Last week, my 11-year old son asked if he could use my 18-inch chainsaw to clear dead trees out of our shelterbelt. In the deepest voice he could muster, he stated, “I’ve got that little hatchet you gave me, Dad… but it’s not quite cutting it.” (Not sure if the pun was intended.)
One of the reasons we moved to “the farm” (2.39 acres) five years ago was so that our children could have a childhood outdoors, building forts, climbing trees, hunting rabbits, and reading books on blankets in the brome grass. Sure, we battle ticks and mosquitoes, but the alternative to a childhood outdoors is more dangerous than an indoor, screen-focused, safety-obsessed one. There is a growing body of evidence linking how a lack of time outside leads to a rise in attention disorders, depression, and obesity.
I recently read an article by a journalist from Germany, Clemens Wergin, which challenges our parenting strategy. Wergin moved from Berlin to Washington, D.C. for work and was surprised by how protective American parents are of their children. He writes, “Germany is generally much more accepting of letting children take some risks. To this German parent, it seems that America’s middle class has taken overprotective parenting to a new level, with the government acting as a super nanny.”
Wergin’s article is thought provoking and worth reading. He challenges our philosophy that protective parenting should be our highest value and suggests that we are keeping our children from growth in vital ways. He also criticizes our alternative to “free range parenting,” referencing a study by the University of California that revealed how American children spend approximately 90% of their leisure time at home, usually in front of the television or playing video games on the computer. Wergin writes, “Even when kids are physically active, they are watched closely by adults, either in school, at home, at afternoon activities or in the car, shuttling them from place to place.”Wergin suggests that this hyper-supervision is detrimental, and I agree. Within limits, and with some “safety-related” caveats, our kids need places to roam and spread their wings. One neighborhood north of Wales, England has intentionally created a junk-yard full of intrigue and possibilities for young people. It’s not completely isolated from parental supervision, yet children can build fires, saw wood, and climb tall trees. “In a space 55m squared, with a brook running through it, you’ll see piles of pallets, a tonne of tyres, the odd upside-down boat, wheelbarrows, ladders, fishing nets, various stray hammers (courtesy of Poundland), ropes and punch bags,” reports Anna Moore of The Guardian. The community values children having space in which they are the “masters”; the creators of adventure.
So, would you let your 11-year old son use a chainsaw unattended?
Yeah… neither would I. I did, however, promise to buy him a bigger hatchet.
Where’s the balance? Are we too concerned about keeping our children safe? How do you let your children try new things, run free, and give them room to take risks and make mistakes?