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When You Shouldn't Protect Your Kid From Danger

Let your child run free in the wild

Kids today may be some of the most coddled children of all time. Thanks to knee-jerk parent shaming and self-appointed sheriffs who might call child protective services if you let your children walk home from school alone, what chance do children have to learn difficult things and to build independence? Here are five tips for allowing the spark of "danger" (i.e. the unknown) within safe boundaries and supervision. It can go a long way toward building independent children.

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1. Let Them Use Knives

The other day I came into the kitchen to find my son using the 12-inch serrated knife to cut the tops off his strawberries. He had a good hold on both berry and knife, having spent hours of his life watching me chop and cook. Rather than rush in with a squeal of terror I simply stayed watching him, and when he was done, I congratulated him on what he had done right—namely making sure he had a steady surface and was holding his fingers out of the way of the blade. Then I reminded him of how quickly chopping can go wrong if you aren't paying attention. We made a rule that in the future he should be sure that I'm at least in eyeshot, but I chalk up his success to our hundreds of times practicing cutting with a dull butter knife. That, and his two years of Montessori preschool. The Montessori and Waldorf school models teach children, with child-sized versions of all domestic implements, how to handle everything from glasses to knives.

2. Get Explosive

When I was a little girl I played with my jack-in-the-box with a terrified thrill of anticipation, aware that it would send my heart into my throat when it exploded. There's something thrilling, for girls and boys alike, about a little harmless explosion, and kids love to experiment. There are tons of harmless experiments online featuring vinegar and baking soda, from making things fly to homemade volcanoes. My husband and son spent an entire afternoon recently loading up plastic bottles full of the "explosive" solution and capping them with rocket-decorated corks to see how high they could make them go (we lost more than a few). They've now moved on to actual rocket launches using fuses and fire.

3. Be Hands-Free

If I hold (my son's) hand the whole time, all he learns is that safety only exists in my presence.

Parking lots are my greatest terror as a mother. I'm not sure what it is about these cement obstacle courses that makes grown ups forget their basic driving rules, such as looking in your blind spot, and waiting your turn, but I often feel I've been thrust into a Mario Brothers game, dodging and jumping out of the way. When my son is with me, naturally, I want to clutch him tightly to my body to keep him from harm's way. But he needs to learn how to rely upon his senses and instincts to become aware of the unexpected. If I hold his hand the whole time, all he learns is that safety only exists in my presence. Though I don't stray far, he's gotten better and better at anticipating danger and taking measures to be safe.

4. Go Wild

One of our favorite weekend activities is to go for a hike at a nearby county park. Every path is fraught with the unknown, from piles of small boulders that might have tumbled down during winter to broken bridges over creeks. We've had to crawl over an enormous fallen tree and hop from rock to rock over a pond. On these hikes our son is allowed to climb trees, run ahead of us, wade through deeper water, and a whole lot of other things that he's often stifled from doing in our every day life. Children have an intrinsic understanding of wilderness—a forest becomes a playground and teaches them as much, in a different way, as a classroom.

5. Play With Fire

Of course I don't recommend you send your child out into the backyard with a box of matches. But keep in mind, that which is forbidden and unknown to a child is always that much more likely to tempt them to try it out. In the winter, we let our son help us build fires in the fireplace, touch the lit match to the crumpled paper, or the candle wick on the table. And soon enough, we'll teach him how to light the matches himself, and equally important, how to put them out. And in the summer I hand him the stick with the marshmallow over the campfire and teach him to cook it himself. As he grows, I look forward to teaching him how to light the stove and the oven.

RELATED: Parenting a Highly Sensitive Child: My Greatest Lesson

Most of all, even if you don't let your child do dangerous things, it's important to set them up to learn how to do what scares you; the last thing you want to do is raise a helpless adult.

Image via Jordan Rosenfeld

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