11 Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Kids Do

Let’s open this one with an awkward story.

Our next door neighbors (who have since moved) once left their two kids playing out in the front yard with my wife and our daughter. My wife wasn’t asked to supervise, I guess it was just assumed she would.

Anyway, their five year old daughter climbed onto the hood and then the roof of their minivan. The father saw her from inside the house and came out to tell her to get down and then proceeded to chastise my wife for allowing her to climb on the van.

Interesting, huh? You leave your children unattended and suddenly the only parent left is to blame for your child doing something my wife would have let our two year old daughter do.

Side note: my wife said his daughter told her, “don’t tell my dad I’m doing this.” That’s how effective authoritarian, coercive parenting is, ladies and gentlemen.

I digress.

There are inherent problems with not allowing children to do anything dangerous. Instead of learning to navigate the world around them (and yes, learn some hard lessons), they are completely unable to handle their own bodies in space and have a difficult time judging the safety of different situations on their own. That, by the way, is a much more dangerous proposition as they get older.

I come from a household of gasps. You know the ones — you trip over your own foot and everyone gasps because they live on egg shells and safety has to come first. It’s enough to give you a complex.

Because of that, letting my daughter do dangerous things creates natural anxiety inside of me. But I know that my daughter is better off exploring the world to the edge of her natural limits, so I purposefully work to stand down.

It’s something I’m a fan of everyone doing. So here’s 11 dangerous things you should let your kids do. If you have one to add, the comments section is open.

  1. Play with fire. There’s nothing like controlling one of the elements that completely changed the course of human history and the one thing that’s key to survival in nature. Let kids play with matches, build fires, ignite stuff, squirt lighter fluid on open flames, cook over fire, and so on.
  2. Climb. Climb trees. Climb minivans! Climb on furniture. Climb on stuff that’s sturdy and stuff that’s not. Climb, climb, climb. And if kids get stuck and are afraid to descend, coach them through it rather than rescuing them.
  3. Stand on chairs (and other unsteady objects). When my daughter stands up in her high chair everyone in the restaurant’s hands start getting tense and their knuckles turn white. You can cut the anxiety with a knife. Look, there’s only one way to learn about physics, folks. Let the bad thing happen. 90% of the time you’ll watch them successfully balance. 10% of the time they’ll learn that standing on things requires special consideration.
  4. Throw rocks (or other hard things). Obviously, if your child is throwing rocks in a crowd of people, you need to keep the crowd safe. But parents are notorious for setting “zero tolerance policies” for not throwing things. Instead of rules, teach your children to be aware of others, aware of natural consequences, and empathetic for the safety of others. Those are skills they’ll use to make the right decisions without you.
  5. Go in water without safety devices. I had a hard time with this when I took our daughter to the beach. I wanted to get her some sort of vest just in case the undertow was strong. But, I didn’t. Flotation devices give children a false sense of security and dampen their natural fear of the water. She was naturally afraid of the undertow. These devices also make parents more at ease, meaning they pay less attention to their child in the water. If you can’t swim well, bad things can happen — let your kids figure that out.
    Edited later: I’ve since changed my outlook on floatation devices as they can allow children to be more independent and get a richer experience, especially on vacations and the like. I’m still a proponent of also being in the water with them at times without these devices to avoid the false sense of security. Sometimes children don’t realize they don’t have the devices on and go into water thinking they do. This type of mistake must be avoided by not getting them totally reliant on the devices.
  6. Carry a pocket knife. Another hard and fast rule parents tend to set is, “no knives/sharp objects.” That’s not to say you should give Johnny a knife for Christmas and let him run rampant with it — it’s about exploring the benefits and dangers and best practices with your child. Teach (that’s your job, by the way) and then trust.
  7. Shoot a gun. Tragically, a lot of firearm deaths are related to children shooting themselves. But these are children who find guns who don’t know what guns do. Even if you don’t have a gun in the house, your child could be going to friends’ houses where firearms can be found. The best way for children to understand the benefits, dangers, and best practices of firearms is to be introduced to them and experience them until the novelty wears off and the implications are well understood.
  8. Use things in ways they weren’t designed. There are parents at the park that I go to who won’t let their kids climb up a slide (those are for going down only!). I’m sure you’ve heard parents tell their kids (and maybe you’ve said the same), “that’s not what that’s for” about a myriad of things. What you think it’s for and what they’re doing with it don’t need to jive. Kids learn by pushing buttons and pulling levers. They don’t need to only push the buttons you want them to push and pull the levers you think they should pull.
  9. Sleep outside/camp/walk in the woods. It’s a shame that most adults are so out of touch with nature and the wild. The more kids can be outdoors and be allowed to explore, the better. If they decide one day that they want to sleep outside, let it happen. If you’re worried, join them at first and then offer more and more autonomy. The same goes with camping and generally exploring the wilderness in your area.
  10. Spar. Most large and somewhat intelligent animals spar and roughhouse. This type of play is built into human genetics. Let your chid wrestle around with other kids. I’m also very pro-martial arts practice, provided you can find the right school/leader (this is very important because martial arts can easily be introduced to children in harmful ways — maybe that’s a good idea for a future article).
  11. Be barefoot. I’ve written and talked extensively about the dangers of wearing shoes. Yes, you heard that right. Kids should be barefoot 99% of the time. Whatever risks there are to being barefoot pale in comparison to the destruction shoes do to developing feet (and all of the side effects that come with that). With that said, common sense is still a great thing (I think if I ever go back to New Orleans, my daughter will be wearing shoes in that city, ha!).

