Let the Children Do Dangerous Things

Some years ago I posted this essay about being a kid in the mid-20th century, and reflected upon it later in this post. I think it’s a dreadful mistake that in an attempt to protect children from injury and disappointment we’re preventing them from learning skills with basic tools, learning how to explore without specific goals, learning how to deal with the unknown without fear, and learning how to overcome obstacles on their own. Hence I was both happy and sad when I ran across this video:

It made me happy because I completely agree with what Mr. Tulley is attempting to accomplish with his Tinkering School. It made me sad because teaching kids to tinker shouldn’t be seen as unusual. Tinkering was pretty much a way of life for me as a child, presumably because I come from a long line of tinkerers. Tinkering wasn’t their profession as such; they had job descriptions like Carpenter, Engineer, and Microscopist, but tinkering was what they did.

If I and Mr. Tulley can’t convince you of the importance of letting kids tinker, consider the following passage from this article from TIME about over-parenting:

Dr. Stuart Brown, a psychiatrist and the founder of the National Institute for Play — who has a treehouse above his office — recalls in a recent book how managers at Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) noticed the younger engineers lacked problem-solving skills, though they had top grades and test scores. Realizing the older engineers had more play experience as kids — they’d taken apart clocks, built stereos, made models — JPL eventually incorporated questions about job applicants’ play backgrounds into interviews.

Or, to be even more concrete about it: today I replaced a failing fan in the uninterruptible power supply (UPS) for the fileserver. I was able to do this not because of the years I spent studying electrical engineering at a university, but because I took stuff apart and put stuff together when I was a kid. I knew everything I needed to know to fix that UPS long before I arrived at college. Without that knowledge that UPS probably would have gone into the landfill, even though it works perfectly aside from the fan, and I would have had to spend ~$100 to replace it rather than $11 for a new fan.

Yes, there are (or can be) danergous voltages inside a UPS. Yes, you have to be careful about working on things powered from wall sockets. How do you learn how to not zap yourself? You don’t learn by studying electrical engineering–it’s too late. You have to learn how to be sensible around electrical circuits, and sharp edges, and hot things, and things that can poke your eyes out or burn holes in your jeans long before you’re of college age. You have to learn them as a kid. And that means that parents have to let their kids do dangerous things. Mr. Tulley puts it better than I:

I did all of those things when I was a kid. (I particularly like the bit about pocket knives. Pocket knives are the single most useful tool that you can carry in your pocket, and I still remember the first one that my father gave to me.) I think I turned out okay.

By adam

Go ahead, try to summarize yourself in a sentence or two.


  1. Great post.

    I gave up carrying a pocket knife a few years ago, post 9-11, because of frequent travel, but there’s a lot to be said for a good pocket knife.

    Is this perspective on the value of mechanical tinkering just nostalgia, though, at this point? So few things can reasonably be opened and fixed anymore.

  2. Love this post. Lawyers have conquered America, nothing can be done without their permission. Today my Mother tripped and fell in a Best Buy. First she had to give a statement to the manager, for their lawyers. Then she called the health insurance company, and their lawyers probably influenced the person saying she should go to the emergency room. For a hurt toe.

    I also used to carry a Swiss Army knife. But I got too many taken away by airport security so I stopped. 🙁

  3. This perspective is absolutely not just nostalgia. That was part of the point I was trying to make; if I failed, I’ll attempt to amplify on it now.

    I disagree with the assertion that few things can be opened and fixed these days. I illustrated that point by mentioning the UPS, but it also applies to replacing fans, power supplies, hard drives, RAM, CPU, heat sinks, and so on in computers. If you don’t think it’s valuable to know how to do your own RAM upgrades, you haven’t had to pay a service shop to do it for you recently. Yeah, there’s a lot of stuff that’s basically impossible to repair, but that doesn’t mean everything has to be thrown out when it goes awry.

    As a homeowner, I could go on and on about things around the house that fail and can be repaired easily if you have basic mechanical aptitude. I fixed our stove a month or so ago, and repaired the flap valve in one of the toilets around the same time. I’ve fixed leaky faucets and shut-off valves, replaced a sink, tightened hinges on cabinet doors, and re-hung a badly installed stove hood–and that’s just the kitchen and bathroom!

    Somebody has to design all of this stuff, whether it can be repaired or not. Mechanical aptitude is established at an early age, not in mechanical engineering school. Go back and re-read the point about the engineers at JPL, or watch the second video. Taking stuff apart (and putting stuff together) is good for your brain. Even if there is no practical application for having a kid take apart a broken alarm clock they learn from doing it. They’re not going to be asked to take apart a clock to get into college, but the effect the activity has on their developing brain will help them in ways far more general–and important–than passing the SATs.

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