“I Allowed My Children to Put Themselves at Risk of Injury”

Hi Folks — I can see myself being just as hamstrung as this mom, who describes herself as a married mother of four who lives on five acres near Harrisonburg, VA, where she homeschools the kids, gardens, bakes, blogs, and reads. On the one hand: childhood independence! On the other hand…yiiiiiiiikes! — L. 

Dear Free-Range Kids: Recently, I wrote a post about the 16-foot high clubhouse that my 12-year-old son built. He and his siblings worked on it for two days before it blew over.

One of my commenters asked me what I thought I was doing, putting my children at risk for serious injury. How could I? she wanted to know.

This question stings, but it also rings true. It stings because it questions my judgment — something I do on a regular basis — and because it implies that I don’t care about my children as much as I should. And it rings true because it touches on the wisps of anxiety and fear I experienced while I was watching the fort go up. I even called my husband at work a couple times to ask him if it was really okay. (He didn’t have a firm answer, either.)

Playing it safe is such a balancing act. On one hand, my son was getting an immense amount of satisfaction from working hard and creating something. On the other hand, there was a chance that someone might fall and break a leg which would be miserable. I’m constantly holding the two perspectives, weighing them against each other. (And I really do picture it as though my hands are physically holding the options, safety versus risk.)

Often, I hedge my bets with the former option — the one with all the dangerous risks — because playful and productive creativity rocks. I don’t want to deprive my children of the deep-seated joy that comes from making something with their own hands just because there’s a possibility that someone might get hurt. Actually, that perspective has its own dangerous side effects, such as lowered self-esteem, fear, anxiety, etc. I think I’d rather have the broken leg.

Hoping I didn’t just jinx myself! — Jennifer, who thanks this blog for the message it’s working to get across.

100 Responses

  1. I think it is great that you let the kids experiment with physics and construction in such a big way! They learned not only how to construct a structure, but to work together, cooperate, make a plan and follow through! I would be happy if my kids did the same someday. 🙂

  2. I think there’s a difference between letting kids learn through play and putting them at risk. Sure, someone could have gotten hurt. But I’ll bet right now, your son is figuring out what he did “wrong” and how he’ll build it better next time. I’d say you have a future engineer or architect on your hands!

    And, I shudder think what everyone would have said as we were growing up without car seats, seat belts, bike helmets, et. al; but we all managed to live through it!

    Great Job Mom!

  3. The slogan of Play Wales, “Better a broken bone than a broken spirit”, attributed to Lady Allen of Hurtwood.

  4. Dear Jennifer, I think I’d rather have a broken leg too! 😀

  5. I think a lot of the problem with people’s attitudes in cases like this is that they don’t understand ‘managed risk’ and work on the assumption that any parent who exposes, in their view, a child to risk, must have done it in complete thoughtlessness and ignorance. They don’t recognise the ability, and dammit, the *right*, of a parent to think through a risk and make a reasonable decision. Instead they see it as some kind of neglect
    .
    To take, for example, someone leaving kid/s in a car for a minute while they pop to the shops, one person might think ‘Omigod! Negligent parent’, whereas the parent might have thought ‘Y’know, what are the chances of a wannabe child abductor walking past right at this moment, looking in my car, and breaking a window to abduct my child in this busy street? Pretty low, I reckon.’

  6. I think it’s great that your kids created something like that! I went through my own bouts of anxiety when we got our fence repaired and my kids wanted to “build things” with the scrap lumber. Like you, I made them remove all the old nails, and then I let them have fun!

    Now, one of my neighbors won’t let her kids play in our yard because she thinks it’s “dangerous,” but my kids have yet to seriously injure themselves in the yard (you know, beyond a small cut or scrape), and it’s been two and a half years of homemade swings, see-saws, slides, and forts. They love it!

  7. Isn’t there a nice, easy middle road here?

    Help them build the fort. You get to spend quality time with your kids, you both get the satisfaction of creating something (an all-too-rare thing in today’s consumerist society), and you can make sure that the result is sturdy and safe (well, sturdier and safer).

    Is there a major downside to this that I’m just not seeing?

  8. I think it is great that they did that. I am constantly squashing down the part of myself that wants to say NOOOOOOOO. My son has no fear. NONE. ZERO. I have no clue where it came from. But there it is. I love it because he is joyous and brave and I hate it because all I can think is LOST TEETH BROKEN NECK ETC ETC ETC. So far all that has happened is a chipped front tooth. I think it is more dangerous to plop him in front of the tv or some dumb computer game. I just constantly have to evaluate the level of acceptable risk. And then he ends up hurting himself in some totally insane and unpredictable way anyhow.

  9. My kids would be right up there too. We don’t have a big enough yard for that kind of experimentation, but they’d love it, especially my oldest.

  10. I’m positive my parents never knew about the “tree forts” we built about a mile and a half into the woods. Stolen lumber from a dump near the edge of a new development; fathers and uncles’ tools stealthily used and replaced. Competition from the new kids, who would tear down and rebuild elsewhere any structure of “ours” they found – until we started building them fifty feet above ground, with elaborate defenses.

    “Allow” never came into it ; )

  11. Wow, what a great learning opportunity for your kids (also looks like heaps of fun). In terms of risk, I would assess that the major one would be falling and breaking a bone. Given that I managed to do that walking down the street (and other kids manage to injure themselves playing wii), I don’t see it is a reason not to do something that obvious scores so well on the plus side. Lucky kids!

  12. I think its fantastic that they have the freedom and imagination to produce this structure. I let my boys build a play structure with my power tools – to the horror of my friends – although it was not as ambitious as yours. And actually I let my boys do much more dangerous stuff as they are in a snowboard team: in terms of potential injury that’s probably the most risky thing they do – but somehow more socially acceptable? Either way I value the experience it gives them.

  13. I am completely with you on this one. My husband is a physicist and I am a dancer with a background in biology. Adventure, exploring building, taking risks like this have never bothered me. Broken bones heal, and this kind of injury from fun and playing does not cause long term trauma. And getting to be outside and be independent out there is very valuable.

