Playing With Fire 

(This was first published in Le News 13 March 2015)

So, I’ve been reading a lot about dangerous play this last week. Not the Fifty Shades kind. Shame on you, dirty-minded reader. I’m talking about children’s play: specifically the kind that experts call ‘risky’ and parents call ‘incredibly stupid’; the kind of play that involves sharp objects, power tools and fire. (That does sound a bit Fifty Shades, though, doesn’t it? Anyway. Never mind. That’s not what I’m going to talk about here).

The 8-year-old and I have spent the last few months hotly debating the issue of penknife ownership (hers) in respect to wooden furniture ownership (mine). Quite unable to decide, I eventually asked the Internet, who said … yes. Give the child a knife.

In his TED Talk, 5 dangerous things you should let your kids do, Gever Tulley, explains that children learn to assess and manage risks by taking them. If we never let our children flirt with danger, he says, they will never learn how to keep themselves safe.

So, give them a sharp knife and let them use it for whittling. Also, let them play with fire: let them start fires, put things in them and take things out of them. Not only will they learn how to handle fire, but their mastery of this most dangerous element will boost their self esteem.

Throwing a spear, he goes on, develops a range of skills: aim, presumably, but also planning and visualisation. I must say, he lost me a bit here. I have visualisation skills too, and I’m seeing the five-year-old heading off outside, with a teddy under one arm and a spear flung over her shoulder. It’s like that famous evolution picture, ‘The March of Progress,’ except this one is called, ‘Let’s Spend Saturday Afternoon in the Emergency Room. Again’.

Fourth on Tulley’s list of dangerous things is: deconstruct appliances with your child. This doesn’t sound too bad, actually. Deconstruction is the smaller child’s speciality. Her Deconstruction skills are excellent. What we really need to work on are the Putting Back Together skills. Or maybe the Don’t Break it in the First Place skills.

Fifth on Tulley’s list is: let your child drive a car. Because it helps them understand dinosaurs. I’d snort derisively, except I have actually caught one of the children perched on top of the car, pretending it was a dinosaur, so maybe there is wisdom here.

Anyway, I found the idea of risky play interesting enough to ask the Internet more about it, and, it turns out, it’s actually quite A Thing. There are lots of people advocating it, including psychologist Peter Gray, who’s written a number of articles on the Psychology Today website about the importance of risky play.

Climbing high trees, riding bicycles fast, and various types of rough play are all important activities, he says, both physically healthy and absolutely vital for psychological well-being: children who don’t take enough risks in their everyday lives become frustrated, anxious and depressed.

Of course, none of this should involve parents. A child may play with fire, but it probably doesn’t count as a risk if Mother is standing right there with the fire extinguisher cocked and aimed.

Now, this all makes a lot of sense to me: Yes to encouraging mastery! Up with self-esteem! But … I don’t know if I can actually do it. The thing is, once you’ve plucked your child from the jaws of death enough times, you tend to lose faith in their ability to judge anything for themselves. I’ve seen the smaller child put a box over her head and race straight towards the basement stairs. I’ve stopped the bigger child from pushing a Smartie up her nose, as far as it would go. As things currently stand, these are not sensible children. And yes, risky play might well make them sensible but that learning curve … it worries me. Will higher self-esteem correspond to a lower finger count? Will the spark of curiosity burn down the garden shed?

Once a week my children walk home from the bus stop on their own – an activity highly recommended by the Risky Play people, by the way. I stand at the upstairs window and watch them get off the bus (what? Is that not normal parent behaviour?), and every time I think … they’re so small! Two tiny little dolls, moving through a huge world, unprotected. It’s a big ask, that I put them in harm’s way, even if it’ll do them good in the long run.

And besides … what ever would the other mothers say?

Risky Play advocates are fond of harking back to their own childhoods, 40-plus years ago, when parents were too busy working / golfing / drinking cocktails and playing Mahjong to know – or care – where the children were. Children were trusted to look after themselves, and they roamed freely, playing as they liked. Games could be as risky and they wanted them to be.

But this is not how we mothers roll, these days. At least, not the ones I know. The climate has changed. Maybe no one blinked in the 50s/60/70s, if little Minnie fell off her bike, sprained her ankle and limped the 5 kilometers home, in tears. But they’d blink now. Several times.

And even though the inspirational postcards on Facebook keep telling me that I shouldn’t, I do actually care what other people think of me. Being a mother is my main job, right now, and I’d like the other Parenting Professionals to recognise me as being good at it. Yes, yes, I know … raising children is its own reward etc etc. But it’s a very long game and we could all use a little positive affirmation in the short term.

And what’s valued right now, among my peers, is involvement: involvement in every aspect of our small children’s lives, from revising schoolwork with them, to organising play dates, to reading every damn parenting book in the damn library because no matter how hard we try we can never get a handle on what is going on with these children. (Maybe that last one is just me, though.)

Anyway, the point is that we’re all very hands-on, and it’s not going to be easy to prise my hands off when the other mommies are watching. I’ve over-parented purely because I didn’t want someone to think I don’t care about my children. On a walk with a mother who admonished, ‘Don’t run!’ every time her child tried to, I suddenly found myself saying, ‘Be careful,’ randomly, to my own children. I’m not judging the other mom. I’m sure she had her reasons. But I certainly didn’t. I don’t even know what I meant by it – there was absolutely nothing for them to be careful of, and they, very sensibly, ignored me completely.

For all I know the other mother was only saying, ‘Don’t run’ because I was saying, ‘Be careful,’ and there we were, trapped in a cycle of mom-upmanship, and annoying everyone.

Imagine if I’d chosen that moment to pull out a few sharp knives, and handed them over with the instruction to ‘run off and whittle yourselves a nice spear. We can set fire to it later.’

Now that’s what I’d call risky.

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