When our oldest turned five last week, we thought hard about what to get him for a present. We wanted something that he would enjoy, but we didn’t want another toy that would soon be broken or cast aside. We wanted something useful, but we didn’t want something that he would find boring or take for granted. We wanted something that would have staying power, not something that would soon be outgrown or only meet the needs of some fleeting phase. And finally, we wanted something special to recognize that five is in many ways the start of childhood and an official graduation from any last remains of the toddler years. Our child is no longer the chubby baby-cheeked tot he once was, but now all sinew and bone, lengthy and awkward colt legs, knobby elbows. He is all boyhood, and we wanted to mark the occasion with some kind of coming-of-age milestone.
So we bought him a pocketknife.
Not just any pocketknife, but a sturdy multitool with folding pliers, screwdrivers, scissors and saw. It has a sleek green casing with little locks on each side where the shiny stainless tools fold out. And it has a sharp, smooth knife blade.
Is five too young for something like this? In some ways, yes. He can’t yet use all the tools efficiently and there are even parts that he can’t yet use effectively. But with the appropriate introduction and the appropriate ground rules, we believe he is ready.
We didn’t make this decision lightly. There was no flippant moment where in a last minute frenzy we just thought, “Ah heck, just order him a Leatherman and have it FedExed for tomorrow.” We know that some of you are probably thinking how irresponsible and stupid we are. How could a five-year old be ready for this? How could we risk our kid’s safety like that? Why bother?
But a longstanding truth of parenthood for me has been that I often underestimate my children’s capabilities. I am never fully ready to let go and allow them to take these scary steps alone, and then each time, they surprise me. It is always with a bit of fear that I push the back of that bike and send my child hurtling down the road on two wobbly wheels, handlebars shaking before he begins to glide smoothly, feet finding the pedals and beginning to work. I pulled him thrashing from just beneath the pool’s surface, clutching him close to me countless times before a swimming teacher showed me that if I just stepped back, his little head would bob right back up on its own and his feet would flutter as his arms pumped, working his way to the edge of the pool, all baby-toothed smile and glittering eyes. They are always ready before I am.
So when I first considered getting him a knife, I did what any 21st century mom would do and I googled it. It was a bit of an eye-opening experience when I typed in “Should I get my kid a” and the first autofill queries that popped up were:
“Should I get my kid a phone?”
“Should I get my kid a fitbit?”
“Should I get my kid a car?”
“Should I get my kid a flu shot?”
Sigh. . . . Moving past that, the first article that popped up was an old piece from the Today Show that I remember reading a few years back called “Let five-year-olds play with knives?” The article refers to a Norwegian study that proposed that the best way to safeguard children is to let them take risks. And I believe it’s true that if we childproof every aspect of their lives, they will never learn to assess risk independently.
I also reviewed a number of articles about letting young children use knives in the kitchen. Starter knives are now actually a thing, and they are popular! I know several friends who have used them and even saw an awesome video of one friend’s three-year-old hacking away at a sweet potato with one while at school. I was confident that a five-year-old could theoretically be ready for a multitool, but I also wanted some guidance in how to introduce it to him.
In addition to making sure that I wasn’t a total lunatic for thinking my five-year-old could handle this, I also wanted to make sure that I framed the experience in the right way. I read up on common rules for a child’s first knife. One pamphlet from the American Knife and Tool Institute had good guidance about safety and maintenance. Material from Boy Scouts of America (I know, I know, but bear with me) had similar advice.
Once we were armed with information, we introduced Junior to his first multitool.
To start with, there was a lot of fanfare involved in giving him this gift. We built up the anticipation over the days preceding his birthday, and on the big day we waited until he’d opened up all his other presents and was cuddled snuggly between us on the couch before we brought out his one final gift. We lectured him on the importance of the moment before we let him open it up. We talked about the big kid responsibilities that come with it, and the fact that privileges can be taken away just as quickly as they’re awarded.
Oh boy was he excited. First he wanted to open all the tools to see what there was. Next he wanted to practice using the pliers by picking things up and putting them down over and over again. Then he wanted to use the screwdriver to open the battery compartment on one of his other presents. And finally he wanted to cut up some paper with the scissors.
For now, the multitool comes with some specific rules.
- Mama and Daddy keep the multitool in a safe place when it isn’t being used. This means that Junior needs to ask each time he wants to use it, and when he does ask, we ask him what he’s going to use it for. We remind him not to use it in any other way without asking us first, and we check on him periodically while he uses it. So far he has only used it to replace batteries in his toys (over and over again, with the same batteries) and to “reach things” with his pliers.
- Junior is the only child who may use the multitool. His friends cannot use it, and his younger brother cannot use it. Little Bear is a bit jealous but so far seems to respect the limits and talks about how when he’s “a big boy” he will get his own.
- The saw cannot be used without a grown up. Most of the tools are not likely to cause any kind of injury, even when misused. The saw could though, being that it is sharp and serrated. For that reason, when Junior wants to use the saw, he needs an adult present to keep an eye on his use. So far, he has either forgotten about the saw, is scared of it, or can’t figure out how to unfold it. Whichever the case may be, he is not interested in it yet but recognizes its potential risks.
No knife yet. WHAT? I’m sure you’re wondering. How could we give him a knife and then make a rule that he can’t have a knife? Well, thanks to a genius design feature by Leatherman, the children’s Leap Leatherman comes with a removable knife blade. If Junior wants to use his knife, he’s going to need to prove that he can use it responsibly without the knife blade first. I’m not sure when we’ll put the blade in; we haven’t put a timeline on it. We’ll see how he does with what he’s got first. I tend to think that when he’s ready for the knife blade, we will get him a simpler knife first to use, and then move back to the multitool. The Boy Scouts guide suggests starting with carving soap when kids first learn to use knives, and we will probably go that route when he’s older.
I will admit, I was nervous letting him use his new tool the first few times. I worried he would cut himself with the scissors or pinch his skin when he tried to fold it up. Like any parent, I want to protect him. But if I spend all my time protecting him, he’ll never get the chance to grow and learn to protect himself. He cannot learn risk without experiencing it.
I attended a talk recently by Richard Louv, author of “Last Child in the Woods” and founder of the Children & Nature Network. One of the issues he addressed was the trends of injuries in children, and how recently doctors report fewer acute injuries, like broken bones and lacerations, and more stress injuries caused by overuse, like tendonitis and bursitis. He hypothesized that this is because kids now have less variety in their play. They are getting stress injuries from playing video games, carrying heavy backpacks, or becoming specialized in one sport from a very young age. Gone are the days of the common acute injuries, like falling off the monkey bars and breaking your arm (as my good friend and I both did in second grade, several weeks apart.) These are the days of carpal tunnel syndrome in an 8-year-old who spends too much time on the computer. These are the days of 12-year old girls tearing their ACLs in their fifth soccer practice in as many days.
So, could my son hurt himself with his multitool? Absolutely he could. But I would rather my kid have the kind of childhood that encounters acute injuries periodically than the kind of childhood that suffers chronically from stress injuries. There’s no way to know if Junior is ready for this tool other than to introduce it carefully, set reasonable ground rules and, the hardest part, let him go.