I want to clarify that there’s no set age where these things become appropriate. Some of the items in this list should be extended to children as young as one year. Others might not be age appropriate until five, six, or twelve. It also depends on the personality of your individual child, but you need to assess without a bunch of emotional bias.

Keep in mind that you shape your child’s personality and if you fail to trust them, they’ll suffer for it. If you want to introduce something in the list, but you’re unsure, start by cooperating in their exploration.

This is especially true when the risks heavily outweigh the reward. When something is too dangerous (there’s a few items in the list) for kids to explore completely alone, then you cooperate in the activity and slowly offer more and more autonomy.

Some parents hold the idea that dangerous things should just be avoided altogether and that’s the kind of thinking we need to avoid so kids’ growth isn’t needlessly suppressed by our — often overreaching — fears.

Have something to add to the list? Comment below. I love your input, feedback, and additions.

33 comments
  • Adam

    You could almost call this list 11 things to do with your children outside. The challenge of the out doors and simply play allows us to adequately understand the world around them, make sensible considered decisions and understand the various uses of materials and tools.

  • Daniela

    To be honest, this list gives me anxiety as a parent, yet I agree. We moved from the Silicon Valley to a small town in Iowa. My 9 year old son road his bike down the street alone for the first time. Neither him or I knew what the boundaries should be. So I told him to trust your instincts and be safe.

      • Jexi

        I have to comment on the slide situation. Parents don’t tell kids not to climb up because that’s not what it’s “made for.” We do it to teach them to respect others trying to slide down so they aren’t sliding down, climbing up, sliding down, climbing up, etc. without letting someone else have a turn. Common sense not to hog the slide

        • Kevin

          I know why parents tell their kids not to go up the slide. And it’s still wrong. The kids will sort it out. It’s how they learn to negotiate. It’s how they learn to problem solve. There’s no reason for a parent to step in.

  • Rebecca

    Hey yeah, don’t spank your kids, but go ahead and teach them it’s okay to play with fire, so when they burn themselves/someone else/destroy a building, you can be proud you’ve helped create an emotionally secure arsonist.
    Half of these are dangerous for people of every age, not some learning tool because you’re too lazy to teach them that fire and cars aren’t toys.
    there are barriers for a reason and If anyone I meet does half the crap off of this list, I will call CPS.

      • Nic wilson

        This is a great article and does not absolve parental responsibility to teach. There is a simple model for teaching (to the one who thinks the govt CPS will solve the worlds problems I say oh so sarcastically and I’m a police officer).
        1. You do it while your kids watch.
        2. Your kids do it with you.
        3. Your kids do it while you watch.
        4. Your kids do it over and over again the correct way.

