Should We Let Toddlers Play With Saws and Knives?

Sep 08, 2016 Published under Family, Interesting Random Stuff

Interesting article from the Wall Street Journal: Should We Let Toddlers Play With Saws and Knives?

Should we Let Toddlers Play With Saws and Knives?

By shielding children from every possible risk, we may lead them to react with exaggerated fear. New research on how youngsters learn across different cultures

Last week, I stumbled on a beautiful and moving picture of young children learning. It’s a fragment of a silent 1928 film from the Harold E. Jones Child Study Center in Berkeley, Calif., founded by a pioneer in early childhood education. The children would be in their 90s now. But in that long-distant idyll, in their flapper bobs and old-fashioned smocks, they play (cautiously) with a duck and a rabbit, splash through a paddling pool, dig in a sandbox, sing and squabble.

Suddenly, I had a shock. A teacher sawed a board in half, and a boy, surely no older than 5, imitated him with his own saw, while a small girl hammered in nails. What were the teachers thinking? Why didn’t somebody stop them?

My 21st-century reaction reflects a very recent change in the way that we think about children, risk and learning. In a recent paper titled “Playing with Knives” in the journal Child Development, the anthropologist David Lancy analyzed how young children learn across different cultures. He compiled a database of anthropologists’ observations of parents and children, covering over 100 preindustrial societies, from the Dusan in Borneo to the Pirahã in the Amazon and the Aka in Africa. Then Dr. Lancy looked for commonalities in what children and adults did and said.

In recent years, the psychologist Joseph Henrich and colleagues have used the acronym WEIRD—that is, Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic—to describe the strange subset of humans who have been the subject of almost all psychological studies. Dr. Lancy’s paper makes the WEIRDness of our modern attitudes toward children, for good or ill, especially vivid.

He found some striking similarities in the preindustrial societies that he analyzed. Adults take it for granted that young children are independently motivated to learn and that they do so by observing adults and playing with the tools that adults use—like knives and saws. There is very little explicit teaching.

And children do, in fact, become competent surprisingly early. Among the Maniq hunter-gatherers in Thailand, 4-year-olds skin and gut small animals without mishap. In other cultures, 3- to 5-year-olds successfully use a hoe, fishing gear, blowpipe, bow and arrow, digging stick and mortar and pestle.

The anthropologists were startled to see parents allow and even encourage their children to use sharp tools. When a Pirahã toddler played with a sharp 9-inch knife and dropped it on the ground, his mother, without interrupting her conversation, reached over and gave it back to him. Dr. Lancy concludes: “Self-initiated learners can be seen as a source for both the endurance of culture and of change in cultural patterns and practices.”

He notes that, of course, early knife skills can come at the cost of severed fingers. To me, like most adults in my WEIRD culture, that is far too great a risk even to consider.
But trying to eliminate all such risks from children’s lives also might be dangerous. There may be a psychological analog to the “hygiene hypothesis” proposed to explain the dramatic recent increase in allergies. Thanks to hygiene, antibiotics and too little outdoor play, children don’t get exposed to microbes as they once did. This may lead them to develop immune systems that overreact to substances that aren’t actually threatening—causing allergies.

In the same way, by shielding children from every possible risk, we may lead them to react with exaggerated fear to situations that aren’t risky at all and isolate them from the adult skills that they will one day have to master. We don’t have the data to draw firm causal conclusions. But at least anecdotally, many young adults now seem to feel surprisingly and irrationally fragile, fearful and vulnerable: I once heard a high schooler refuse to take a city bus “because of liability issues.”

Drawing the line between allowing foolhardiness and inculcating courage isn’t easy. But we might have something to learn from the teachers and toddlers of 1928

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