  14. loved this post! I liked the way you worded it. that fear you do feel, but you want them to learn. I dont like it when people think I am negligent and dont care. Cause I do. And we do think and worry, but choose the better part! I dont like that we think (or others think) that we dont love our children as much if we let them participate in kinda dangerous activities. Not sure I would have had the guts to let my kids climb it 🙂 but I really do appreciate your words and you are right!

  15. I remember when I was a kid one of my favourite places to go play was an adventure playground where we got to use tools and build things. I also went places I wasn’t supposed to, climbed trees and other things.

    Do you know what I was doing when I had my first broken arm? I was racing my brother on a grass field. He tried to pass me, but ran into me instead and I fell poorly.

  16. My parents let me and my siblings build lots of forts, some more dangerous than others. I think sometimes my dad was more concerned about loosing his tools and all the missing nails than our safety but we learned SO much building those forts. The one that was a bit too high up, my dad helped, at least making sure the primary foundation was strong, after that we were on our own. My brother fell and broke his collarbone climbing up (no fault of construction) and I could have (perhaps should have) fallen from the tree numerous times. Long story short…I’m very pleased that my parents trusted us to make mistakes and learn as we went. My siblings and I have taken those lessons into adulthood.

  17. For what it’s worth, if a broken leg’s the worst thing that could happen, you’re doing okay. My son fell (while ice skating, holding on to one of those walker-things) and did break his leg. After about 10 weeks, he was as good as new. At least, if they fell of the clubhouse they were building, they’d have a waaaay better story 😀

  18. I’m a free range father, and an engineer. There’s no way I could watch that structure go up and not intervene, even if I tried. It just looks so flimsy lol. Even though I would be unable to stand by the sidelines, in this situation, I still agree with the spirit of her decision. The risks are overblown. The benefits of risk are too often overlooked.

  19. Love this post! To all the courageous parents out there who allow their children to take risks, I salute YOU!

  20. Also, some people like to brag about their (battle) scars.

  21. I also agree with Toby.

  22. LOVE it! I get the same comment regularly because I let my daughter ride horses, and have since she was 6 (she’s now 12).

    The worst thing that’s happened so far (knocking on wood as we speak) is she was stepped on once, and was once knocked backward of a stool by the horse she was grooming.

    However, I was leading the draft horse that double-barrelled a 17 year old girl up into the air. Heartstopping, especially when they were deciding whether to land the Flight for Life helicopter in the front field! She was back up on her horse in 6 weeks, minus one spleen and still nursing a couple cracked ribs.

    But — and this is super critical — the girl HERSELF will tell you it was all her fault (and did tell the paramedics that while she was laying on the ground) and carries that valuable lesson with her to this day.

    And our trainer makes sure we know how to fall off correctly – by having us fall of repeatedly on purpose – because it is inevitable. As long as she doesn’t fall on the teeth that just got braces off, we can handle it LOL 😀

    But the gift of confidence that she gets from being able to get a 1500 lb horse to do what she asks (that will translate into backbone in high school), and the responsibility she learns from taking care of that horse, is priceless.

    Learning from experience is invaluable, and I know I am far too frequently guilty of trying to save my daughter the _____ (pain, embarrassment, struggle, etc.) of learning the lesson herself the hard way.

  23. That is great! My kids would be all over it! I would let them do it again in a heartbeat, along with maybe a “what did you learn from last time that can be improved this time?”

    Here is the “when I was a kid” part. We had an old barn that was deemed to rotted to be any good. So it was dismantled for the good stuff, the rest burned. My brother built a tree fort in an apple tree – that had a bee nest in it. I was the only one to get stung ever – and the lesson learned was not to swat at them, which I told everyone. It got so heavy over the years that it had to be propped up with a 2×4 so the tree wouldn’t fall. The stand was on the neighbor’s land (farm) and he didn’t take it down. It was there 10 years later when I drove past. Yup, just like this one, we all could have been hurt.

    Oh, and then there was the zip line that my brother put up when he was 16. It was 30 feet up in the air on one end, 20 on the other. It went over a stone path. We had to climb a rope 20 feet up, then get over the huge branch, (the lowest on the tree) and then climb up to the zip line. It ended at another large tree that we had to shimmy down.

  24. Your kids may appreciate this book: “Steven Caney’s Ultimate Building Book” by Steven Caney. I just got this for my kids for our home school, and they love it. Right now they are using straws and q-tips, but they will move on to the wood as soon as they find some! It may help then to decide what are stronger structures, and maybe some anchoring!

  25. This is awesome! I am trying more and more to be a free range parent to my 4 year old son. My main fear is that he will get hurt and it’s such an internal battle to just let him be. I hate that I get so panicked, but I do. I also fear how others perceive my “free range” style.. I can’t stand the looks and the thought of the thoughts in their heads. This is such an inspirational story. Thank you for sharing!

  26. A friend told his kids, “If you might break a leg, that’s your business. If you might break your neck, that’s my business.”

    I once broke a leg quite badly while skating at a well-known public rink, in daylight, with my father. Should he have prevented me from skating? I’m certainly glad that he didn’t!

  27. I don’t think anyone answered Bob. Is there a major downside? No, not a major downside if you decide, sometimes, to do this kind of thing with your kids. Depends on your kids, how adventurous they are, how well you know their skills, their age, etc. (meaning it’s a judgment call what you let your own kids do on their own, because you know them the best.)
    The downside, in my opinion, is when kids don’t ever get the chance to do stuff on their own. It’s all a balancing act. The benefits of kids doing this kind of thing without adults are many, as mentioned.
    I love this mom’s description of the process of making the decision to let them do it — it’s the process of weighing the pros and cons that we have to honor. My opinion is that there is no right or wrong decision here, just the best decision you can make given your own situation.

  28. Not only that Kathy, but your dad couldn’t prevent your broken leg just by being there, could he?

    (And in case I’m not being clear, it’s a reference to parents who believe they can stop bad things from happening by never letting their child out of their sight.)

  29. I think this post & the one about the mom who asked to “check it out” point to a very clear truth: most of the time human beings are very poor at accurately predicting what other people think & feel. Our brains do not come with little “thought bubbles” like cartoon characters.

