3 takes on 50 Dangerous Things

“Let kids play with fire, and other rules for good parenting,” read the title on a rave book review of 50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do) by Gever Tulley and Julie Speigler, published this month by Penguin under the New American Library imprint. “I’m a parent who lets my children play with fire,” I thought, and requested a review copy. This week, Ursula, Virgil, and I went through the book, separately and together, and talked about it. We had different reactions.

Virgil saw the cover of the book, set off by drawings of a kid throwing a spear, a slingshot, and a fire inside a stone ring, and immediately said, “Cool!” He liked everything inside the book, too: the “you can do this” descriptions of 50 different, “dangerous” activities; the arch sense of humor (yellow triangles illustrate a range of possible risks, including dismemberment and amputation, for each activity — perfect for a third-grader); the pledge inside the front cover that starts with the words, “I, __________, will demonstrate that danger can be conquered with skill and determination.”

At a certain point during his turn with the book, he asked me for some scrap paper, to mark the pages of the activities he wanted to try. When he handed the book back to me, it was stuffed with page markers.

Ursula, on the other hand, thought the book didn’t live up to its title. “If it was really ‘50 dangerous things,’” she complained, “it would have things like climbing mountains or flying planes or shooting a gun.” At age 12, she’s old enough to be skeptical of marketing claims. She pointed out to Virgil that they’ve already done more than 30 of the book’s 50 activities, and that most of the things in the book — like hammering nails (Dangerous Activity #6) and making a rope swing (Activity #44) — aren’t really dangerous if you do them right.

She shrugged her shoulders when I asked if she’d use the book. After thinking about it some more, she decided that it wasn’t written with her in mind — although she admitted that she hadn’t thought about licking a battery (Activity #1) before, and now she might.

Even if she was turned off by the book’s title, Ursula did catch, I thought, one of the book’s main themes. In their “Introduction for Grown-ups,” Tulley and Spiegler explain that they want to encourage “competence”: “the child who grows up in the woods will always be more comfortable there than the child who reads about wood lore in a book, just as the child who actually squashes a penny on a railroad track will have a deeper, more concrete understanding of the physics involved than the one who watches a video of it.” They designed their activities to get kids to try stuff, explore and experiment.

Some of those experiments extend interestingly into human relationships, to what we risk or gain in how we treat each other. Reading the description for Activity #36 — Poison Your Friends — I remembered the “milk shakes” that my brothers and I used to make for each other (actually concoctions of the vilest stuff we could find in the kitchen, whipped up to look like vanilla or chocolate shakes), and our efforts to get each other to take a sip. The “poison” in Activity #36 is salt, 3 or 4 tablespoons’ worth added to a cookie recipe. But the lesson worked just as well for fake milk shakes: “Tricking your friends into biting into a salty cookie might be easy the first time,” Tulley and Spiegler write. “Getting them to do it the second time may take some planning.” In case the point wasn’t clear, they add, “Every time you trick your friend, they will trust you a little less.” I liked that one of the book’s “dangerous things” was actually a lesson in trust.

I was bothered, however, by the view of parents that emerges from the book. Tulley and Speigler write as if we all are too afraid to let our children explore or take risks, and too quick to bring lawsuits when accidents do happen. Maybe the two authors are spending time with a very different group of parents (they make no mention of children of their own), but I distrusted their understanding of the balancing act attempted by most parents of my acquaintance. Being a parent means protecting your children and allowing them to develop skills and confidence to live full lives on their own, at the same time. At times, the book reads as if it's written by kids who've grown up just enough to think they know better than their parents, but not enough to know what it means to be a parent.

If I bristle at how 50 Dangerous Things portrays parents, I like just about everything else in the book. It’s pitched to exactly the right frequency for a curious kid. I have crossed a couple of activities off Virgil’s list — no throwing bananas or oranges out of the window of a moving car (Activity #15), not in this family, and no blowing up things in our microwave (Activity #14), unless he’s prepared to buy a new one — and told him that his life will be much more dangerous if he doesn’t clean up after every kitchen-floor experiment. Last night, he and Ursula took apart an old Sony Walkman of Jim’s (Activity #34, Deconstruct an Appliance). They worked together to figure out how to open the case, shared the screwdrivers and the wire cutters, and showed me their progress. Virgil was glad to hear that the book is ours to keep. He wants to keep track on the book’s “Field Notes” pages.

Learn more

- Read the Atlantic magazine review, “Let kids play with fire, and other rules for good parenting.”
- Learn more about 50 Dangerous Things and the Tinkering School.
- Listen to the TEDTalk, Gever Tulley’s “5 Dangerous Things,” that led to the expanded list and the book.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

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