50 Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Kids Do — Endorsed by the NY Times!

Hi Readers! My friend and inspiration, Gever Tulley, just got this GREAT write up in The New York Times by the lyrical Lawrence Downes. Allow me to lift it in full:

Playing With Fire

By LAWRENCE DOWNES

Rearing a child is already a journey through self-doubt and guilt, and now here comes Gever Tulley to say we’re doing it wrong, and that what we really need to do is hand our young ones power tools and let them lick nine-volt batteries.

Mr. Tulley is a pedagogical theorist, though not an academic one. He wrote a book, soon to be out from Penguin, and founded the Tinkering School, near San Francisco, whose students do their work with PVC pipe and two-by-fours.

His argument: Children should get out more. They should learn to work with their hands, not just their Nintendo thumbs. Because if they don’t, they risk stunting their independence, ingenuity, curiosity and competence.

Mr. Tulley’s book, “Fifty Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do),” is a rebuke to a world of blunt-edged scissors, insipid molded-plastic playground equipment and perpetual parental anxiety. He believes parents don’t recognize what is most likely to endanger children (car trips, corn syrup). And he says that by engaging in seemingly (or mildly) risky exploration and play, children can become better problem-solvers and judges of risk. Children who don’t get acquainted with trivial danger (No. 5: Stick Your Hand Out the Window; No. 28: Climb a Tree), he says, don’t recognize real danger or can’t handle it when it comes.

Mr. Tulley has no children. His theories probably make more sense in edenic suburbs than in cities with crime. I would not endorse all his 50 things, some of which — like No. 36: Poison Your Friends (with super-salty cookies) and No. 1: Lick a Nine-Volt Battery — are inexplicable or gross. But it’s easy enough to think of good replacements: Dig a hole, roll down a hill, row a boat.

His book reminded me of David Samwell, ship’s surgeon to Capt. James Cook, the British explorer. In 1779, transfixed by the sight of Hawaiian children on surfboards, Samwell wrote: “We saw with astonishment young boys & Girls about 9 or ten years of age playing amid such tempestuous Waves that the hardiest of our seamen would have trembled to face. So true it is that many seeming difficulties are easily overcome by dexterity & Perseverance.”

Mr. Samwell, meet Mr. Tulley, today’s keeper of your nice insight. Some danger can dissolve into fun, if you know what you’re doing.

48 Responses

  1. It’s a great book and play workers on my courses really like it for it’s humour such as plonking a plastic bowl on your head to feel hailstones outside.

    For UK readers of your blog it can be bought on Amazon UK but the price has been hiked to the equivalent of $50!!!! A dangerously expensive book right now!

  2. Tulley’s urban camp–where kids dismantled washing machines–is one I’d definitely send my kids to.

    Licking a 9-volt was my introduction to electricity. *Very* cool, and a great way to instil in young kids (if the small version hurts that much, imagine what 220V might feel like–no, thanks!) that it’s a powerful thing and not to be toyed with.

    Tully’s TED talk:

  3. I did #36 as a kid… unintentionally. Let your kid bake cookies on their own and if it happens, they learn to be more careful. In my case I mixed up teaspoons and tablespoons. I recently saw a guy on a Food Network show (one of those timed challenge things) accidentally grab salt instead of sugar for a dish.

    But I didn’t feed them to my friends. You discover that kind of error quickly when you do another dangerous thing – eating raw cookie dough!!

  4. We love Gever Tulley! After watching his TED talk we went out and got the kids to build fires in the backyard, they loved it!

    Keep up the good work Lenore.

  5. We have this book, and the first thing my kids wanted to do was lick 9 volt batteries.

  6. We put our tongues on nine volts as kids. I don’t know why, except that it felt interesting — shocky, but not so bad as to be painful. It taught us viscerally about the power of electricity, liquid as a conductor of electricity and to stay away from things with greater voltage because 9 was plenty.

  7. Ditto… I can’t imagine NOT having licked 9-volt batteries as a kid. I’m not saying it was smart or that there was any particular point to the exercise, I just can’t imagine a fulfilled childhood without it…

  8. I’m going to stir up a hornet’s nest here, but let’s quit blaming corn syrup for our fat kids. It’s a combination health scare/chemophobia in action. High fructose syrup often has the same fructose/glucose ratio as table sugar and, in fact, may have less fructose, depending on the application. The fact is, our body breaks both sugar and corn syrup into fructose and glucose, so why does it matter on the origins of the sugar? It really doesn’t. HFCS, sucrose (table sugar), and honey are all metabolized the same damn way.

