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Playing with knives

When moving away from modern “Western” parenting practices, we notice an improbably common occurrence. The tolerance, even encouragement, of child behaviour that is to the Western mind far too risky. In what is absolutely the opposite of helicopter parenting, this hands-off method is not only characteristic of most pre-industrial societies, it was characteristic of Western society until fairly recently and, is still the case among some working class and farming families.

Research by anthropologists show that this approach focuses on children as “self-initiated learners.” A father from the Dusun tribe in North Borneo when questioned responds “How can you learn to use a knife if you do not use a knife?”. The entire community shares the expectation that children want to learn and that to do this they need free access to tools and the opportunity to observe their use. The Hadza people from Tanzania also embrace this ideology and believe that “children will learn on their own what is dangerous”.

Of course, precautions are taken to prevent injury, for example children may be specifically given old, blunt knives or scaled down versions of adult tools. As we know, this is not the case many Western societies, with children as old as 10 having to ask an adult to butter their bread because ‘they aren’t allowed to use knives’. This very recent “helicopter parenting” is linked to urbanisation, the rise in incomes, the decline of family size, and delays in childbearing. Our few, irreplaceable offspring are re-defined as precious treasures rather than future helpers.

Undoubtedly there is a middle ground that both respects a child’s autonomy and desire to learn with a parent’s instinct to protect and nurture. Life is full of hurdles that our children need to learn to how to overcome. There's much to learn from how more traditional societies raise their children. Particularly if we, like them, want our own children to grow into productive and contributing members of society.


Lancy (2016), Marlowe (2010)

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