Let’s open this one with an awkward story.
Our next door neighbors (who have since moved) once left their two kids playing out in the front yard with my wife and our daughter. My wife wasn’t asked to supervise, I guess it was just assumed she would.
Anyway, their five year old daughter climbed onto the hood and then the roof of their minivan. The father saw her from inside the house and came out to tell her to get down and then proceeded to chastise my wife for allowing her to climb on the van.
Interesting, huh? You leave your children unattended and suddenly the only parent left is to blame for your child doing something my wife would have let our two year old daughter do.
Side note: my wife said his daughter told her, “don’t tell my dad I’m doing this.” That’s how effective authoritarian, coercive parenting is, ladies and gentlemen.
There are inherent problems with not allowing children to do anything dangerous. Instead of learning to navigate the world around them (and yes, learn some hard lessons), they are completely unable to handle their own bodies in space and have a difficult time judging the safety of different situations on their own. That, by the way, is a much more dangerous proposition as they get older.
I come from a household of gasps. You know the ones — you trip over your own foot and everyone gasps because they live on egg shells and safety has to come first. It’s enough to give you a complex.
Because of that, letting my daughter do dangerous things creates natural anxiety inside of me. But I know that my daughter is better off exploring the world to the edge of her natural limits, so I purposefully work to stand down.
It’s something I’m a fan of everyone doing. So here’s 11 dangerous things you should let your kids do. If you have one to add, the comments section is open.
- Play with fire. There’s nothing like controlling one of the elements that completely changed the course of human history and the one thing that’s key to survival in nature. Let kids play with matches, build fires, ignite stuff, squirt lighter fluid on open flames, cook over fire, and so on.
- Climb. Climb trees. Climb minivans! Climb on furniture. Climb on stuff that’s sturdy and stuff that’s not. Climb, climb, climb. And if kids get stuck and are afraid to descend, coach them through it rather than rescuing them.
- Stand on chairs (and other unsteady objects). When my daughter stands up in her high chair everyone in the restaurant’s hands start getting tense and their knuckles turn white. You can cut the anxiety with a knife. Look, there’s only one way to learn about physics, folks. Let the bad thing happen. 90% of the time you’ll watch them successfully balance. 10% of the time they’ll learn that standing on things requires special consideration.
- Throw rocks (or other hard things). Obviously, if your child is throwing rocks in a crowd of people, you need to keep the crowd safe. But parents are notorious for setting “zero tolerance policies” for not throwing things. Instead of rules, teach your children to be aware of others, aware of natural consequences, and empathetic for the safety of others. Those are skills they’ll use to make the right decisions without you.
- Go in water without safety devices. I had a hard time with this when I took our daughter to the beach. I wanted to get her some sort of vest just in case the undertow was strong. But, I didn’t. Flotation devices give children a false sense of security and damper their natural fear of the water. She was naturally afraid of the undertow. These devices also make parents more at ease, meaning they pay less attention to their child in the water. If you can’t swim well, bad things can happen — let your kids figure that out.
- Carry a pocket knife. Another hard and fast rule parents tend to set is, “no knives/sharp objects.” That’s not to say you should give Johnny a knife for Christmas and let him run rampant with it — it’s about exploring the benefits and dangers and best practices with your child. Teach (that’s your job, by the way) and then trust.
- Shoot a gun. Tragically, a lot of firearm deaths are related to children shooting themselves. But these are children who find guns who don’t know what guns do. Even if you don’t have a gun in the house, your child could be going to friends’ houses where firearms can be found. The best way for children to understand the benefits, dangers, and best practices of firearms is to be introduced to them and experience them until the novelty wears off and the implications are well understood.
- Use things in ways they weren’t designed. There are parents at the park that I go to who won’t let their kids climb up a slide (those are for going down only!). I’m sure you’ve heard parents tell their kids (and maybe you’ve said the same), “that’s not what that’s for” about a myriad of things. What you think it’s for and what they’re doing with it don’t need to jive. Kids learn by pushing buttons and pulling levers. They don’t need to only push the buttons you want them to push and pull the levers you think they should pull.
- Sleep outside/camp/walk in the woods. It’s a shame that most adults are so out of touch with nature and the wild. The more kids can be outdoors and be allowed to explore, the better. If they decide one day that they want to sleep outside, let it happen. If you’re worried, join them at first and then offer more and more autonomy. The same goes with camping and generally exploring the wilderness in your area.
- Spar. Most large and somewhat intelligent animals spar and roughhouse. This type of play is built into human genetics. Let your chid wrestle around with other kids. I’m also very pro-martial arts practice, provided you can find the right school/leader (this is very important because martial arts can easily be introduced to children in harmful ways — maybe that’s a good idea for a future article).
- Be barefoot. I’ve written and talked extensively about the dangers of wearing shoes. Yes, you heard that right. Kids should be barefoot 99% of the time. Whatever risks there are to being barefoot pale in comparison to the destruction shoes do to developing feet (and all of the side effects that come with that). With that said, common sense is still a great thing (I think if I ever go back to New Orleans, my daughter will be wearing shoes in that city, ha!).
I want to clarify that there’s no set age where these things become appropriate. Some of the items in this list should be extended to children as young as one year. Others might not be age appropriate until five, six, or twelve. It also depends on the personality of your individual child, but you need to assess without a bunch of emotional bias.
Keep in mind that you shape your child’s personality and if you fail to trust them, they’ll suffer for it. If you want to introduce something in the list, but you’re unsure, start by cooperating in their exploration.
This is especially true when the risks heavily outweigh the reward. When something is too dangerous (there’s a few items in the list) for kids to explore completely alone, then you cooperate in the activity and slowly offer more and more autonomy.
Some parents hold the idea that dangerous things should just be avoided altogether and that’s the kind of thinking we need to avoid so kids’ growth isn’t needlessly suppressed by our — often overreaching — fears.
Have something to add to the list? Comment below. I love your input, feedback, and additions.