    The fructose isn’t the danger here, its the fact that every single product is infused with it nowadays and we consume tons more of it than in generations past. HFCS comes in great big tanker trucks in a nice liquid form, which cane sugar does not. It is almost impossible to pick a package off the grocery store shelf that isn’t sweetened in some way. More sugar + more sedentary lifestyles = fat people.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/02/business/yourmoney/02syrup.html?_r=1

  9. I let my 5-year-old walk out to the mailbox and get the mail. This horrifies one of my neighbors. Talk about living dangerously!

  10. You haven’t lived until you licked a 9-volt.

  11. “Dig a hole, roll down a hill, row a boat.”

    Wow–those dangerous row boats. I’m not sure he really gets it… and yes, everyone should lick a 9 volt battery once in their lives.

  12. @GregC – I think he does get it. My kids are the only ones at camp that are allowed in the row boats or paddle boats without an adult. I get constant comments about how they could never just let their children go off by themselves like that. He is right on track with what the majority of the parents think, IMO.

  13. The point is well taken. Instead of protecting our kids so much, we need to allow for them to learn through experience, even though at times that also means failing.

  14. I’ve got the book on hold at my library, it looks great!

    I saw this in the news today and I though you would be interested:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/oct/03/sex-education-porn-twitter

  15. Eh. As long as he’s not asking me to require my kid to lick a 9-volt, I’m good with it. I’m big on the “allowing” of unpleasant things (as long as they’re not truly dangerous, of course). I myself never licked a 9-volt, though, so apparently I haven’t lived (I have, as a sometime rural dweller, touched plenty of electric fences, though — does that get me off the hook?).

    I did make dangerous cookies though! In my case, it was figuring I could substitute peppermint extract for vanilla extract. Not recommended!

  16. @Juliet I’m pretty sure we US readers could buy and ship it to the UK for <$50: a business opportunity!

  17. “My kids are the only ones at camp that are allowed in the row boats or paddle boats without an adult. ”

    Unbelievable. Imagine what someone like Teddy Roosevelt would think of all this. Thankfully this sort of overprotective parenting–although pervasive–seems to live primarily in certain segments of our society. It does not prevail everywhere, at least not yet.

    The best adivice I ever got as a parent was, “Your job as a parent isn’t to protect your kids from the world but to prepare them for it.”

    Teach them to swim then let them go!

  18. My sister learned the salt lesson, with instant mashed potatoes. Mixed up teaspoons and CUPS. My mom and I were out somewhere, she called us, and I could see the wheels turning in Mom’s head as she tried to figure out how to fix it before telling her to just throw the batch out and start over.

    We’re actually planning on sending our little one to the Tinkering School, once she’s old enough.

  19. Greg, I think he’s using the expression “dangerous” not to literally mean “full of real danger,” but to mean a couple of things:

    — things that people think are really dangerous, but aren’t really
    — things that have some degree of danger associated with them but can be done without real danger using proper caution or method.

    The problem is that people take the word “dangerous’ and assume it means “putting yourself or someone else in real danger.” Or, they think that anything that has any degree of danger associated with it should therefore be absolutely avoided. The real answer is to learn to take a “dangerous” activity, and learn to do it in a non-dangerous way.

    We had a church picnic a couple of months ago at the home of members of the church. The husband, a young-grandfatherly type, loaded up on the barely-legal fireworks and started setting them off. A few of the moms thought it was “dangerous.”

    It wasn’t. He was applying appropriate safety measures, keeping the younger kids back a safe distance, only letting the older ones help with close supervision, etc.

    Fireworks are dangerous in the sense that misused, they can cause more harm than a banana could under any circumstances. But “using fireworks” need not be dangerous if done properly. I think Mr. Tulley is using the word in the first sense, to make the point that the second is also true: “dangerous” things don’t actually have to be dangerous.

  20. Oh Lenore, you disappoint me! You haven’t lived until you’ve licked a battery!

    Because after you lick the 9 volt you jury rig a holder for AAAs and Ds and you compare the ‘impact’ of licking 2AAAs in series vs. 1D.

    Just don’t lick a watch batter when a small child can see you. Those ARE dangerous.

  21. Tried to get my kids to lick a 9V battery the other day. They refused. I’m going to have to keep trying. My two oldest (8 and 5) can light matches, and know they aren’t toys. For Christmas they’re getting their first pocket knives and rules for using them. A little risk is a good thing.

  22. My friend grew up on a farm. At the age of 8 his mother suggested that he pee on the electric fence. He did. Once. He didn’t ever do it again. I personally think he has the coolest mother ever! I STILL laugh when I think of this story!!!