    Thus, Jennifer weighed the risks & benefits to her kids, she certainly did worry about and love her kids. The commenter “assumed” to know that Jennifer’s decision to allow the kids to make this fort was rooted in lack of caring or obliviousness to the “risk of serious injury” (yes, a broken leg isn’t actually a serious injury for many children — bones usually heal and kids are not traumatized by every injury. Least of all boys, who wear some of those injuries like Boy Scout Merit Badges)

    Similarly, the post earlier in the week, which generated 165+ comments, was a lot of speculation about what the posting parent was thinking and about what the “check it out” parent was intending, meaning, implying — people were tossing around all sorts of psychiatric diagnoses, calling one or the other parent selfish, weird, maladjusted, and paranoid — really, from three little words “check it out.” Hmm.

    As the check it out thread got more volatile, I decided no one would actually read my suggestion — how about the poster ASK the other parent (from curiousity, not from accusation) — What would you like to check out? Perhaps she wanted to check out the route to the house, perhaps she wanted to check out the neighborhood, perhaps she wanted to check out how her kid would do in a new play situation. The point is — I don’t know what she meant and neither does ANYBODY ELSE unless someone asks her.

  30. I also agree with you, SusanOr, about that other post you mentioned. I like your thoughtfulness and clarity.

  31. “Is there a major downside to this that I’m just not seeing?”

    Making it a “parents and kids” project instead of a “kids’ project?” And thereby depriving them of that experience entirely?

    In a kid’s eyes, those are two entirely different things, even if you try to encourage them to take the lead. They won’t. You’re the parent.

  32. @SusanOr, the threads on this site can get so nasty. So far, this one has been civil and intelligent.

  33. I build forts until the landlord decided that I was doing too much damage to his trees and cut my choice ones down. 😦 Then there was the hidden “caves” and dug outs and other hidden spots where I would go with my friends. and then more tree forts.

    I finally gave up building them when I couldn’t get the materials to make them. Tree forts are a great way to learn construction and Independence.

  34. “Is there a major downside to this that I’m just not seeing?”

    You deprive the siblings of building something together without a parental referee. These 4 siblings worked together, under apparently the direction of the oldest, without their parents to quash sibling battles. And they did this for 2 days.

    You deprive them of the opportunity to experience failure. Yes, building a structure that actually stood permanently with parental help is one alternative. Allowing the children to spend two days building something that ultimately failed is another. The learning experience in failing is immeasurable. I guarantee you that these kids will, by themselves, build a stronger structure next time. And they will have learned a whole lot more than they would of if they had followed a parental lead.

  35. Another engineer here. I’m sort of loving that structure. The way the cross beams are added, it looks like they weren’t part of the original plan and were added when the kids realized a need to re-enforce. Maybe it started leaning when a kid climbed it?

    And now that it blew over in the wind, they probably have learned a little something about wind loading and the need to anchor the structure.

  36. @North of 49 It’s so sad when landlords cut down trees. I’ll never understand why people cut down trees. Trees are what gives the life to the neighborhoods. Everyone around them can benefit from their beauty. I also had a landlord that cut down the tree my kids were building around and playing on. The tree was between 90 to 125 years old, and it was in perfect health and posed no danger to the homes.

  37. I chipped my tooth walking down our tiled hallway from the shower… walking!
    I broke my ankle after peer pressure to jump hurdles from a teacher at school… a teacher pressured me despite my protests that I didn’t want to do the activity.
    I cracked my head open running down a hallway when I was too little to have better motor control.
    These are serious injuries done either inside the house and/or under supervision. I never once hurt myself building forts out of scrap wood miles away from my house when I was little 😀

  38. I would say that there is a downfall to the mom getting in there and building it with them. Parental involvement is great, but kids sometimes learn better by DOING rather than being told HOW to do it. It was a great chance for the siblings to get a HUGE job done, and they will learn from their mistakes and try again!

  39. if there was parental help from me the structure would be worse! lol! I am even terrible at building in lego (I just cant imagine things 3d in my mind. Thats what dad is for… he is awesome at it!)

  40. My son is climber. From the time he could walk, he could climb. At three years old, he would climb up the monkey bars and crawl across the top (not enough arm strength to go across the “normal” way). It was probably 6.5-7 ft up. He’s now 7, and he is often above me at the playground, far enough up that I can’t reach him if he gets stuck.

    I STILL get a lot of comments about how much he climbs. I thought that at some point, his peers would catch up with him, but no. They haven’t. He still out climbs just about every classmate. (I wonder about this sometimes. Is it because he has more years of climbing experience or because other parents don’t allow theirs to climb.)

    I cannot count the number of times I’ve heard “that would make me so nervous” or similar sentiments. But here’s the thing: keeping him down is so much more stressful! Playing at the park would be an hour-long battle between him and me and decidedly NOT FUN for anyone. Sometimes I feel like telling people, “Okay then, YOU keep him off of there.”

    But he is also quite good about knowing when he’s too high and getting himself down. He seems to know his limits and how to step it down a notch when he’s gone past what he feels is safe. He almost never calls for help.

    He did fall and break his arm when he was four, but that wasn’t a climbing accident. That was when he was finally trying the monkey bars and missed the next rung and slipped and fell onto the ground that didn’t have enough ground cover. And the worst part of that experience was that he wasn’t allowed back on the equipment until he was healed.

    He may fall again. I fully expect another broken bone before he leaves home. (Though not many. He rights himself pretty well. Hmm… perhaps learning to climb is also about learning to fall, too.) But I think the physical pain of a falling injury would be probably easier to bear than battle scars he’d wear from going up against my will and being beaten back every day of his life.

  41. Amazing. Lucky kids!

    When assessing risk, it isn’t just about evaluating how “big” the risk is, it should also include evaluating what can be gained by taking that risk. Child led cooperation, problem solving, tool use, being physically active, fun…name something without risk that could give a kid all that!

