Give a child a knife and you’ll empower them for a lifetime

I’m taking a little break from being the internet’s favourite filthy hippy to write a little something about one of my other favourite topics: children and knives!

Well, more widely, about how capable kids are and how it is up to us to either encourage their skills or make them afraid.

I was doing a bit of cleaning and tidying around the yurt yesterday, trying to get it ship shape. (By “cleaning and tidying” I mean “sitting on the sofa reading The Help”.) I looked out onto the deck and saw that Ramona and her mate Sandy were taking apart the washing basket, pulling each bit of weave out. It was on its last legs already but they were massively hastening its demise. I wondered to myself: do I mind? Well, it only cost 50p from the second hand shop and 50p spent on a thrilling activity where they analyse the process of basket weaving through deconstruction is 50p well spent. Also, very good bit in the book.

So I left them to it. I looked out about 20 minutes later and saw that they had found a bungee cord and had rigged up, from the floor of the deck to a hook on the wall, an enormous sling shot and they were firing bits of weave like arrows into the fruit trees. I was blown away! It was completely genius! They spent another half an hour working out what items fired the best. They are three and five years old and they had pretty much devised a contraption that would teach them about velocity and aerodynamics and they were having a complete blast.

It made me consider how if I was in a worse mood I would have very quickly put an end to this activity. I have done it before, acted out of grumpiness (primarily) when I have observed Ramona making a mess – closing the door on what was almost certainly going to be an amazing learning experience and chance for creativity. (I say “almost certainly” because it is the only way kids are wired: to learn.)

I am glad that early on in our parenting story we decided to consider our stance on risk. As I think, apart from general parenting grumpiness (*puts hand up*) it is our own fear that impinges on these moments. It is our sense of risk that narrows our children’s scope for being able and shorts their learning journey.

Our children often have the natural skill, the ability to focus and the desire to DO STUFF. They have it all there. They just need a few things from us:

A chance
A friend mentioned the other day how her Aunty was on her back for letting her seven year old help chop the veggies. A seven year old? With a knife?! I’m sorry but that is a bit absurd. In some countries five year olds are out hunting. Ramona has been chopping veggies with me for dinner since she was about 2.5. Give children a chance to help, to be a part of things.  With something sharp we can show them how to keep it safe, but then stand back while they work it out.

Photo from our trip to a forest kindergarten in Germany

“We live in an increasingly risk-averse culture, where many children’s behaviour is constrained. We raise them and educate them “in captivity” because of our anxieties. We are continually hypervigilant, as our anxieties are fuelled by stories and images of violent and aggressive crimes. And then we label children as troublemakers or failures because, as a society, we often fail to see their potential.” Professor Tanya Byron

A realistic safety check
We do have a bigger picture and we are able to foresee in a way that children aren’t. We have a policy now of scoping out all the water in an area before giving the kids chance to free range it. However, far too often we cry DANGER! when realistically, the risk is small.

When it comes to sharp knives and cooking – there is no life/death scenario happening there.

A philosophical approach to accidents
Ramona has a burn on her arm from where she was frying something last week. She leant over just too far and touch the side of the pan. Definitely feel like a rubbish parent when out and about- especially as it looks far too much life a self harming injury…

But the funny thing about it is that I have an identical burn – in fact I have TWO on my arm from doing the same thing TWICE. And I am 32 and have been cooking my own dinners for 15 years! Clumsiness isn’t an attribute of toddlers alone.

Accidents happen regardless of age. It is how children learn.

And better a broken limb than a lifetime of being fearful, eh? (I wrote all about that once…)

Our reactions in check
In Letting GO As Children Grow (I HEARTILY recommend this book! Totally underrated) Deborah Jackson talks about how our eagerness to help children learn about safety can actually hurt them much more. She discusses the use of scissors- scissors are really quite harmless yet when a young child picks them up we start to hyperventilate. This reaction then underpins all their future interaction with scissors, making them timid and unlikely to use them well.

And, with mess, consider if it is worth getting the hump over a child’s creative chaos- could this be the moment they realise they want to be the next Picasso- or simply a genius child artist like twelve year old Keiron?!- before balling them out.

Make it a practice to take a few seconds to asses where you are coming from before you react to a bit of risk or deconstruction.

The tools
John Holt talks about how our children are worth good equipment. How is a child meant to fall in love with painting if they only have these cheap paints that have almost no colour to them? My children can craft for so much longer if we do it with nice stuff that works rather than the nasty kids versions.

There is also a safety thing here- when it comes to cutting vegetables, there is probably less damage to be done with a sharp knife than a blunt one was it requires less pressure.

Patience
It is probably the one I struggle with most. When we bake together I am ITCHING to take the beater out of my children’s hands so I can get it done. ARGH WHY DO I DO THIS? I realise that the process is equally as important with the end product with children, but still I have to stomp on my impatient brain particles during it. Last night we baked pikelets and Juno, 16 months, did most of the beating. Pretty amazing!

