Monday, December 17, 2012

"Is This A Risk Worth Taking?"

Recently a parent told me she thinks I'm like Roald Dahl's character Willy Wonka. "You always tell the kids: 'If you want to get hurt go ahead and try it.'"

I do say those kinds of things. I once told a kid, "Hey, you could try sticking your finger in that electrical outlet!" He responded, "No, Teacher Tom, I might die!"

At least once every field trip I'll ask something like, "Should we run out in the street?" I can count on someone to remind me, "No, Teacher Tom, we'll get hit by a car!"

And yes, sometimes, when kids are apparently bent on attempting a feat that looks particularly hazardous, I'll say something along the lines of, "I'm going to watch to see who gets hurt so I know who I'm going to take care of while they're crying." To which the reply is, "Neither of us is going to get hurt because we're being careful."

If a couple of boys are racing our wagons down the hill, I might ask, "Hey, are you guys planning on running over anybody?"

And they'll answer, "No, Teacher Tom, because we're looking where we're going."

If someone is on the tire swing, I might suggest, "Hey, swing that direction and see if you can hit your head on the tree."

And they'll answer, "No, Teacher Tom, that would hurt."

If a couple of girls are using our homemade ladder to climb onto our monkey bars climber, I might say, "Which one of you is going to fall?"

And they'll answer, "No, Teacher Tom, we won't fall because we're holding on!"

Or if children making a yarn spider web start wrapping it instead around their necks, I'll say, "If you don't want to breathe any more, you can put a whole lot more around your neck."

And they'll answer, "No, Teacher Tom, I want to breathe!"

I guess it's what I do instead of commanding, "Be careful!"

In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the children did not fare too well. As a boy I recall feeling that they were all, with the exception of Charlie, quite stupid for acting with no consideration of the possible consequences. As an adult I now see Dahl's larger point: that their stupidity was the consequence of bad parenting.

But that's fiction. In the real world, young children are capable of assessing many of their own risks, but only if they've had the chance to practice; only if they're well versed in the art of critical thinking and not the habits of mere obedience. An adult who commands, "Don't slide down that banister!" might be keeping a child safe in that moment, but is also, at the same time, robbing him of a chance to think for himself, which makes him that much less safe in the future when no one is there to tell him what to do. Better to state the facts ("If you slide down that banister you might get hurt.") and let him practice thinking things through for himself, to consider the possible consequences of his actions, to assess his own risks, to ask himself, "Is this a risk worth taking?" 

There are no guarantees, of course, but the habits of critical thinking are, I think, the best safety precaution there is.

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krista said...

I LOVE your blog. I have a 3.5 year old who I try so very hard to let assess his own risk. I just wrote a post about it this past week. Thank you for always providing gentle, perfect reminders. I need to change my vocabulary!
Blessings -

Anonymous said...

I love this post. It's hard to hear the constant, "be careful" especially when it's my own voice... it is so true that when given the chance, little ones typically know what they are doing and are totally capable of the situation. Thanks

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