    • Lisa

      This is one of the saddest comments I’ve read, ever. To have such low opinions of your child’s abilities. No one is talking about permissive parenting or letting your child go on an arson spree just for fun. It’s about children learning for themselves that the world can be a hazardous place. If you wrap a child in cotton wool and stop them from doing anything because you are “scared” you’ll be even more scared when they leave home and have no experience of all the damage they will inevitably do to themselves. Unless of course, they are the kind of children/adults who never question anything and will NEVER EVER do anything that mommy said not to… My son has excellent skills with scissors, knives, lighting the gas hob, climbing, risk assessment and knowing his boundaries, why? Because I have just set him off to do dangerous things without input? No! Because I have taught him how to use tools safely UNDER STRICT SUPERVISION and allowed him to experience life and it’s hazards. And I can assure you that my child is and always will be significantly safer in this world and has a better understanding of how things work in his environment than a child who blindly follows mommy’s rules and limitations. As parents it is our job to prepare our children for independence in the case that we are no longer here to protect them… Creating dependent, reliant, limited children IMO is simply neglectful.

    • Tiffany

      Rebecca, hysterics like you are a large part of the problem and reason why parents are being arrested today and charged with neglect for letting their children play in their own yard, without incident.

      Read this. It’s an incredibly in depth article that covers how playgrounds were turned from areas that involved play with risk (heights, etc) in the late 70s – to sterilize safety zones that actually result in more injuries through the mid 80s & 90s. In 2006 the advocates that pushed for this sterilization released it was way out hand. Something others had been saying since the 80s.

      Do you realize how many paranoid mothers accidentally break their children legs when going down a slide with them? It’s a common injury now.

      Also, realize that you have no right to enforce your paranoid parenting methods on others. In other words, worry about your own bundles of anxiety who will grow up to stomp their feet, insist everything is out to harm them and demand safe spaces in college while vindictively (and often violently) lashing out at those who have differing opinions/methods, just like their mommy.

      https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/04/hey-parents-leave-those-kids-alone/358631/

      “Sandseter began observing and interviewing children on playgrounds in Norway. In 2011, she published her results in a paper called “Children’s Risky Play From an Evolutionary Perspective: The Anti-Phobic Effects of Thrilling Experiences.” Children, she concluded, have a sensory need to taste danger and excitement; this doesn’t mean that what they do has to actually be dangerous, only that they feel they are taking a great risk. That scares them, but then they overcome the fear. In the paper, Sandseter identifies six kinds of risky play: (1) Exploring heights, or getting the “bird’s perspective,” as she calls it—“high enough to evoke the sensation of fear.” (2) Handling dangerous tools—using sharp scissors or knives, or heavy hammers that at first seem unmanageable but that kids learn to master. (3) Being near dangerous elements—playing near vast bodies of water, or near a fire, so kids are aware that there is danger nearby. (4) Rough-and-tumble play—wrestling, play-fighting—so kids learn to negotiate aggression and cooperation. (5) Speed—cycling or skiing at a pace that feels too fast. (6) Exploring on one’s own.

      This last one Sandseter describes as “the most important for the children.” She told me, “When they are left alone and can take full responsibility for their actions, and the consequences of their decisions, it’s a thrilling experience.”

      To gauge the effects of losing these experiences, Sandseter turns to evolutionary psychology. Children are born with the instinct to take risks in play, because historically, learning to negotiate risk has been crucial to survival; in another era, they would have had to learn to run from some danger, defend themselves from others, be independent.

      But if they never go through that process, the fear can turn into a phobia. Paradoxically, Sandseter writes, “our fear of children being harmed,” mostly in minor ways, “may result in more fearful children and increased levels of psychopathology.”

  • Dan Overmitten

    Yep, article made me nervous but I’m glad Mr. Geary clarified the most important part – supervision. I do believe too many parents would rather hand over supervisory roles to others than to be actively involved with their kids. Nothing like standing under a tree as your kid is climbing down to make you appreciate their skill over how much “danger” in involved. Benefits both of you. “Being there” for your kids is more than listening to them from the front seat of your minivan.

