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.
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
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.