  23. I still lick 9V batteries just to tell which ones are dead

  24. At 10 years or so we used to build strings of 9V’s and see how it feels when touching with hands, adding one battery at a time. Perhaps not safe but did have fun

    Then I brought in an old lamp ballast. THAT was fun !! powering it from just one 9V battery, holding hands in a chain and jumping a foot all together when the thing amplifies it to 2KV of pure zap

  25. Greg – I think that the confusion around HFCS and table sugar is related to the terms used.

    I’ve read some research that shows that fructose and sucrose are metabolised differently and have different effects. That fructose, especially in the absence of fiber (e.g. the kind that is provided by fruit), is especially good at spiking the blood sugar (which is why diabetics who need to have a sugar boost are instructed to drink orange juice rather than eat an orange).

    That said, HFCS and table sugar tend to have the same mix of sucrose and fructose. In other words, sucrose is not a proper synonym for table sugar. Table sugar should more properly be called r granulated mixture of fructose and sucrose.

    That all said, the real problem with HFCS is that because it is corn, it is heavily subsidized by the federal government via the farm bill. As such, is a ridiculously cheap food additive and therefore gets added to stuff where you wouldn’t expect to see it. That causes there to be “sugar” in foods that you would not expect to have sugar.

    End the subsidy, sharply reduce the problem by making sweetened versions of the product cost more than unsweetened versions. That would be a very good thing for the country as a whole.

  26. BrianJ,

    I’d like to see your research on that, because most of the articles I’ve read indicate something different.

    Here’s another one I pulled up today on pubmed:
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20471804

    From the abstract:
    “The progressive replacement of sucrose by HFCS is however unlikely to be directly involved in the epidemy of metabolic disease, because HFCS appears to have basically the same metabolic effects as sucrose. Consumption of sweetened beverages is however clearly associated with excess calorie intake, and an increased risk of diabetes and cardiovascular diseases through an increase in body weight. This has led to the recommendation to limit the daily intake of sugar calories.”

    Also, I think you’re confusing terms. Sucrose = fructose and glucose, and it is the same thing as table sugar.

    Otherwise, I think we’re on the same page. HFCS is ridiculously cheap and therefore put into EVERYTHING possible.

  27. You need to lick the 9-volt battery to see if you need to get a new one.

  28. I would totally let my kid lick a 9-volt. In fact, I’m sure my husband will be the one encouraging it.🙂

  29. My mom used to let me play with matches, starting at about age 4 or 5. The only rule? I had to do it over a sink full of water.
    I had a great time lighting them on fire, seeing what would happen when I lit a bunch all at once. I did burn my fingers a few times, but I learned to be careful.

  30. My DAD would offer us the 9 V batteries to lick as kids. We would see which ones were dead. He always laughed when we found a live one. He had 4 sisters and then 3 girls. I’m sure we did a ‘ton’ of dangerous things on his watch. Like ride in the back of the pickup and lick batteries. I mowed 2 acres with a riding lawnmower when I was 8. A fact that I’m very proud of, especially when I see teenage neighbors that can’t even mow.

  31. Actually, I think referring to an adult male as a “pedagogical theorist” is likely to get him run out of some illiterate towns.

  32. Mike – ha ha

    Greg – Are you a HFCS rep? I know they hang out on the internet pretending to be real people. Just the kind of sneaky stuff they are willing to do to make sure their pockets stay lined with money.

    I’ve never licked a battery.

  33. Thanks for this post, I would love to read the book. I needed a good laugh after reading a woman’s blog about how the Mormon Church is proclaiming sleepovers “Dangerous”!

    http://adailyscoop.blogspot.com/2010/10/my-favorite.html

  34. Laura,

    Yes, exactly I get huge corn checks for pushing HFCS, which is why I say that its perfectly fine to sprinkle on everything. Oh, wait, no I didn’t, thanks for actually reading what I had to say. Maybe I’m getting checks from Big Science for pushing folks to pubmed. Sheesh.

    I said that there’s nothing in HFCS that isn’t in table sugar, which is true. Its cheapness (thanks to subsidies) makes it ubiquitous (and its tastiness makes it yummy and embiggening). This whole fructose-is-inherently-evil thing has some basis in fact, but people are gloming onto it for the wrong reason. Studies generally show that fructose from HFCS isn’t metabolized any differently than fructose from sucrose (again: sucrose and HFCS are both made from fructose and glucose). The fat of the fact is HFCS just makes it easier to add sweetness and calories to products.

    I do believe we, as consumers, are being victimized. HFCS has made us fatter, collectively, because it is in everything. Its an unintended consequence of a policy to protect corn growers. You ain’t going to lose weight drinking Cokes imported from Mexico…if you keep drinking it in 64oz Big Gulps.

    Here’s an episode of skeptoid that hits most of these points. Listen to it, it’ll take ten minutes: http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4157

    However, you are clever to notice that I’m not a regular person, but a composite of 15 Nigerians who work for Big Cane Sugar. I’ll tell you more if you give me your bank account number and mother’s maiden name.

