Why I Let My 5 Year Old Use A Sharp Knife

My five year old loves to help. REALLY help. Not in the ‘here’s bowl for you to pour some flour into’ kind of way. She wants to be a part of the real work we do. We run a business and when she comes to the shop with us she sweeps and mops the floors, she washes walls and cleans dishes. These are the things she can do there that truly contribute and those are the things she wants to do most. The watered-down ‘pretend’ version just doesn’t cut it. Of course, she is still only five and she also wants to play and this is always fine. Play and work are synonymous for children.

Our kids are much more capable than we give them credit for. We spend much of their young childhood’s trying to ensure their safety, and it is often to their detriment.

We are overprotective. We coax them to ‘watch out’ and eventually they start second guessing themselves.

Does this mean I think we should let them run free (and into traffic), of course not, but our endless cries of ‘be careful’ and ‘let me help you with that’ do them a great disservice.

So I work hard to try and be comfortable with a certain degree of risk in my kids’ lives.

Our five year old:
-uses real scissors
-cooks at the stove
-lights candles
-cuts with a sharp knife

She wants to cook real food. She wants to vacuum with the real vacuum cleaner. She wants to hammer real nails. The toy versions of tools have never been good enough in our house.

So instead we gave her a real tool set when she turned three. We play with real doctor’s instruments when we play doctor. She cooks real food with our kitchen equipment. I still get a bit queasy when I hand over a kitchen knife to let her slice things but I do it, because she wants to learn and she IS careful.

Real Tools. Real Work. And of course, Real Play. This is how our kids feel most fulfilled.

When she was little we helped her a lot on the playground. We helped too much really. She was not an adventurous climber at that age. She would do it but only with our help. It wasn’t until she was well past three that she started adventuring more on her own and not wanting our help. In hindsight we would have and should have helped less. She lost sight of her own abilities for awhile and needed to learn to trust herself again because of our interference. This doesn’t mean we never help our 17 month old, it just means we’ve stepped back. We wait much longer before offering assistance. And really he rarely looks to us for that help. He will try something and if he cannot do it, he moves on. And he tries it again at a future time.

Our experience has taught us to trust more.

I am a risk-averse person in many respects. Part of this is my innate personality but part of it comes from my childhood. I was helped a lot. I was told to be careful a lot. I understand why because I now do the same things with my kids. It just feels like the natural way to parent. But it’s not doing them any good. They WANT to climb high, jump big and swim deep. I struggle to keep the balance of staying close for the times where my 17 month old is going to throw himself off some kind of high up ledge but far enough away that he has the chance to figure out how to get down by himself.

Accidents will happen, but falls and tumbles and scrapes and burns can happen at any age to anyone. I’ve had more serious accidents as an adult then I did as a child. And our kids will hurt themselves but it’s going to happen whether we are calling ‘be careful’ at their heels as they climb away from us or when we are mindfully aware of the chances they are taking and giving them the space to make those decisions.

Children also need the time and the space to create, try and practice things. They will be slower than us. Messier than us. As parents and even more so as unschoolers, we work hard to let these things be OK in our home. They are going to spill things when they are measuring. They are going to drop paint on the table when they are painting. Bits of playdough are going to end up everywhere when they are building.

I feel calmer and happier in a tidy home but I still allow mess making to be OK.

Finding a balance between vigilance and free-range is tricky but it’s so important. The freedom to explore and create and practice lies somewhere between these two extremes. It is in this place that children learn to trust their abilities. We as the parents are their safety net, but that net should not stop them from failing. We should be the net that help’s them feel safe enough to fail because

“if you’re not prepared to do anything wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”

-Ken Robinson

Our kids want to do real work. We need to give them the real tools and invite the accompanying risk into their lives.

This is real life, let’s let our children live it.