Cuts Like a Knife
December 4, 2013 § 19 Comments
The boys got their first knives when they were four. This wasn’t because four is some sort of magic number at which a child should be outfitted with a five-inch wedge of honed steel; around here, responsibility doesn’t have birthdays. It just so happened that four was the age they both demonstrated the dexterity and judgment Penny and I deemed necessary to safely handle a knife.
I know from the reaction we got (and still get) from other parents that the notion of a four-year-old’s soft palm wrapped around the handle of a belt knife was unsettling. I should point out that we didn’t just hand the boys their respective knives and cut (ha!) them loose. Their knives came with instructions for use and, for a time, with supervision. Still, it wasn’t long before Fin and Rye were granted full autonomy over the use and care of their cutting tools. Have my sons cut themselves on their knives? Hell, yes. Many times, though thankfully, never any more seriously than a bandage could remedy.
How protective should we be of our children? And I don’t mean just Penny and me, but all parents. It often seems to me that parents are at once too protective and not protective enough, that having been socialized to accept certain risks but not others, we shortchange our children’s sense of responsibility and confidence by “protecting” them from the tools and activities that build these very qualities. Of course, that shortchanging is itself dangerous, and even more so because the danger is abstract. It does not result in blood or tears or broken bones, and therefore, it is easy to pretend it does not exist.
We cannot expect our children to trust in themselves if we do not trust in them ourselves. We cannot expect them to gain confidence if we do not grant them the opportunity to gain that confidence. We cannot expect them to demonstrate responsibility if we don’t give them something to be responsible about. It’s that friggin’ simple.
The other day, I watched while Rye cut down a red maple tree for his sugar wood stash. Already, he’s got a good pile going, stacked and under cover, drying for the season to come. Anyway, he dropped the tree with his axe, and as I watched him land swing after swing with remarkable accuracy, I couldn’t help but wonder what it must feel like for a barely-9-year-old to have such mastery over a tool. I know the satisfaction it gives me to wield these implements with something approaching grace, and the thought of my child experiencing even a fraction of that satisfaction filled me with happiness beyond words.
In the new issue of Taproot I have a story about the purchase of Fin and Rye’s first gun and, by extension, about the danger of protecting our children from risk. Or perceived risk. At the risk of coming across as more self-important than I actually feel, I will conclude by quoting my own article:
You may not live on a farm, or in the country. You may never be comfortable with the notion of your children firing a gun. That is ok. But what I urge you to do is find ways for your children to be useful. Find ways to expose them to meaningful risk. Not risk for risk’s sake, but with a purpose. Get them a knife and teach them to carve with it. Show them how to build a fire, and cook something over it. Allow them the freedom to wander in the woods, or to climb high into a tree to pick the sweetest apples. If you do not know how properly use and maintain a knife, learn with your child. If you do not know how to safely build and extinguish a fire, learn with your child. If you do not feel comfortable sending them into the woods, go with your child. Because the truth is, most of us are starved for these experiences, too.
Know that yes, your children may fall. Yes, they might become bruised, or even break a bone. Know that they could bleed and cry. But also know that exposing your children to the possibility of these visible, visceral wounds does something else: It protects them from wounds you cannot see. You cannot see them because they damage the spirit. And that’s a risk no child should have to face.