Kids, even little kids, are more competent than we think. The reason most of us don’t recognize our kids’ competence is that we restrict their engagement with the world of things in the name safety.
Over time our fears for their safety slowly become the walls that circumscribe their world. Each “be careful,” “slow down,” “watch out,” “you aren’t old enough for that” and each warning that something is “too sharp,” “too high,” and “too dangerous” is another brick in the wall that limits their competence and curiosity.
If we build the wall of safety and comfort too high, they eventually stop trying to engage with and exert their will on the physical world. They don’t build. They don’t run fearlessly down a steep mountain trail. They don’t climb. They don’t jump off of things. They don’t experiment. They don’t take physical risks.
Their potential spheres of competence and achievement become more restricted and more sedentary. When the message kids get is that the outside world is a place of danger, they spend more time indoors, more in their homes. Smartphones, iPads, computers replace the world of tools and physical materials. Indoor play replaces outdoor play. Video games and TV replace baseball, basketball, football, building, and exploring nature.
As an alternative to an emphasis first and foremost on our children’s safety, we might instead begin with an assumption that our kids’ are competent. Maybe our default attitude should be that our kids can do things. Even if those things seem a little dangerous. They can hike a knife’s edge trail on a mountain switchback without hand holding. They can climb boulders on their own. They can use real tools — saws and chisels and hammers.
Maybe we should presume that they are resilient. That they can handle some scratches and cuts and injuries. That they can rebound from a fall when they jump from a perch that is a little too high. That they can recover from bloodied hands and knees when they inevitably trip while running down a steep mountain trail. That they will learn from their failures. That such setbacks will help them to become better able to tackle larger challenges and obstacles in the future.
It is my hope that such a perspective will keep my boys more fully engaged with the physical world. That their world will be less circumscribed and restricted. That they will feel more self-assured and competent in the world of things and in nature.
To do that, I let them engage more fully with physical world and things. From an early age, I have let them run trails where I knew there was a good chance that they would trip and get a good scrape or cut. I let them explore the woods. I let run across and leap between fallen trees at the park. I let them climb and jump off of boulders. I let them use my tools.
I also try to create projects where they get to build real things that they can use. One of my favorite projects with the boys this summer is a tipi we are building. They used real tools to build it. They used my tape measure to mark the 13′ spot on each pole. They cut the ends of the poles with my saws, although I had to confiscate my beloved $175 Lie-Nielson Tenon Saw from Will before he twisted the blade. They helped to raise the poles. They helped to secure the poles tightly together. They helped measure the base for the tarp. Soon they will help to cut and paint the tarp for the tipi cover.
The occasional cut or scrape from a dropped tipi pole or inexpert use of the saw is worth the price for their smiles of accomplishment, their satisfaction from building something real that they and their friends will use, of me getting to hear “I did it dad” as they, for the first time, make the final cut to cut a pole to length.