    Sorry Lenore, I should never have stood on my soapbox in the first place. Bad Greg.

    Also, I routinely lick batteries.

  35. “Greg, I think he’s using the expression “dangerous” not to literally mean “full of real danger,” but to mean a couple of things:”

    I understand what the book is about. He suggests letting your kids drive the car in an empty lot, for instance. I’m just not sure the author of the article about the book really gets it. Rolling down a hill and rowing a boat is pretty tame stuff! I mean, come on. If you get away from certain types of neighborhoods everything changes… There are still kids who fly airplanes solo! Kids ride horses and motorcycles. Hunt with real guns…

  36. Wow a book and an endorsement that says that kids could do things! What is this world coming too? *insert sarcasm here😀

  37. @Sadie- I’m a Mormon, so I heard that talk yesterday. Was somewhat annoyed, but don’t consider it church policy. Whenever I need a reminder that the Church can be free range, I remember that almost all of the characters in the Great Brain series (except the main characters) are Mormons. They’re plenty free range.

  38. I just placed that book on reserve at my library.

    I also recently wrote about my own free range parenting experience at my blog.🙂

  39. I guess being from the rural south, its different. I can remember my oldest son, at 8yo riding his horse with his 1 yo brother on the front, kicking for all he was worth to get it to run faster. My youngest, now 15 gets to drive the tractor and pu when haying at my fil, when I can be there. Not safety concern but his grandpa is a filthy mouthed, racist.

  40. Ok..a confession. I have never licked a 9-volt battery and didn’t know I was supposed to encourage my kids to do it! What happens when you do??

  41. When I was small, quite some time ago, nearly all transistor radios had 9v batteries. I can tell yu from experience licking one isn’t lethal. After the first time it’s also disappointingly undaring, though I and my siblings and nearly every kid I knew didn’t let that stop us.

    My youngest is about to turn 19, and even when he was a toddler my friends and I were commenting about how our children were expected to be intellectual giants, but not to be able to cross the road by themselves. I fell into it because I didn’t want to be talked about. Then I saw sense. My kids climbed trees, took themselvest to the corner shop for lollies and walked to friends’ houses and the park – all in inner west Sydney AND they survived.

  42. Greg: One of the main reasons why everything seems to contain sweeteners nowadays is the “low fat” craze. It turns out that in order to significantly reduce the total fat in a food product without sacrificing all the taste and texture, you have to up the sugar/starch. So we’ve basically traded fat for carbs, with little to no reduction in total calories.

  43. I just looked at this table of contents for the book on Amazon and we did so many of these as a kid without even thinking anything of it (and generally without supervision). I’m pregnant with our first and can’t imagine not letting the kid have the chance to explore. By ages 6 and 9, my sister were allowed to go pretty much anywhere in town (and river and woods) that our bikes could take us and use anything in the garage, except for the stuff specifically for cars.

    But then I think about a cousin’s kid’s birthday party, we went to a few months ago and some of the moms there were talking about how they don’t want to use sunscreen on their kids because they heard it could be dangerous and they don’t want the kids to get skin cancer, so they just don’t let their kids play outside. This was like four different moms who all agreed on this and thought that I was crazy for not agreeing with them.

  44. Teenagers are grumpy because they are treated like 3 year olds.

  45. Beth: When you place your tongue across the terminals of a 9V (square) battery, you’ll get a small electric shock on your tongue (plus a metallic taste). It’s unpleasant but not even particularly painful. I was taught to do this as a method for finding out if the battery was dead or not. It had never even occurred to me that it might be even slightly dangerous.

  46. What about letting your kid use chat rooms? Is that dangerous? – my gut tells me it is

  47. @Alison

    I’m not sure if you mean that in terms of ‘dangerous things kids SHOULD do’, or outright dangerous. Just to be safe, I’ll assume the latter.

    I think by ‘chat rooms’ you mean ‘any form of communication in which the other person’s identity cannot be verified’. Which pretty much means everything but face-to-face. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Internet_dog.jpg

    You know those emails you get from the widows of Nigerian bankers, who have access to 10s of million of USD, but need someone in the US to open a bank account for them, and are willing to share their vast fortune? You know why we keep getting them? They work. People fall for it. Doctor and Lawyer types.

    So yes, email is ‘dangerous’. As are twitter, chat rooms, IRC, Facebook, MySpace, blogs, telephones, texting, postal mail…

    I think the greater danger is that trying to ban such things will make kids more likely to use them behind their parents’ backs, and more likely to fall prey to the bad guys out there.

  48. Yesterday I read a similar article on another website and didn’t quite get it, but your article helped me understand it better. Many thanks!

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