  42. Oh, Jennifer, what an amazing structure, and what a superb experience for the kids! As for the risk of broken bones, legs in this case, I have three kids. Well, they’re all adults now, but they were kids once upon a time. All of them climbed trees, skateboarded, biked, etc, even skied while still young. In all that there have been four ER trips for stiches, one my older son falling on a glass coffee table, five stitches in his forehead, one, same son, glancingly hit by buddy’s dad’s car because he pulled out of the driveway headed to work, realized he’d left his work keys behind, backed in and did not see that my son had just dived for a ball in the driveway, no way he COULD have seen him, it was a fluke, six stitches in his forehead, one more, same son, got hit in the mouth with a hockey stick at school, three stitches in his chin. My darling daughter,11 at the time, who on New Year’s Eve at 10:30 in the shower was tugging at the curtain because there was a draft, couldn’t get it the way she wanted, so stood on the wet edge of the tub, slipped off, grabbed the edge of the medicine cabinet and cut her finger badly enough for four stitches. ON NEW YEAR’S EVE! Long night, we were not a high priority. Both my sons have gone through windows, no cuts, much less stitches.

    The only broken bone amongst them was again my daugher, who really is my darling. Three years old, her big brother, 19, taking her into the kitchen to feed her dinner because I was ill and headed up to dive under the blankets with a cup of tea. She decided to lay on the floor, he took her hands to lift her, she put her feet against his chest, as he lifted her leg hyperextended, he called up after me, ‘Mom, I think Meg broke her leg!’ She got down and ran into the kitchen, the doc said no way it was broken if she was running, X-ray next day confirmed, yes, broken, clear through under the knee.

    My favorite photo of her is when she is 8, 35 feet up in a tree, crowing with joy.

    I have no better idea now than I did then why the injuries happened, nor how they could have been prevented, short of wrapping the kids in cotton batting and not allowing them to move. Perhaps I’m more fatalistic than some, but it just seems to me that we pretend to a degree of control over our lives (not just our kids, ours too) that is impossible, and in our attempts to exercise that control we give up more and more of what makes life worth living.

    So, if you don’t mind I think I’ll copy the pic of the clubhouse so I can vicariously enjoy that moment. And hurray for you and your kids!

  43. If one of the children had fallen down, then the child had fallen down. You can’t work safety harnesses into everything, nor should you or assume that one of the children WILL fall down. I was born in the 70s when you could, basically, run around as you pleased. I tended to fall over every now and then; a few visits to the ER came out of it but I also did learn what is risky. And what can be risky but you can’t really do anything about. I was playing one day and my shoe laces got tangled up. I fell head first into a curb. Looked like hell afterwards, broken nose, wounds, but it healed well. I guess my parents could have prohibited any running after that but they didn’t. They saw a few visits to the ER for stitches, a broken arm (another siblings), as something fairly normal for growing up. This said, accidents where children and adults are seriously injured sucks. Accidents can happen and/or be found wherever though.

    Let it be that the fort blew away a bit later but they built it. They built it themselves, THAT builds confidence. Next time they feel like building something that might be question nr 1 for them. What do we need to do to keep it in place?

  44. This discussion reminds me of the time I had a shack in the back yard. I decided to add a second story (storey for our British friends) and started to do so. Shortly thereafter, a cross-piece I had added as a safety railing came loose when I leaned on it, and down I went. Nothing broken, but I had a nasty bruise where I bumped a fence picket (fortunately a rounded one) on the way down. I don’t think I was told to abandon the idea, but materials were running short so I henceforth stayed at ground level. When I was about ten, I cut a finger with a hacksaw. I walked into the house, washed the cut and put a bandage on it. No big deal, although I still have the “battle scar”.

    And I’ve probably already told the story about my daughters helping on the track crew at the Railway Museum when they were in the 9 to 12 year old range.

  45. I remember when I was young and my next door neighbor (and my friend) was always building stuff. Encouraged by his parents he took apart his Big Wheel to make a unicycle, built his own scooter, etc. I especially remember when he wanted to build his own boat. He spent hours putting this square boat together and his parents let him take it down to the river where it promptly began to sink as soon as he got in it. On the way home he was already trying to figure out how to fix it. I’ll bet he learned more from that than any physics lesson.

  46. Reminds me of the time my sister (about 8 at the time) spent a week building a raft out of abandoned lumber, etc. All day, every day. It sank immediately when she put it in the water, but what an experience!!!

  47. That fort looks better built and sturdier than a lot of houses I’ve seen go up recently.

  48. Let them build! Out of five sons and one daughter (on a farm no less) we ended up with one broken toe, five broken fingers, two concussions, and countless stitches in 25 years. I would say that is a great track record. They built a fort that would have rivaled Ft.Knox along with cross bows. They swung from the rafters in the barn and landed in piles of hay (not the soft landing that you would suspect). They operated power tools and drove before they were 10. Let them live and explore they and you will be better for it.

  49. Yes, you are putting your kids at risk of breaking a leg (or an arm, or getting a concussion, or splinters or some other ‘owie’). Oddly enough, I knew a number of kids throughout my life who broke legs or arms or got concussed, and they are still all alive and kicking. If your aim is for your kids to never have any sort of injury, then you are setting yourself up for disappointment. I can only hope that, someday, my children will have the initiative, wherewithal and yard space with which to try and build their own playhouse.

  50. I would have let them do it but given them one piece of advice: Triangles are the most stable shape to use in construction.

    They can break a bone doing just about anything, INCLUDING supervised activities. Might as well be while they are having fun and learning.

  51. I’m confused, when did we decide as a society that breaking a bone was a tragedy? Why is a risk of injury an unacceptable risk? Kids heal, kids heal quickly and effectively, especially from minor injuries like stitches, broken bones, scrapes and bruises. My siblings and I have all broken bones and needed stitches, I don’t think that it has ever occurred to any of us to blame the adults that were in our lives at the time. Is there really an entire generation of parents out there today that are so angry with their parents for allowing them the freedom that resulted in a broken bone that these parents will not allow their children that same freedom? In my childhood I required trips to the ER as a result of rollerblading (broken arm), horseback riding (concussion & broken toes), dancing pointe (broken and infected toes), riding my bike (stitches in my face and leg) and fishing (removing a fish hook from my palm), but I loved those things, and I’d never deny my child the opportunity to do them!

