5 Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Children Do: Gever Tulley at TEDxMidwest (Transcript)

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Gever Tulley – Founder, Tinkering School

I don’t have a lot of time. I prepared 18 minutes of presentation; we’re going to do in eight. So get ready.

First off, I want to talk about danger, and I’m going to need a volunteer.

Okay, I’m kidding. But…

Here’s the thing. My wife and I wrote this book, “50 Dangerous Things“. And if the slide guy backstage can get my speaker notes up here, because there are a couple of numbers that I need to refer to later and I’ve already forgotten them.

We wrote this book, and… A child psychologist in Australia said that the book was actively encouraging children to participate in activities that could scar, maim, and kill. And this is without ever having seeing the book — never read it — he completely missed the point that the book is actually about safety.

So, let’s look at topic number one in this book of scar, maiming, and killing.

Take something like: “Lick a 9V battery”. Now, raise your hand if you have licked a 9V battery. Okay, this is a good crowd.

Okay, raise your hands if you are going to lick one tonight. We chose this as the first topic in the book, because we thought that everybody would have done it. Wrong!

It turns out that ideas about the risk of licking a 9V battery include things like: death by electrocution, burn your tongue off, permanent loss of sense of taste. And the actual risk: it’s harmless.

Now, according to the Centers for Disease Control, who kind of track these kinds of household accidents, there has never been not one single recorded incidents of anyone being injured by licking a 9V battery.

So where did these kinds of mythic false perceptions come from? And I think it’s pretty easy to see where they come from these days. I don’t have to tell you how much the media loves the story about a child in peril. People in Kazakhstan were watching this story unfold at 3AM their time. Is it any wonder that children in our society are over-protected?

This kind of inundation of stories about children in peril and danger creates the illusion that children are actually in danger. And our perceptions of risk are based more on hearsay — a news media confabulation, really — than any rational analysis. And to talk about this — and this is for you, Erin — I’ve coined a new term. Dangerism. I want you to remember this term. This is based on the word carnism, which was coined by Melanie Joy in her book, “Why We Eat Pigs, Ride Horses and… Pet Dogs“. [Actually the book is called Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism] I’ve screwed that up. Sorry, Melanie.

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But it turns out that our family histories and our cultural context, and our personal experiences in childhood and so forth have more to do with how we perceive danger than the actual measurable risks involved. And like our phobias and our choices about which animals to eat, there may be no rational basis for this, and this has gotten to the point where our fears are so tainted by this exposure to the media, that the top five things parents are worried about in regards to their children — and you’ll notice ninjas aren’t on here — do not overlap at all with the five things that children in America are actually dying of.

And what is so criminal about this is that the thousands of hours we spend talking to children about stranger danger would be so much better spent encouraging them to get outside, doing family interventions, teaching them how to swim. None of these things make for glamorous news stories.

So to combat this avalanche of unfounded fears and equip children to better handle the real risks of the real world, I present for you: “Five More Dangerous Things you should let your children do.”

We can counter this rampant fear-mongering by deliberately creating opportunities for children to learn to recognize and mitigate risk. And here they come.

Number one: Walk to school. Car accidents are the number one cause of death for children in the United States. And you can reduce that risk greatly simply by reducing the amount of time spent in cars. Now the number one fear of parents in this country is kidnapping. Kidnapping by a non-family member doesn’t even make the top five thousand things that harm children, but study showed that children who walk to school are better judges of character, have better situational awareness, and so are therefore less likely to be victimized. And the habit of walking pays dividends over a lifetime: improved memory, consistent exercise habits, independence, and a long-lasting sense of well-being.

Number two: Climb trees. When children engage with natural play structures, they exhibit greater cognitive engagement — this is a classic study out of Germany — more attention is paid to the activity. And unlike a jungle gym, the tree requires you to figure out how to climb each moment of it. Each spot in a tree is unique and presents a unique set of challenges. The child must also take and demonstrate responsibility for themselves as they ascend up there, out of reach of their parents. And there’s this unique sense of freedom that comes from being up in the top of a tree.

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Number three: Burn things with a magnifying glass. Children learn early that the sun is the source of power for almost all life on Earth. We get that in grammar school. But until they have a chance to harness and direct it, it’s really difficult to build an intuitive sense of just how much power there is in sunlight. It’s also a great self-directed way for them new explore — discover what burns and what doesn’t — and if you’re worried about fire, give them a water bottle. Refraction is less intuitive than reflection, and playing with the lens helps children integrate that concept.

Number four: Make a bomb in a bag. We are composed of chemical compounds, surrounded by chemical compounds, and consuming chemical compounds. But we don’t often have the chance to play with chemistry just for the sake of exploration. A simple chemical reaction that we can experiment with provides the conceptual foundation for deeper understanding of the elemental nature of our world. Home chemistry sets have all but disappeared, and schools right now are banning the baking soda vinegar volcano, so you have to create this opportunity for your children at home.

Making a small explosion is a great way for kids to get a handle on the concepts of chemistry, and messing with the proportions is a great way to experience the scientific method.

And last but not least, number five: Super-glue your fingers together. A temporary disability can help us better appreciate our physical condition. Necessity is the mother of invention, and having to figure out how to open a jar of peanut butter without your thumb forces us to be creative. Done for an hour or more, your brain actually builds a new kinesthetic map of your abilities to accommodate this limitation. And when the glue comes off, there will be this moment where their usual abilities seem unusual to the child.

The most effective way to keep children safe is to give them a little taste of danger.

Thank you so much.