An open door
For our first five months in the yurt we weren’t hooked up to solar so we depended on candles for light. You can imagine how fascinated the girls were with that. I would sit for almost 45 minutes each night whilst they lit them and blew them out, lit them again. It was important to me as I felt sure that if I was to say no to the playing/ working with candles Ramona would find a way- her urge was THAT strong- with or without me. And without me would be far, far more dangerous.

“If we become the locked door that stands between them and what they want, the only options we’re giving them are to push against us or sneak around us. If we stand beside them and help them figure out how they can get from where they are to where they want to be, then we become their partner.” From Joyfully Rejoicing.

One of the great gifts we can give our children is the space and freedom to discover the world and their own place within it. This is a gift that begins in our own home, as we give them chance to genuinely participate and as we trust them with implements and as we leave them alone without our constant verbal motivation. But it is one that will bloom and grow as they march on out the door.

By embracing a little risk and trusting our children more we are letting them know about their unique and powerful place in our exciting world.

I said something to Ramona in passing once, when she was asking me permission to do something(she does this, I don’t know where she gets it from.) I said “Sure, mighty girl. Go right ahead, the world is your oyster!” It has stuck with her, and now, every so often when she is discovering something brand new or thrillingly reaching her own upper limits, she will shout excitedly, “THE WORLD IS MY OYSTER, EH, MUM?!”

It is, Ramona, it really is.

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18 Responses to Give a child a knife and you’ll empower them for a lifetime

  1. Natalie says:

    Love this! I’m trying to get my kids into cooking with me and had my nearly 4 yo helping me chop veg earlier with a sharp kitchen knife. How else are they ever going to learn?

  2. Nikki Thomas says:

    What a fantastic post! I am the worst parent as I struggle with mess and I struggle to let go of things like cooking because like you say; sometimes it is easier to take over and get the job done. Really interesting.
    Nikki Thomas recently posted…A Levels – we nailed it!My Profile

  3. Belinda says:

    Fantastic post indeed! We don’t have children but most of our friends and family do, so we have heard of the internal struggles of ‘I want them to learn but OMG what if…..’

    I wanted to reply to your post as the Little Women quote you included just slammed into my senses. We all need to step outside our comfort zone and do and learn what we feel is right, in a way that is right for us.
    I gain strength from the kids in our life, who have NO hesitation and just DO what feels right and they learn along the way.
    As an adult, I’m trying to regain that spirit and not think about the ‘what if’s’.

    If it works it works, if it doesn’t find out why and fix it.

    Thanks Lucy x

    P.S day 7 of no poo and my pony tail worked 1st time in, oh, I don’t know how long!

  4. I love this pods and completely agree with it, though I admit I sometimes give in to parental grumpiness about mess and impatience to finish something. Talitha has been cutting veg and even cooking on the stove with me for quite some time, just as my own mother did with me. She’s a lot more careful than I am so a lot less likely to hurt herself! I got a lot of flack for letting her use scissors a long time back (can’t remember how old she was) instead of safety ones. But she hated the safety ones and I couldn’t see the harm in her learning to but with real ones. All of these things are great for their inclusion, learning how things work, hand-eye coordination, motor skills, creativity, confidence, you name it! Wrecking things and making a mess are too. Thanks for writing this.
    Adele @ Circus Queen recently posted…Travel activites for preschoolersMy Profile

  5. Great post, really thought provoking. My kids are 13, 10 and 8 and I must admit I get scared of a lot of things! My eldest is obsessed with knives and always asking for them – always because someone else has got one. He’s a Scout and he goes fishing, so I’ve let him have one, but I do worry as he’s clumsy – hurting himself would be bad enough, but hurting his brother or sister would be worse.
    However, I’m always happy for them to do things like climb trees, even though my son broke his arm falling out of a tree.
    Sarah MumofThree World recently posted…Chocolate medicineMy Profile

  6. Nan says:

    I am SO lucky in retrospect – I got to let my kids grow up in the tropics, in the bush. They fell out of trees A LOT, got bitten and stung by various things, and played with machetes and fire when they were very little. There was no-one around to say “ooh, social services gunna getcha!” In fact, all of the kids in the village were just as wild. It amused me so much when we returned to the UK and my kids became model citizens, tech wizards and geeks.

    Yes, there were stitches, falls, bumps and bruises. But wow, they were, and are, happy and successful. Keep going peeps, let your kids do crazy shit. My teenagers, with their 14 GCSEs in Maths, Music, and Physics and other fun stuff, are testament to the fact that playing is learning.
    Nan recently posted…Keep Working on Love – Lessons From Another DimensionMy Profile

  7. Carolin says:

    I’m totally with you on this one. Ben and I used to always argue about the things that Amy should or shouldn’t be doing, but I find it important that they learn new skills and test themselves at a young age. Amy is very aware of what she can and can’t do and what might be dangerous – even friends have pointed out how good she is at judging situations and I think being allowed to do things (in her own time and at her own pace) has played a very important part in that.
    Carolin recently posted…Things to do in London on a child-free weekendMy Profile

  8. Umm Yahya says:

    Love this and I’m trying to live by it and stop myself from crying “DANGER” :)

  9. gina caro says:

    I love this post! I’m a firm believer in letting children make mistakes and learning from them. There are too many kiddies wrapped in bubble wrap these days. :)

  10. Emma T says:

    I so agree with this post. I think I’m actually more relaxed than the OH – as I am upstairs getting ready in the morning, which means N roams and makes himself breakfast – cereal, or even toast at 3.5yrs. Yes there’s the danger he might stick the knife in the toaster, but he’s never seen me do that and is more likely to call me to get the toast out as it’s hot where he might hold the toaster to tip it.