  52. You can watch your kids constantly, or you can have a life of your own, you have to make the choice. I’m glad I chose the latter since soon my kids will all be out of the house and I’ll still have a reason to get out of bed in the morning. What do people do whose life centers constantly around their kids?

    Now, my kids say: Mom, if you knew the kind of stuff we did in the barn, you’d have a heart attack. My response is: Why do you think I never went into the barn?

  53. I like what one of the commenters above said about managed risk. Yes, there is some risk involved in letting the kids build a fort, but there’s just as much risk in stifling their creativity. And as far as I’m concerned, if you make it through childhood injury-free, you’ve done it wrong. 😉

    I still don’t know how I made it through without any actual broken bones, but my knees are basically nothing but scar tissue and every last one of my knuckles is swollen from being jammed so many times because I insisted on playing basketball and football with boys twice my size. Totally worth it!

  54. Everytime you get out of bed and walk down the stairs there is a risk you will fall down them. I think it is important for children to learn and figure things out themselves as long as you are supervising. I did horse riding all my teenage years and fell off numerous times and even got knocked down by one. Now I am a mother I will let my children learn to ride as my memories of riding and hacking on my horse are the best of my teenage years.

  55. Not only do I love that this mum let her kids build this fort, but I love the positive feedback. My spirit has been lifted. Thank you all.

  56. I built forts. I fell out of trees. I had a six foot 4×4 fall on my head. I stepped on a nail that went completely through my foot, and still on crutches but unable to stay away from my beloved construction, stepped on another. None of that mattered beyond the immediate pain and inconvenience. What mattered was that I was building something of my own. My father knew what I was doing, and was willing to offer advice, but he let me do my thing. If I blamed my father for my injuries, or let anyone else blame him, I’d be an idiot and an ingrate.

  57. I’m glad no one got hurt anyways during the fall of the fort! Maybe on your child’s next attempt, you can help him out with the blueprint of the fort to make it a bit safer. Keep the fort a bit low as well. It’s always great to let your children be hands on with everything in life. Building something on their own is very rewarding and good for their education. Why not keep them busy with more safer options such as planting and organic garden?

  58. Hahaha! That’s a crazy looking “fort”. Kudos to your boy. And I would agree with you as well, the inevitable negatives of suppressing children to grow and learn is more scary than the possibility of cuts and broken bones. Bones heal, we learn from them, so that we don’t make the same mistakes again. We NEED that. A broken spirit, or a spirit that never flourishes can never be mended.

  59. Now this is a dilemma worth having. A few comments: Firstly, what a great construction. You can immediately see the lessons of stability and structure that the kids are trying to understand. And wow, they somehow got that nailed or screwed together like that. It fell over. Brilliant! I don’t read anything about what they learnt about the technical and safety issues but there’s a host of material there and that provides real tacit learning they will never forget and might take another child to grow up, do an engineering or building degree or never understand.
    Secondly, pedagogy. The trickiest part of homeschooling is that parents aren’t professional educators BUT you need to treat yourself as if you are. And the professional, essentially, is a person who can think independently in a problem solving situation. Often that means by asking a dozen questions of the situation so the correct method can be applied. You are quite right to ask about safety. And here you are also doing some action research (some people get paid to do it). And the dissonance is very good. It is keeping you alert to the nagging question that something needs to be resolved. To me ‘Free Range’ is about the competence of children to be independent in various situations, and the competence comes from the communication with their parents. So the questions to get truthful about are: am I being a great communicator with my children?; and, for this particular situation, can I mentor my children appropriately to the task? I suspect you are doing just fine, especially to the first. To the latter, you also have to look at how you can be confident that the kids are learning technical know-how adequate to the challenge. This is trickier. Safety and competence increases as these two things converge in a wonderful interaction of enquiry and action.
    A word on independence. This does not mean alone. It means confidence with your own abilities of mind. And those abilities are social, metaphorical, technical, and spiritual. Together they mean bringing your best game to working well in teams or as a society.
    Thirdly, risk is culturally determined. We can actually take more risk in western society because of the good access to emergency medicine if things go wrong. In some parts of the world, even today, failure, a broken leg, means death. Therefore small children might be closer to mothers because of large environmental risk, than even in our clingy society, yet are quickly moved on to a more competent phase. A child of 12 is really doing everything an adult would do and understanding the risks. There is capacity for competence in risk analysis as well.

  60. Yeah…. Jennifer’s leg is broken through the skin, she’ll have a limp for the rest of her life. Tommy got a nail in the eyeball and now only has 1 eye. But its worth it, because Jeff’s feelings were not hurt, and he has good self-esteem.

    Lady, you could always suggest he start small, with like a birdhouse, or a doghouse, the doghouse you even, can fill with a dog if you don’t have one. Maybe have him do stuff like that, until he’s a competent enough carpenter, that you’d risk your other kids’ LIVES on the quality of his work?

    P.S. Does your house need any work done? I work fairly cheap?

  61. Not against the idea…. just thinking, have the kid start off smaller first, before risking health of other kids. “Jeff” understands the risks and such wanting to build it, but Jennifer and Tommy might not know that it might not be dangerous. Or might be so anxious they don’t wait until its safe/finished.

    After a few projects he might learn the importance of a strong foundation. Like are those 4x4s just free standing on the ground? Is the ground level? Were they buried a bit in the ground? Did he just fill in with dirt, or use concrete? etc.

    Trial and error, typically building up to something is good. Like, I’d have a kid try and make a model volcano first, before I had them mixing chemicals with more volatile reactions.

  62. “Yeah…. Jennifer’s leg is broken through the skin, she’ll have a limp for the rest of her life. Tommy got a nail in the eyeball and now only has 1 eye. But its worth it, because Jeff’s feelings were not hurt, and he has good self-esteem.”

    Except that those things didn’t happen. Maybe she’s a pretty good judge of how sensibly her kids will handle tools and equipment and supplies and how they judge what are, and are not, stupid risks to take?

  63. I realize this is a late post to the thread but here goes.

    What’s so terrible about a broken leg?

