Ed. note: Gever Tully, DIYer and author of Fifty Dangerous Things (you should let your children do) believes that "dangerous" things we avoid are often eye-opening and educational things we shouldn't shy away from. Here's Tully's take on danger and DIY.
Photo by nttrbx.
Each of us has an idea of what is and isn't dangerous, but when pressed for specifics, it can be very difficult to make a clear definition. In this way, it's a little like great art; "I don't know much about it, but I know what I like." Having spent the better part of two years talking with parents, teachers and kids, I can say with some certainty that no two people can agree on what is dangerous. The parent who won't let his children climb trees may turn around and park the kids in front of the television for two hours a night, and the home-schooling mother who sends her kids into the woods for the day with a sack-lunch and a rifle won't let them walk through the mall alone. Our perception of danger is as highly personal as our phobias — and often about as rational.
These skewed perceptions of the relative risks of various activities lead to fear-based decision making. It's not just the elimination of shop classes and the removal of trees from playgrounds, but somersaults, cartwheels, running and even tag have been banned at numerous schools around the country (and the world) — it's that we start to see this as "reasonable". Over time, the fear of liability causes us to start to perceive these important activities as suspect, despite the fact that every study ever done on the topic of recess activities shows that the more active the kids are during recess, the better they do in school.
The German philosopher Goethe once famously said, "The dangers of life are infinite, and among them is safety." By preventing children from running around, climbing trees and making stuff with their own two hands, we are denying them the very experiences that lay the foundations for genius, creativity and perseverance.
I am often asked by incredulous radio and TV hosts what possible benefit there is in letting a child lick a 9-volt battery, and what is most amazing is that they are surprised that we have a valid answer (it shows kids that taste is an electrical signal sent from our tongues to our brains, and that we can bypass the normal chemical sensing of our taste-buds and stimulate them directly). While this is true for every topic in our book, it is also true for nearly every activity you can think of — but when I say something like that, people inevitably leap to the conclusion that I'm suggesting we give toddlers chainsaws. This is because we are programmed to take things to their illogical extremes. Unfortunately, by always taking things to their illogical extremes, we focus on the worst-case scenario without regard to how unlikely it may be.
Yes, letting kids run around at recess carries the risk that they may injure themselves, but what are the chances that it will be a significant injury? Statistically, it is true that every year a number of children will end up in the hospital as a result of playing at recess, but compare that number to number of children who do not go to the hospital and it becomes an statistically insignificant number. Likewise, teaching a child how to solder carries the risk that they may burn themselves, but will they burn themselves badly?
Small injuries are part of the learning process and we need to treat them as an opportunity rather than an event to be avoided at all costs, because the cost of a perfectly safe childhood is a lifetime of apathy and underachievement.
Fifty Dangerous Things explores the idea that many "dangerous" things that are interesting, eye-opening, enlightening or just plain fun! And while there are aspects of danger in virtually everything we do, the trick is to learn how mastery actually minimises danger. Walking is dangerous when we start as babies, but we persevere and it becomes safe. Next we learn to negotiate stairs. Why stop there? Why not practice and become proficient at walking on the roof or walking on a tightrope? These are just a few of the Fifty Dangerous Things the book invites you to try.