Just last week, I was talking to my kids’ pediatrician about one of the million things I am worried about. At this point, over nine years into our relationship as pediatrician and person who needs reassurance, she handles it by saying just the right thing. I suspect she doesn’t need a long history to find the right thing to say. She always appears so calm through the body part gluings (she has done two of the five we’ve required as a family,) sending us to Children’s when my youngest had meningitis, and taking the role of the voice of reason and reality when I bring up another far-fetched yet real-feeling thing I’m worried about.
Her response included mention of a recent New York Times Op-Ed piece about The Tinkering School in San Francisco and how lately some parents are almost afraid of their kids for fear of making the wrong decision. Ding! Ding! Ding! That IS the way that I feel and man, am I relieved it’s not just me.
As much as I hated saying I hadn’t seen something in the New York Times (I would like to think I’m well read), the reality is I am much more up-to-date on spam-filled sites with celebrity quizzes and regrettable tattoo slideshows, so I had to look it up. The Op-Ed piece talked about the Tinkering School in San Francisco, founded by Gever Tulley and Julie Spiegler to “explore the notion that children could learn by building real things using real tools and real materials.” If “real tools” doesn’t give you even the slightest record scratch in your head, you are all-the-way cooler than me or maybe you haven’t had the stitches-versus-glue conversation amongst medical professionals as much as I have.
Either way, Tulley explains “There are not enough opportunities in a child’s life to be taken seriously, to be given autonomy and to learn authentically. I think they need learning opportunities that respect and incorporate their ideas.” When I read that, I realized that, in our life, that has been true as recently as this month. We taught the 9-year-old to use the toaster, cut me some slack, we hadn’t treated the toaster as a flame breathing monster, but more of a thing that is more likely going to get a fork stuck in it than actual toast. When he was given the details of what was and wasn’t possible and successfully toasted a waffle, he was so chuffed up he made his and his brother’s breakfast for a few weeks straight. Tulley was right, I hadn’t really taken him seriously and even though I fully believe I have to, and am in the process of teaching them to be adults who can take care of themselves amongst roommates to life partners, I could probably be teaching them a little more.
Tulley, along with Spiegler, also penned a book: “50 Dangerous Things (you should let your children do.)” It was mentioned in the New York Times Op-Ed piece and I figured since author Allison Arieff, who outlined some of these 50 Dangerous Things, was admittedly not ready to allow all of them yet, I could take a my own look — a very cautious, nervous look. The book starts out with an introduction for kids, urging them to pay attention and not to “hurt yourself or anyone else.” It is followed by an introduction for adults, which takes parents seriously, explaining that you know your kid best and that some things may be for now and some may be for later. Or as my pediatrician tells me, “meet them where they’re at.”
My husband and I sifted through the list of dangerous things with my “No” votes outnumbering his, though interestingly enough, his “No” votes were a little more spirited that mine, breaking our roles as spazzy yin to unflappable yang. He is not behind #33, “Dive in a Dumpster,” #46 “Superglue Your Fingers Together,” and originally was against #34 “Deconstruct an Appliance,” changing his mind when he realized they could fix the blender together and that no one would touch the insides of a super dangerous microwave. I was surprised at the number of the things I was cool with or that we had already done some version of. Frankly, a good portion of the list doesn’t feel half as dangerous as some of the things I’ve seen happen at hockey, which both boys play and is being mentioned strategically. The boys have sort of climbed a tree, #28, one kid inadvertently played in hail, #02, last week while outside with a friend. I’m not sure if lighting the Menorah counts as playing with fire, #45, but they’ve each done that. We don’t need to “Find a Beehive,” #40, because our yard is “Bee City” each year, with this last summer bringing a yellow jacket nest to the attic.
The boys also sifted through the books, I’m not sure that there were any “No” votes. My oldest would read the dangerous thing and my youngest would say “Totally” just like a dude in bar with a voice that was run through an Alvin and The Chipmunks filter.