    Seriously. When I was a kid there were at least a couple of kids a year who came through class sporting a cast on their arms, hands, or legs from having gotten into something or other. My specialty was broken fingers from playing sandlot baseball.

    I can’t remember among my kids more than one cast among their classmates in a decade of class years. That to me says: yeah, we’re more safety conscious. Hallelujah, etc. etc. But at what cost?

    When I was my son’s age I ran through construction sites, played in sand pits, ran through the woods, fished in the local creek, all in a sort of suburban-small town area. When I was just a bit older and we moved to the city my parents let me go all over the place (sound familiar?) on public transit. I had misadventures: I had my pocket money stolen by older kids once, I got robbed downtown, I ran out of money once and had to walk a miserable five miles home without more than a sweater in cold weather. All of these things, I survived and learned from. I plan a bit better, but I’m also not so afraid of the plan going wrong that I don’t enjoy a few misadventures to this day.

    So: let your kids build their fort. If there’s a couple around, if one gets hurt, they’ll go for help. Don’t worry in the meantime.

  64. “Why not keep them busy with more safer options”

    Because she’s not trying to “keep them busy” or distract them from what they WANT to do by trying to convince them that they really want to be gardening instead. She wants to let them do what they want to do, within reasonable limits. And knowing her kids, she judged this reasonable — and she was right.

  65. Owen59 raises a good point. Access to decent emergency medicine does increase a person’s ability to take ‘unnecessary’ risks (what might be termed as ‘fun’ risks). And things like heat and humidity can add to the seriousness of simple things like grazes and bruises. We are fortunate that we live in the first world and can allow our kids to have fun like this without consequences usually being too drastic.

    In Malaysia, where at the time public emergency medicine was crappy, at least in the city where we lived kids seemed to take few risks climbing etc. (They still had no compunction, though, about wading through the filthy streams/sewers to rescue soccer balls etc, so their assessment of risk was a bit different than mine!).

    Am glad your kids had a good time, O.P!

  66. From my own youthful adventures I know exactly what they’re doing wrong there…you’re supposed to build it in among the trees so that you get a little help from Mother nature.

    (And no nailing into the trees. Have they every done anything to you?)

    Tell them to go back and try again.

  67. owen59, that was an excellent comment. Very well thought out.

  68. owen59 – That is very true about medical care. I am more cautious about what we do now that I live in Am. Samoa where medical care leaves something to be desired. Clean breaks can be handled sufficiently. I’d probably head to the States if a break needed surgery. Major injuries require life-flight to Hawaii. And infection can be a major concern. All kinds of weirdo infections down here.

  69. Yep, Donna….I confess to being stupid and not being overly concerned when my then 6-year old fell over and cut his knee (mildly, I thought). He developed an infection (because of the heat and humidity etc) and was ill, and at 15 still has the scar. All’s well that ends well, but for the remainder of our time there I paid more attention to ‘minor’ cuts etc.

  70. Hineata, I was told to buy neosporin and use it liberally as soon as I got off the plane. I never used neosporin at home but here we put it on. Between the heat, humidity, ocean and just generally different germs than we’re used to, cuts are an infection waiting to happen. Even broken bones are something I’d like to avoid. That would require weeks of no beach, pool, bike riding, snorkeling and hiking. Not a tragedy per se, but an immensely boring time on a tropical island with the only non-active entertainment being 2 movies (not movie theaters; two screens which have yet to be anything good).

  71. My 14-year-old sprained his ankle just running around a church basement and needed a walking cast. There is simply no way to keep the kids safe. Put a helmet on them and let them have fun.

  72. You Go Jennifer! Let kids be kids.

  73. BTW, teaching them to garden is a great idea on a lot of levels, particularly if they research the process and plan things themselves with a little guidance — but not in lieu of letting them explore their own ideas.

  74. I am a Canadian kindergarten teacher who spent 3 years teaching at an international school on Denmark. Your post reminded me of a moment I was supervising the kids on the playground with my British colleague. I was constantly telling the kids to be careful, to not climb up the slide, etc. And my British friend laughed at me and said, “what’s the worst that can happen, they could break an arm, no big deal” that one comment changed the way I relate to kids. Good for you, for trusting your children and understanding that sometimes, a broken leg is worth it!

  75. Just had a thought. The main problem with the structure is its height. You could (if you wanted) say to the kid: “for your first attempt, keep the height under (fill in the blank). You’ll learn a lot and your next, taller, structure will be more likely to last.”

  76. “they could break an arm, no big deal”

    I do question this mentality – that a broken bone is no big deal. Many require surgery. Even in the best of circumstances, your child is looking at several uncomfortable weeks in a cast and a substantial limitation of activities. Not a tragedy but not “no big deal” either.

    I’m not saying that kids should be prevented from doing all activities where a broken bone is possible because that would encompass just about everything and in most a broken bone is highly unlikely. Thousands of kids go up slides every day but very few actually break am arm doing it. But I’m also not going to brush off a real possibility of a broken leg as “no big deal” either. If I had a clumsy or easily distracted kid, I may not let him on this particular structure due to the high likelihood that he’ll fall off and a fall from that height will result in a broken bone or something more serious. Another kid with better balance or attention, I would allow even though a fall is still likely to result in a broken bone because the fall itself is less likely. All things considered, I’d be perfectly happy if my child never breaks a bone and I do consider the real likelihood of a broken bone before okaying activities.

  77. Yes let them experiment with building and have fun and learn! Great idea.

    But as a parent your responsibility is to keep a watchful eye out (perhaps unseen) in the background.

    This structure became a hazard sometime after the second “floor” was added. Its flimsy and the girl & boy on the top level are very lucky not to have been seriously injured.

  78. After my daughter broke her arm jumping with our host’s daughter on their sofa, she then spent a 10-day beach vacation in Mexico unable to play well in the sand and unable to get wet. Four months later, she’s completely fine. The thing is that now, at six-years old, she will engage a total stranger about their brace or device, including one who had obviously had issues from birth. And yes, I’m trying to advise her to be appropriate and deal with the danger stranger issue–it’s a tightrope act (Grrrr). So far, most of the little encounters have led to exchanges that I suspect that person savored and maybe cherished as I do.