    He loves cutting things up – and yes, I had to buy him decent scissors (yet, I’m the one with the cut from my really sharp scissors).

    He goes to a nursery with a forest school so while it’s not quite as wild as those in Scandinavia, he does learn where he needs to keep an eye out – there’s a pond, and to date, he’s never had an accident using a tool or being outside in an ‘unsafe’ or ‘unsupervised’ place. It’s usually a bump due to mucking around with his dad, or tripping up a step into the door frame face first.

    I’m hoping I’ll be as relaxed as my SIL, who had 2 of her children using their pen knife to try in the garden…all fine until they caught a pigeon and decided to try and work out how to kill it and skin it. Not so bad given they’re farming kids, understanding pest control etc, except they were with a friend who has very protective parents. I can just imagine him having gone home excited and the parents banning him playing with the nephews ever again.
    Emma T recently posted…Snap Snap – visiting Crocodiles of the WorldMy Profile

  11. Really love your blog, Lucy. Warms my cockles. It also gives me the support I need to believe and practice a calmer and happier approach to parenting. Thank you x
    Leanne Stelmaszczyk recently posted…Give a child a knife and you’ll empower them for a lifetimeMy Profile

  12. teeny says:

    Yeah, it is very very hard to let go when you’ve been conditioned and educated to SAVE your child at every turn. Mine do what they want anyway I’ve found. I recently gave the job of fire-lighting to our son who is 10. It was the best idea….i HATE being in charge of lighting the fire, and he LOVEs the perceived danger and responsibility, AND he is good at it.
    teeny recently posted…Body movesMy Profile

  13. Anna says:

    Kia ora Lucy

    Great read once again. I reckon you’d like this article http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2014/03/hey-parents-leave-those-kids-alone/358631/ If you haven’t read it already! It takes you to a weird redirect and then an Ad, just keep clicking and you’ll get there in the end.

    There might be a few things on this Padlet I created that are of interest too. http://padlet.com/annajoanhughes/playriskoutdoor. Plenty you could add to it I’m sure!

    Oh and my husband Wayne and I have released the babywearing instructional video we’ve been making with a couple of other families for the last 3 years! Would love for you to have a look ;) I think it’ll be linked to my comment???

    Love Anna :)
    Anna recently posted…Behind the scenesMy Profile

  14. Brian says:

    We’ll yes and no. Sure they have to work things out for themselves but they don’t have the life experience of an older adult. So an eye must be kept. Many a child has been hurt or hurt others by running before they could walk. Knowing when to hands off and when to step in is an important part of parenting.

  15. Alfie has been shopping on his own and cooking us dinner for a while now http://fig-tree-cottage.blogspot.co.nz/2014/01/meatballs-for-breakfast.html

    Esme is less inclined to push herself and relies on Alfie’s lead, but even she climbed a 20ft rock at the weekend.

    My challenge is always silencing my little voice of doubt. It’s something that was passed down to me and not something I want to pass down any further. It does mean I have to walk away sometimes though.
    Natasha Batsford recently posted…The 8 Mile Bike RideMy Profile

  16. ali says:

    How timely.
    I was having a conversation with my 8 year old step daughter this afternoon about letting our baby explore. She was mothering him, and stopping him exploring. I asked her if she knows what it feels like to pour cold water over her head so on … of course she did. How does she know this? Coz she has done it herself. It is how we learn.
    ( although I was once berated by her mother for allowing her to ‘play with needles’ aka sewing when she was 3 but thats for another time…!)
    My 4 year old chops veggies with sharp knives ( how frustrating would it be if we were only allowed to use blunt tools?!) And she climbs to the highest branches, doesn’t wear shoes, digs in dirt, probably eats worms.
    Am I scared? Of course I bloody am, I’m a parent. Thats my job.
    But It all comes down to not letting your fear rob your children of experiences.

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  18. Great post, and one I really needed to read! I’ve just spent 5 weeks in the company of my in-laws, who are the most adoring and wonderful grandparents to my son, but my goodness are they ever FEARFUL. I happen to have a 19-month-old who is fiercely independent, and who wants to do things like cut up his own food. So we give him a child’s stainless steel knife and fork and let him at it, having shown him how to avoid his fingers. Not that he could hurt himself with one of those things, but my FIL still had kittens every time he witnessed it. I know it’s out of love, but it was so tiring… And after five weeks of getting my ears bashed about it I did start to second-guess myself, so thanks for the wake-up call!
    Eline @ Pasta & Patchwork recently posted…Easy home made toys #4: First threading toyMy Profile

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