Some years ago I attended a beach barbecue in Juneau, Alaska on a gray summer day. The adults drank beer in a ring around a fire where salmon collars sizzled and talked about the price of boats and politics. The kids ran in a mixed-age herd closer to the surf, clambering over driftwood and getting wet. And then with the sly grace of a trickster god, a ten or eleven year old boy insinuated himself into our adult circle and lifted a burning brand from our fire, disappearing with it before I could so much as determine which adult he went with.
A few moments later, the kids had coalesced around an expertly built ‘kid fire,’ which they had lighted from that stolen spark. This ‘kid fire’ seemed to alarm none of the local adults, and indeed seemed to be a regular feature of long afternoons on the beach in Juneau. I watched with interest as the older children maintained the fire and policed access, allowing younger children only to chuck on small sticks from a distance. This would never fly in the lower 48, I thought.
By now laments about our contemporary overprotective style of parenting are commonplace, though the shift seems tricky to roll back. I am among those parents who struggle with trying to give my children a childhood that isn’t overly constrained, monitored, or stripped of autonomy and adventure. I’ve been in more than one heated exchange with what can only be describes as busybodies who try to shame me as negligent for giving my kids tiny freedoms that would have been completely unremarkable in my own youth–despite the fact that the US is a safer place for kids than it was in the 1980s by many measures. The kid fire made me feel hopeful that there are still places where parents trust older kids with potentially dangerous pastimes and with the expectation that they will keep younger kids safe.
I thought about the kid fire again recently when I decided to buy my own kids and a bunch of their cousins Swiss Army knives for Christmas. When discussing this with the parents, my friends, and online, I heard lots of stories of deep and lasting memories of receiving one’s first knife. I also heard a lot of stories—including one I hadn’t heard before from my own brother—of accidental cuts, often hidden from parents so the knife wouldn’t be taken away.
I hesitated. Then someone on Twitter sent me an anthropological study of how children in many cultures interact with potentially dangerous tools like knives. Turns out that westerners are perhaps uniquely nervous and likely to restrict their kids from risky play. Most parents, while being attentive and loving, are pretty laissez faire when it comes to sharp objects and fire, figuring that kids need to learn how to handle these tools anyway, and that there’s no substitute for experience. Accidental cuts are rare and when they happen, they are part of that learning process. I remember this from my time in the Peruvian Amazon, where tiny tots living in riverside villages wielded machetes and axes with considerably more insouciance and finesse than I am capable of.
This led me to a whole literature out there on the costs and benefits of “risky play,” defined in one study as “play at height, speed, near dangerous elements (e.g., water, fire), with dangerous tools, rough and tumble play (e.g., play fighting), and where there is the potential for disappearing or getting lost.” That same study, a review of 21 papers on risky play, concludes that wrestling, climbing tall trees, making controlled fires, and the like are on the whole, good for kids—correlated with higher physical activity rates, improved social skills, and enhanced creativity. Denying our kids these experiences is, on balance, bad for them—even figuring in the risk for injuries.
I called Jack Perrin, who runs a makerspace and a “Maker Camp” for kids in Washington state that involves letting kids use soldering irons, hand saws, cordless drills—and things that go boom. (Perrin is a friend, and also married to LWON writer Michelle Nijhuis) I asked him about how his tool kit goes over with the kids and their parents. Unsurprisingly, the kids love it. ”They come to a camp and they are kind of blown away,” he says. “Those tools are for us, not for an adult? They have this honeymoon phase where they are crazy over the tool. And then they settle down.” The parents, in general, trust Perrin and are so thrilled by their kids increased creativity and sense of agency that they are willing to let their beloved offspring use potentially dangerous implements.
So how does Perrin determine when a kid is ready for a knife or a pack of matches? Not by age. He pays more attention to their “ability to be engaged in just one task.” Can they pay attention to just the knife and not get distracted while using it? Then they may be ready.
This TED Talk by Gever Tulley, who runs another maker camp, suggests something very similar. He recommends “5 dangerous things you should let your child do”—and the first two are making fires and owning a pocket knife. “You can think of the open-pit fire as a laboratory. You don’t know what they’re going to learn from playing with it,” he argues.
So the kids got the knives. And over Christmas, they tended their own kid fire in a fire pit while the adults were winterizing the garden and splitting wood. They also drove a small tractor and shot a B.B. gun at cans. And when my son predictably nicked his thumb with his brand new knife mere moments after opening it, I put a bandaid on it, gave him a kiss, told him he could have the knife back at a more calm time, and remembered what Tulley said in his talk: “They’re young. They heal fast.”