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. 

§ 19 Responses to Cuts Like a Knife

  • Lindsay says:

    Ben, if the writing thing someday doesn’t pay the bills (which I hope never comes to pass!), I think you should open a daycare! ;-)

    • Ben Hewitt says:

      yeah, I can just see the parents coming to pick up their little darlings who are all covered in bandaids and bruises.

      I’d probably end up in jail!

  • pmpayette says:

    You are a very wise man. I like when you say “perceived risk” because we imagine all these horrible things that will most likely never occur. I am learning this myself. Let go a little, let her experience life, with all its ups and downs, joys and sorrows and… cuts and bruises. Thanks Ben, if I can call you familiar. :)

  • Kent says:

    Ben, you are the consummate Boy Scout Leader, Indian Guide Chief, 4-H Club Director . . . all wrapped up into one. (Not every child has this extraordinary privilege, but many communities offer organized opportunities for parents and children to engage together in age and skill-appropriate challenges,) One of the most fulfilling experiences I have ever enjoyed as a parent was sharing time in the natural world with my kids . . . challenging them (and myself) to develop basic skills. I can’t wait to see Fin and Rye in another ten years! Wow!!

  • Amen! It’s a world of bubble children with helicopter parents hell-bent on protecting their offspring from every danger, real or imagined. Seems to me this has not made the world or our children any safer. Rather everyone is just more afraid, and we as a society are becoming less and less competent to face the real challenges of a well lived life.

    • Jennifer Fisk says:

      You’ve just said what I was planning to say. I’ll just say you are spot on. We are raising a generation of incompetents.

  • Maribeth says:

    My 10-year-old son almost compulsively wants to cut down trees, start fires, and play with electricity through some basic materials (batteries, wires, etc) we have provided for him. You are right, the impulse comes from the real work of it.

    Both my children spend a good portion of the summer at the Farm and Wilderness camps in Plymouth, VT. And they seem to get hurt in some way every summer, but pleased about the real work they are doing.

    Yesterday, my son was bucked off (twice) a frisky horse he was riding at his lesson. At the end, the instructor asked him what he liked best about the lesson that day. He said, without pause, “Falling off, because now I know what that feels like.” There you go!

  • Susie says:

    As the mother of 3 and half year old girl, my astonishment is at how little phyiscal risk girls are allowed to be exposed to – I constantly hear ‘don’t get muddy, don’t jump in puddles, don’t climb too high etc…’ being aimed at little girls (at the same time I look at my dirt-encrusted, bug-box wieldin’ little girl and wonder how I am ever going to get the pine sap out her hair) and yet, nobody seems overly concerned that we are exposing our young girls to the constant notion that only ‘pretty’ or ‘sexy’ are the viable career paths for women. Isn’t it time that our girls started lighting fires, cutting down trees, setting traps etc? And isn’t time – after more than forty years of feminism, for society to allow that? Rant over – I think you hit a nerve there, Ben!

  • Eumaeus says:

    you ever look at that last years jared dimond book? i think i mentioned it before. he talks about this stuff pretty good too.

    hear me knocking on wood. none of my babies has got burned on a woodstove yet. 7 yearold is on bb guns so fer. and he’s just starting to try and split wood. he was going after downed trees with a dull hachet bout 4 though. What else is dangerous? ice is dangerous. driving is dangerous. women er dangerous…

  • I just read a really cool section from one of John Holt’s book where he describes how he took fallen leaves from the Public Common to feed his worms and ended up sharing his process with a few curious kids. It’s not exactly the same sort of stuff that you’re talking about here, but the common thread in my mind is the idea of living more fully engaged with our environment. The skills that you are talking about with respect to knives and guns seem to me to offer a person the opportunity to do that. In the city it is a slightly different endeavor because of the lifestyle, which is why I enjoyed Holt’s story so much. There is indeed a way for us all to do this. But at it’s most fundamental level it’s about being present to ourselves and our relationship with our kids. From there we can see where our interests lead us.