  79. Good parenting keeps kids alive. Overparenting sucks the life out of them.

    Who cares if someone breaks a bone? Chances are (if it actually happens) any break will be your average run-of-the-mill break that will not ruin the kid’s life. Kid will spend time with a cast, get to be pampered, heal, and move on.

  80. Everyone comments about breaking a bone. Friends, from 16 feet, more than a bone is broken. Think about internal injury, brain hemorrhage, paralysis.

  81. Dr perfection said “Everyone comments about breaking a bone. Friends, from 16 feet, more than a bone is broken. Think about internal injury, brain hemorrhage, paralysis.”

    Exactly!

    It’s great for kids to have fun outside and learn to build things but if that clearly unstable structure had collapsed while there were children on it, they would have been lucky if all they had were broken bones!
    The mother who wrote about herself nervously watching this should have listened to her gut instincts and intervened. Anyone can see that is a hazardous thing to be climbing on!!!!

  82. I’m not saying that kids should be prevented from doing all activities where a broken bone is possible because that would encompass just about everything and in most a broken bone is highly unlikely. Thousands of kids go up slides every day but very few actually break am arm doing it.

    A kid down the block from us literally broke her leg WALKING down the hallway at school. She was in a wheelchair for at least two months, possibly more. But there were witnesses, she wasn’t even running, it was just a freak accident.

  83. I think that if mom is near, that is fine. The second floor does not appear to be unsound, it is more the fact that the whole thing was not anchored properly, which they did discover, when NOT on it.

    The boy and the girl on the second floor are lucky. They are lucky that they have a mom who will let them take chances. Honestly, I think the broken bone argument is over done. All this “could have happened” – yet, it DIDN’T happen.

    Yesterday while driving, I passed a most wonderful dirt bike course done in a back yard. It had ramps, lots of dirt hills and such. My kids thought it was great. People let their kids take risks all the time, (dirt bike riding, mountain bike trail riding, horse back riding, skiing, skating, bike riding on roads, riding in the car, climbing trees, learning how to shoot guns, learning how to drive tractors, learning how to use wood working and other power tools, learning how to use knives, mountain climbing, swimming, rock climbing, and this one, the building of the fort is not greater than many others.

    Here is a link I found in a paper this morning about how playgrounds are safer, but injuries have remained the same: http://www.santacruzsentinel.com/ci_20095491

  84. “Who cares if someone breaks a bone?”

    The person whose bone is broken for starters. In fact, I bet if someone was trying to break your leg, you’d probably do whatever you could do to convince them otherwise. Broken bones are certainly not tragedies to avoid at all costs by sitting on the couch and never moving but not a danger that should be treated frivolously either.

    The fact that people ultimately recover is not the point. People actually recover from most injuries. Even if they don’t completely recover (amputations, paralysis), they do generally adjust and go on to lead positive lives. That doesn’t mean that non-fatal injuries are not miserable when actually occurring. There is a middle ground between wrapping in bubble wrap and blowing off every injury except death.

  85. Ahh, late to the party.
    Do a risk analysis: this is something you are doing all the time, informally. If you have a big “uncomfortable moment”, though, it helps to analyse why. Draw out a probability/ consequense table. Take a look at your scatter pattern on probability and on consequense. The severest consequenses folks here have commented on involve broken bones; loss of limb or eye; long-term disability or death. Now, stack that against the probability of any of these happening. If you consider the consequense probable, how do you mitigate probability? Mom and Dad considered how to mitigate consequense by limiting structure height (You can see that, right? a fall or hammer drop from a lower height will cause a less serious consequense or injury). They knew the participants well enough to consider the probability of the other mentioned consequenses (because you KNOW they thought of all those consequenses, plus more besides) low enough to be acceptable. Perfect risk analysis, and sound reasoning
    Now, and this is a part of risk analysis that’s often missing, overlay another table. This one has the ‘upside’ to the exercise, and the sliding scale of probability affects this as well. Independence, critical thought, practical geometry and mathematics,intimate understanding of live load (incl. wind and movement) on structure… and now consider, if you mitigate probability on one table, you are negatively impacting probability on your “positive” table. Mitigating probability by including direct adult supervision changes the “positive” table in a disproportionate way. So do many of the other mitigating factors suggested here. What it condenses down to is each individual has a different level of acceptable risk. Those who put a disproportionate emphasis on consequense may profit from mapping consequense in conjunction with probability; considering ways to mitigate probability; and overlaying the analysis with the “bluesky” table.
    -Prairie Girl

  86. […] day after this happened, I read this post from Free Range Kids, with it’s accompanying photo of four siblings climbing on a precarious 16-ft-high fort they […]

  87. Jennifer, great job knowing what your kids are capable of doing and letting them learn and do according to their ability. Not only did they learn a lot from building the fort, but also in it’s failure and hopefully in it’s resurrection.

  88. To the commenters who think this is risky, I would ask: do you ever put your child in a car? Being a passenger in a motor vehicle is the most dangerous activity most Americans will ever participate in, and it is the leading cause of child mortality per CDC statistics.

    So, have you ever deliberately put your child into a car? How can you justify your shockingly high tolerance for endangering your child? It’s hypocritical for you to be a scold about this relatively benign play.

    Children routinely survive falls from twice this height onto pavement. Onto turf the danger is even less.

    You can’t assess risk if you don’t have information. Guessing about dangers will lead you into ridiculous worst-case thinking.

  89. Jay,
    That is an absurd argument.
    There are many ways kids can learn play and have fun.
    It’s appropriate as a parent to intervene when due to our greater level of experience we can see the danger in something that a child may not.
    For example, we teach them how to cross a street safely. We don’t just let them go out and experiment with crossing the road to see what works!
    That structure is hazardous, a fall from the top or being hit by falling lumber can easily break bones, cause head injury , and life threatening injuries. Or worse. And for what ?
    Risk does not outweigh the reward in this case.
    Sorry!

