Why I Let My 5-Year-Old Use The Sharp Knives

That Stanford dean is right: Helicopter parenting ruins kids. By letting her do dangerous things, I’m helping my daughter stay safe.

November 16, 2015
girl cutting vegetables
PHOTOGRAPH BY WESTEND61/GETTY

“Go ahead, honey, jump.”

My daughter was standing carefully at the edge of the playground structure and looking down. It seemed far. It was 5 feet off the ground—about twice her height. She looked at me, but I didn’t put out my arms to catch her. I didn’t even get close enough. So she jumped.

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She landed on her feet but immediately dropped to her knees. “Ow,” she said, getting up and rubbing her hands. “I didn’t like that.” 

“Why not?” 

“I was scared. And it hurt.”

“Well, I think you were very brave, and I’m proud of you. But you don’t have to do it again until you’re ready.” 

Some kids are pretty naturally adventurous. Others are more careful. My daughter is somewhere in between. But I’ve been encouraging her to push her boundaries, so when she asks for help, such as getting down from playground equipment, I’ll often ask her to try and see if she can do it herself first. 

I want her to climb trees, ride her scooter fast, and jump off of things. I stand back, too far away to catch her, because I also want her to have a sense of her own independence. And I think it’s OK if, occasionally, she gets hurt.

When Julie Lythcott-Haims, the former dean of Stanford published her book against over parenting—or “helicopter parenting” as it’s often called—earlier this year, she was speaking predominately about college-age students, but her arguments felt relevant even for my family, and she pointed toward trends I want to start instilling as soon as possible. In an excerpt in Slate, she puts the dangers of overparenting succinctly: “When we parent this way we deprive our kids of the opportunity to be creative, to problem solve, to develop coping skills, to build resilience...” And resilience comes from trying out things that you’re not entirely sure you can do.

 

Related: How Old My Child Will Be When The Planet Runs Out Of Oil

Now that she’s 5, when we’re cooking, I’m begining to let her cut vegetables. She does this under my supervision and often with a bread knife, but I’m also starting to let her use a chef’s knife. I’ve shown her how to hold the knife and the vegetable, curling her fingers back so it’s safe and using a rocking motion so that the tip of the knife isn’t off the cutting board and it’s much easier to control. Though it was nerve-wracking at first (and, OK, it still is), she’s pretty good at it.

Michelle Stern, founder of What’s Cooking With Kids and author of The Whole Family Cookbook believes that 5 year olds are perfectly capable of cutting veggies and has taught even toddlers how to chop, though she recommends, of course, against simply handing a child a sharp object. “Motor skills emerge at different times in different children, as does maturity,” she says. “So, evaluate the situation.” Starting with a plastic dinner knife or even a pumpkin knife is a good idea. “Only when they appear to be proficient with a starter tool should you progress to something sharper.” 

It doesn’t always go well. She’s had minor cuts on her fingers. She had a nasty scrape on her knees that turned into a huge scab (and we got to learn about how bodies heal). Some rough housing turned into a lost toenail that took a few weeks to fall off. But the toenail is growing back. Her cuts are all healed. And her knees look good as new. 

 

I have a couple guidelines I use to determine whether my daughter is old enough to try something. The first is “no permanent damage.” So she can use a kitchen knife, now, but not a chain saw. She can jump off the jungle gym, but she’s not allowed to open her second story window and climb out onto the porch roof. And she has to be settled and in the right frame of mind to help in these ways—she doesn’t get to help cut veggies when she’s bouncing off the walls. 

My other guideline is “it’s OK to get hurt.” Getting hurt is educational! It teaches you important things, including that a cut or scrape isn’t the end of the world. 

Another thing it teaches, ironically, is how to be safe. A child that knows exactly how far she can jump, or fall (and how to fall), and just how sharp a knife is—that child needs a lot less supervision than one that has no idea about those things.

Plus there’s a sense of accomplishment that might be otherwise hard to find. The physical world doesn’t go easy on you; when you accomplish something there, it can only be for real. And that’s a feeling I want my daughter to enjoy.

A few months later we were back at that same playground. My daughter climbed up to the same spot, and with hardly any hesitation, she jumped down. She landed on her feet, crouched a little, then stood up, and ran to another part of the playground; she hadn’t even glanced over at me. Like it was no big deal.