When my son was barely a toddler, he burned his hand by dunking it in a hot cup of coffee. My coffee. I watched it happen and I didn’t try to stop him.
We were camping. It was early morning and, as I sat sipping my morning brew and watching the day come alive, my 18-month-old son fumbled around in the dirt, grabbing everything he could get his hands on the way little ones do. He was particularly interested in the campfire.
“Don’t touch,” I warned. “Hot.”
But he kept going for it. So I scooped him up. “Hot!” I repeated.
I set him down and he turned his attention to my coffee.
“Don’t touch,” I warned again. “Hot.”
But he wouldn’t stop. He was determined to stick his hand in my coffee. So I let him. He plunged his little hand into the mug. As he pulled it out, pink and dripping, he mumbled through tears, “Hot.”
Granted, the coffee wasn’t that hot, but it was hot enough to sting. He never went near the coffee – nor the campfire – again. From that point forward, I only had to say the word “hot” and he’d steer clear of the stovetop, the fireplace, the curling iron, and any other remotely warm thing he came across.
The “coffee incident,” as it’s now known in our house, confirmed what I’d believed all along: that children learn best through experience. We can shout at them and swoop in to save them all we want, but sometimes they just have to figure it out for themselves.
Kids get hurt. It’s not a question of if, but when. We can’t prevent it, but we can make sure they learn from it. We can also give them the courage they need to make the right decisions. If we constantly make the decisions for them, they won’t be able to do so on their own.
Not all parents agree with my philosophy. That's fine, because not all kids are the same. There are plenty of kids who would burn their hand in a mug of hot coffee and still toddle back to the campfire and grab a glowing ember. I just happen to know my son isn’t one of them.
At my son’s fourth birthday party, he asked me for a butter knife so he could pry open a box that held a newly unwrapped Lego set. I gladly handed it over. Moments later, another mom confronted me, shocked that I'd allowed him to use it.
“What if he cuts himself?” she asked in horror.
What she didn’t know was that my husband and I had taught our son how to properly use a butter knife. He knew to go slowly, cut away from himself, and keep his fingers clear of the sharp(ish) edge. If he did somehow manage to cut himself, it might hurt for a second, he might bleed, I’d stick a Band-Aid on it, and he’d move on.
I know my son. He’s not going to attack his fellow preschoolers like some butter knife-wielding lunatic, or stab himself in the eye, or try to saw off the dog’s tail. Maybe someone else’s kid would do that, but mine wouldn’t.
Last night, I asked my son, now seven (yes, he made it this far), to cut down a tree in the backyard. I did not ask him to help cut down a tree, but to actually saw the trunk on his own with a handsaw while I pulled weeds nearby. It wasn’t a big tree or a big saw, but he was careful and methodical, steadily guiding the blade back and forth. I had to remind him to keep his fingers out of the way a few times, but otherwise the project went off without a hitch. And he glowed with pride as he shouted “tiiimmberrrr!"
Loosening the reins not only teaches children the importance of using caution, it also gives them a sense of pride and accomplishment that is hard to duplicate otherwise. It builds the self-confidence they need to take calculated risks, both in childhood and into adulthood.
There will be failures, of course, and injuries. But, except in extreme situations, those failures will be minimal and those injuries minor.
It is a natural, biological instinct to protect our offspring. We want to give them a childhood free of physical and emotional injury. We don’t want them to suffer from broken bones or skinned knees or mosquito bites or even hurt feelings. But our job isn’t to prevent injuries. It’s to arm our children with the confidence and independence they need to make smart decisions when we’re not watching.
Childhood is a time for exploration and all the bumps and bruises that come along with it. It’s a time for running, jumping, climbing, and building as much as it is a time for falling, slipping, and crashing. My only hope is that my son learns to navigate this great big world of ours on his own, a world filled with hot coffee, campfires, butter knives, and handsaws.