We decided on a few things with the boys, now 9 and almost 6 years old, that I otherwise would probably cringe at. Cut to the video of my first-born son, as a 1-year-old, stomping in a puddle at my husband’s encouragement and my visceral reaction of shrieking. The first was #1, “Lick a 9-volt Battery.” Increasing the danger quotient, we took the battery out of the carbon monoxide detector. Truth is, we only have one thing that gives off carbon monoxide and it was off, but that didn’t stop the laundry list of worst-case scenarios for the moments the detector was disabled. My youngest son was 100-percent raring to go with that look on his face only danger can give him. My husband went first, kind of like a royal tester; I mean he signed off on it, he can fall on that sword — which may or may not be one of the 50 Dangerous Things. My husband doesn’t like the taste but it doesn’t hurt and my youngest son flinches a bit, but is unscathed, and if you asked me, now full of other potentially dangerous ideas. My oldest would take a couple of hours before trying it and being fine, because whether nature or nurture, he is a lot like me. Don’t worry, I did it too. In fact, I don’t think my oldest son would have, had I not myself.
Next we took the list outside and went for #17, “Burn Things With a Magnifying Glass” and #6, “Drive a Nail.” We got dry leaves and filtered the sun through magnifying glasses Santa brought, from Teri’s Toybox. Smoke rose almost immediately, which was alarming to me. I was reassured when we couldn’t get a regular old napkin to start fire and that no one has tried to burn anything else, yet. Then, with leftover materials from a fence-fixing project, the boys starting hammering nails. I’ll be honest, I had to walk away from this. The back of a hammer came so close to a certain pair of glasses, and fingers, and knees and I know that they were appropriately supervised and given rules, but I was gonna wreck it. My fear is not completely unfounded as, a child who shall remain nameless, teed up a nail to be driven into our patio table, very inconveniently made of glass. Note to self: Bookmark the part of knowing what items are right for now and which for later.
As the boys stayed playing the backyard, they organically came across #26, “Learn Dramatic Sword Fighting” using brooms as weapons, in an act that would have likely been otherwise unsanctioned. I let it go, I mean Costco glasses are only around 100 bucks, right? I showed them a stick in the yard to accomplish #8, “Throw a Spear.” While that went over with both of them, #4, “Kiss Hello Like The French” only was allowed by one, who still is adorably into it. While still wanting to try some more Dangerous Things, and actively avoiding, #12, “Play with Dry Ice,” #47, “Melt Glass,” or #22, “Bend Steel,” we realized the kids had never properly done something every kid should do, #5 “Stick Your Hand out the (Car) Window.”
As we traveled on the road toward Perrinville (they have some cool stuff over there now,) we rolled down the minivan windows and I heard the best noise. My oldest had hit the spot where the air pulls your cupped hand towards the sky and was laughing. I had forgotten in my worries about little arms, that it’s invigorating, fun and a mostly in-control out-of-control feeling. I liken it to the feeling I got when I tried surfing. The boys laughed and worked to re-find the spot where the air grabs your hand and you think, for a second, you could actually fly. That is the activity that drove the point home for me. While I don’t plan on doing all 50 things, I could lighten up and, as the back of the book says, teach the kids about safety “by helping them learn to navigate risk.”
The last “Dangerous Thing,” #50, is “Your Project.” I asked the boys what their projects would be and my oldest said, “Break Glass,” which is actually #23. The youngest went to town with “eat something strange, break a wire” and “jump off the roof” assuring me, adorably “It’s just part of life.”
— By Jennifer Marx
Jen Marx, an Edmonds Mom of two young boys, is a traffic reporter by dawn and writer and PBJ maker by day. She is always looking for a fun place to take the kids that makes them tired enough to go to bed on time. You can find her trying to make sense of begging kids to ” just eat the mac n cheese” at SnackMomSyndrome.com. If you have a kid-friendly event you’d like to share, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.