that is we want to show kids that when you’re about to undertake something, it’s worth thinking, Okay, how can this go wrong, and what do we do when it does? Every activity in the book is put in that framework. And the point of it is to say, yes, there are meaningful learning experiences in all of these activities that far outweigh the risks.

But do you think the same lessons could be learned by engaging in non-dangerous activities?

There are alternative ways to learn everything kids can learn in this book.

So why the shock value?

Partly to raise awareness about just how dangerous overprotection is. Partly, to show that if I tell a twelve-year-old, “Hey! I’m going to teach you how to pay attention better in school and how to focus,” that child is going to run away as fast as they can. But if I say, “Hey! I’m going teach you how to whittle,” I’m going to have the undivided attention of that child for hours. So in some way you need big people’s imagination in order to get their attention. The book is a combination manifesto and call to action for parents who want to help their kids engage with the world and discover things for themselves, [but] also for overprotected children to have something they can hold up and say, “Look. Other kids are doing it and I want to be able to do it too. Let’s figure out how we can do it together.” I get that parents need to protect their children, but when it extends to overprotection, we deprive our children of the very experiences that are going to make them capable of changing the world.

Let me ask you a question. Don’t try to over-think it. How early in a child’s life would you be comfortable giving a child a knife?

Well, it depends what kind of knife it is. Is it a plastic knife?

It’s a pocket knife.

My instinct is certainly not for awhile.

Yeah. There’s something in you – and something in me as well – such that when we consider the notion, what comes to mind is all the terrible things that can happen with a knife. Maybe the phrase “poke out an eye out,” comes to mind. I think Americans are programmed with that.

But honestly at some point, every person is going to own a knife. For some, it will be when they graduate from college and rent their first apartment. For others, if you were raised in Northern Canada, for instance, it would be when you’re a toddler and were given a sharpened knife to cut blubber into bite-sized pieces since you can’t tear it with your feet. There’s a spectrum here that we’re considering. I’m not saying we should give toddlers knives. I’m just saying that the context in which something seems like a disaster in the making is actually a common everyday occurrence. And we need to look at where [parents] draw that line because if you draw that line too late in life, you’ll end up with someone in the kitchen who has no knife experience and for them, cooking is a dangerous activity.

You’re not a parent yourself. Do people ever criticize you and say, how can you possibly understand until you’ve had a child?

I believe as a society we’re all responsible for our children and that it’s up to everybody to keep these children safe, to help them have meaningful learning experiences, and to keep them from catastrophic harm.

So you agree that as a society and as parents, we have an obligation to keep our kids safe?

Yeah, we do. But what is your definition of safe? Does it include scrapes and breaks and bumps and bruises? When we only let children play in the playgrounds and give them plastic tools to work with instead of real tools, then they only understand the world in terms of these proximities that we’ve given them. The range of creative expression and the experiences they have to draw on are not deep. I get that parents need to protect their children, but when it extends to overprotection, we deprive our children of the very experiences that are going to make them capable of changing the world.

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This article was written by Andrea Zimmerman for Babble.com, the magazine and community for a new generation of parents.

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