  90. Susan,

    A ride in a car can easily produce the bad outcomes you mention, and does so many hundreds of times a day across the US. My point is that a person who will allow her child into a motor vehicle (as many of us do) has a tolerance for child endangerment that is already extremely high — far beyond the threshold needed to tolerate construction and play projects like this fort. It may be an uncomfortable truth that we have normalized the dangers inherent in driving, but the fact that everybody does it doesn’t reduce its risk. In fact, it increases it.

    But since we have already established this high tolerance, why arbitrarily abandon it just to prevent a child from building, learning and experiencing the gratification of creating something for himself? What is the rationale in elevating such statistically improbable dangers above the far greater ones we blithely subject our families to every day?

    To extrapolate your comments, it seems that you’re arguing that “risk vs. reward” is somehow satisfied when a parent puts his children into the car to run to the shops, but not satisfied when a child wants to learn to build an impressive structure through trial and error. If this is an accurate characterization, then I believe the contradiction is plainly obvious.

    Or maybe you don’t drive your kids except in emergencies. If so, kudos on your prudent caution toward the number one killer of children.

  91. Jay,
    You think driving is more dangerous than that fort? What??
    So you think the risk of a child becoming seriously injured going for a ride in their family car is greater than the chance of them getting seriously injured playing on the top level of that particular fort?
    You have got to be kidding! Take another look at that fort.

  92. Susan,

    If your argument is really going to be: “look at that fort!” I suppose I’m wasting my keystrokes.

    The statistics for death and mutilation by motor vehicle are easily obtained on the internet, and they are alarming. The same statistics for the construction of this fort are also available: zero.

    If I continue to travel in cars, I will inevitably die in a motor vehicle accident. That’s as inevitable as the sunrise. The only thing that can prevent it is the other thing that kills me first. This is true for every driver, every passenger. Auto makers spend millions to demonstrate that they’ve slightly mitigated the risks of this inherently dangerous activity, and our marketing-susceptible brains interpret this as “safety.” We believe this because we want to, and because it would be inconvenient to acknowledge the ongoing dangers we choose to engage in.

    And every time we drive, we’re multiplying the risk. Some people take multiple trips *a day* with their children in the car.

    That is our baseline for risk. This is the most dangerous thing most Americans will ever do. And we do it routinely: hour after hour, day after day. We subject ourselves and our children to this danger.

    This fort is trivial by comparison.

  93. LOL. I think this is FABULOUS, and tell your son that another mother-of-4 says he should use a nail-gun next time (after you show him how to use it safely), because the building will stay up so much better!

  94. “If I continue to travel in cars, I will inevitably die in a motor vehicle accident. That’s as inevitable as the sunrise. The only thing that can prevent it is the other thing that kills me first. This is true for every driver, every passenger.”

    This is an absurd statement. Yes, you are wasting your keystrokes.

    You need to learn about statistics. It’s really not that difficult.

  95. Jay, while I have sympathy for your point that we ignore very real risks like riding in a car while thinking the fort is a huge risk because something like that fort “looks” scary, the “inevitability” thing isn’t a good argument. By that argument, anything you do will inevitably kill you if you live long enough, because there is a risk to everything, and if you just keep spinning time out, you’ll eventually reach a long enough period of time where “it” will statistically happen. But that’s not actually how statistics, or risk, work.

    Susan has a point that the one-time risk of injury from climbing a poorly constructed fort is greater than the one time risk of riding in a properly equipped, responsibly handled car. And the driving risk is not additive — risk doesn’t work like that. Each driving event is discrete as far as risk goes.

    Still, that in itself doesn’t add up to a good reason not to allow the fort, because all risks have to be weighed. Deciding that the very low risk of very serious injury and the somewhat higher risk of lesser injury is worth the payoff is not irrational.

  96. Susan,

    The statement you describe as “absurd” is absolutely true. Ride in a car long enough and you will die in a car accident. There’s nothing about that that’s even a little bit hard to understand. “Statistics” don’t even enter into it — they just give you an idea of the mean time to fatality for a given population. I’m afraid it’s you who don’t understand statistics.

    Pentamom,

    Driving risk is indeed additive — by miles traveled, not per trip. A one-in-a-million accident does not get more likely for a given trip as you take more trips, but it is more likely for a person who has traveled a million miles than one who has traveled one. My point is not that the 999,999th mile traveled would be your last safe one — it is that the more you drive your children around, the more likely they will die in an accident. That likelihood approaches unity as miles traveled (which can also be expressed in trips taken) increase. This is uncontroversial.

    The real point, however, is that some here are vastly overestimating the dangers inherent in the failure of this tower. The manner in which it actually failed is typical of this kind of structure: a slow lean to the ground. But even the worst-case scenario — 16-foot fall onto turf — is unlikely to be seriously injurious compared to the severity of injuries that can be sustained during a car crash. If you’re leaping mentally to the worst case for the fort failure, you must also imagine the grimmest possibility for every car trip you take and act accordingly. Anything else would be intellectually dishonest.

  97. Jay,
    The fact that you think you know about something doesn’t mean that you necessarily do.

    By what you write you are demonstrating that you do not understand probability or statistics.

  98. Susan,

    You’ve made no arguments, and no assertions of fact. You’re merely clutched your pearls in dismay at the poor unattended children. Please stop pretending you’ve made a point.

  99. Pentamom said to Jay “By that argument, anything you do will inevitably kill you if you live long enough, because there is a risk to everything, and if you just keep spinning time out, you’ll eventually reach a long enough period of time where “it” will statistically happen. But that’s not actually how statistics, or risk, work.”

    Jay, pentamom (above) said it much better than I could.

    You are saying that a person will die in a car accident “unless something else kills you first”.

    It is just an absurd and meaningless argument!

    It is unrelated to anything and meaningless.

  100. I am fascinated reading the back and forth between Jay and Susan. I think the place where you might connect (or where you are missing each other) is CONTROL. We tolerate the (very) high risk of serious injury in a motor vehicle because we, and not the kids, are driving. We are in control (or so we convince ourselves) whereas the whole POINT of the fortbuilding exercise is ceding control to your children. It is not the risk, but rather our control over the situation that makes us react differently to the two events. Our assessment of how risky a situation is has a lot less to do with the actual danger but our own control over it. Understanding this will help us all to better assess genuine risk.

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