  • I watched a movie the other day, set in 1927 and made in the 1970s, Swallows and Amazons, that reminded me of how my own sons grew up – in the 1980s. It’s about two sets of kids who sail, alone, around a lake, set up camp and generally have a great time looking after themselves in the school holidays.
    Parenting has changed a lot since then. Babies are kept in bubbles, children don’t play outside anymore. Sad.
    I have a fear of guns and have never even touched a gun in my almost 70 years but my sons grew up knowing about knives and axes. In fact, they’re both getting a new foldable Opinel for Christmas.
    Great post Ben.

  • Dawn says:

    I just read over at Soulemama that you had an article in the current issue of Taproot on this subject and decided to buy it as a result. Each time I read one of your posts about your boys, I think mine might be living a kind of toddler version of their lives. We invite a group of little people over to our farm once or twice a month (some would call it a playgroup, I guess) and I am always interested to see the things my boys do without any hesitation that the other children are reluctant to try or seem not to be interested in at all – like climbing trees, riding in the hay wagon (standing up or half hanging out, of course), tossing hay out to the horses, carrying heavy buckets, picking up chickens or any animal they can catch, running through creeks, riding on the tractor with their Daddy (or trying to do so without him), etc. Of course, my boys wouldn’t know what to do with a TV, computer or other battery-operated toy so I guess the tables would be turned if someone else was hosting the group. For my youngest son’s first birthday, someone whom I thought knew us well gave him a plastic toy TV remote control. He didn’t even know what to do with it and tossed it aside pretty quickly. I know they are my children but they do seem pretty confident and self-assured for their age. I have to think this is due to their being outside most of every day and facing challenges that are manageable. Of course, they also seem to have more scrapes and bruises than some of these other children but I think they are the evidence of a life fully lived, not one sitting on the sidelines. Kind of the same thing I try to tell myself about my wrinkles!

  • calidore says:

    My son is fourteen and we have encouraged him to try most things with supervision and plenty of rules in the beginning. He constantly surprises me on how competent he is with power tools, chainsaws and how he can turn his hand at most things. He also has his gun licence along with his father. On weekends he was helping his Dad on the farm his Dad works at. We have now been told that DS can no longer work out there due to Work Cover issues. I can understand the owners concern – Work Cover here in Australia can shut a company down instantly and obviously that has pretty massive ramifications for the owners. Yes there has to be care taken when using any machinery – that’s pretty darn obvious – but DS was using the machinery with the owners permission and supervision. Now we are told that DS has to be 18 in order to even learn those skills never mind actually have hands on experience. So what happens if he leaves school early and tries for a job where machinery is involved? He won’t get the position. We seem to be raising a generation of humans who will be afraid to even put their foot out of doors in case something happens to them and then if something does – who do they sue????. What ever happened to learning life by living it?

  • Beth-Marie says:

    You are so refreshing. I have gotten so much shit for allowing my six year old daughter to handle a pocket knife. Since she was four she has asked for one for every holiday. She figures a farmer/ cowgirl must have one on her belt just like me her mama. I am thankful my first child is so adamant about living a life with risk, freedom, purpose and adventure. She has created a track of nonconformity and bravery that the the younger boys can follow if they please. When I read your writing I find an anchor, a sanity, to keep on living this wacky experiment. Thank You!

  • emmalina says:

    Last year my son took his pocket knife to show his cub leader, it was taken from him and I was informed that they don’t allow ‘weapons’. Now while I respect their rules (I didn’t know he’d taken it) to describe a closed swiss army knife as a weapon in that context was insane to me. I informed them that it is not a weapon but a tool for use in nature, one that we had bought and sanctioned. I was pretty surprised that an organization built on connecting with nature can’t handle the idea of children using sharp tools.

  • I’ve just started reading Peter Gray’s book, Free to Learn, and he talks about how in hunter gatherer cultures, parents let very young children handle dangerous tools, usually from about the age of four. Except for poison darts – they keep those out of reach.

    Also, tonight I saw this photography project looking at children hunters and thought you might be interested to see it.

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