  • Sally

    I love this atricle.
    I’ve always let and encouraged my kids to explore the physical world. The thing I find hardest as a parent is the judgement of other parents.
    “What! You let your kids use an axe to chop wood!”
    The implied judgement in statements such as this is that I am an irresponsible parent. That I just hand the kid an axe and say “Go for your life!”
    Of course we teach safety and technique and supervise.

    One of the greatest benefits is that kids given freedom learn their own limits, develope a sense of safety and respect for “dangerous” tools, objects and learn to trust their intuition and instincts.

  • Paul k

    I agree with the premise and all but the “squirt lighter fluid on open flames”. Although I’ve done it myself many times and got away with it when I was young, an adult friend did it and had the can blow up in his hand. He was so badly burned that he died a few days later. I haven’t done it since and never light a charcoal fire without thinking of him.

  • Jennifer Young

    I agree with much of your article, but listing #7 shoot a gun and then following it by #8 use things in ways they weren’t designed is irresponsible! I am all for letting kids explore and not cottling them, but with supervision and safety. Teaching a kid to shoot a gun and then encouraging them to use guns, fire, pocket knifes etc. in a ways they weren’t designed, is not o.k. I am all for teaching kids about guns for the reasons you listed but it is so very important to teach them to use them propperly and safely (as designed).

    As a parent, preschool teacher, and foster mom, I have seen time and time again how important rules and boundries are. I am on my way right now to pick up a child who has wandered the streets and done whatever he pleased his entire 3 years of life. Climbing on everything and getting hurt over and over didn’t stop him, staples in the back of his head didn’t stop him, he just continues to get hurt because no one took the time and effort required to teach him what is and isn’t safe to climb on. Please let your kids explore, but in an age appropriate manner, thinking of the well being of all, and with respect, rules, and boundries, i.e. it’s o.k to climb up the slide when no other kids are using it, but not if others are around, or, mom is going to let you see what it’s like to climp up on top of our car, but we don’t climb on anyone elses car, they might not like it, because it could damage it.

  • Solid rock

    It’s no wonder children today are found dead because you think it’s ok to let a child experience a gun. The day you are out and you mistakenly left your gun box unlock, that’s the day your child is in the 6 o’clock news. Irresponsible.

    So yeah, go ahead and let your 1.5 year old climb a 5 foot ladder just to slide. The day your to stupid and lazy to stand behind him, he happens to loose his balance and falls from the top only to break his neck. Oohh, but wait he should had learn to balance.

    Ooo..wait. it gets better. .let’s go ahead and give him a pocket knife at whatever age because it’s ok to put it in a socket. He will learn, but it will be to late.

    Although, some of your thoughts have a good understanding. But seriously, are you that ignorant when it comes to toddlers? I was searching for advice, and your article was the dumbest of all. I am not a doctor. But i am a parent and grandparent, and though my kids have had their share of bruises, broken arms and fingers. You have to draw a line at what age you should be mindful. You should be more specific, because then you are giving lazy ass parents more of a reason to be lazier.

    And i agree, with one writer, i too would call cps on you. Learn your limits parents. Or you will that parent on the news making up excuses when they take your child/toddler to the morgue.

    • Jordan

      Your sarcastic response shows your frustration and misunderstanding of the author’s purpose and intent. However, I do hear what you are saying: you are mad at the “lazy parents” who don’t involve themselves in their kids lives and let them do whatever they want. If I am at liberty to surmise, the author of this article, however, is not lazy; he is mindful and aware that parents, while they should be proactive, also cannot keep their child safe from all things. Instead, they should teach their child how to responsibly act in a number of different situations and allow them the freedom to play and learn and grow naturally – which, with that, comes a few tears, scrapes, and bruises.

      Over protective parents are not good parents; they are worried and afraid parents, creating anxious and fearful children. The author, while a little extreme in some views, is pleading with parents to let their kids be kids. Parents cannot stop bad things from happening to their children, but they can train them how to learn and handle these situations rightly.

      For example, teaching a child about guns is a wise and responsible thing to do for your child. It will not only show them that guns must be treated with respect and caution, but it will also give them the knowledge to know what to do IF they are ever put in a position where a gun is presented to them.

      Likewise, a child should be TRAINED/TAUGHT how to climb up a ladder and go down a slide. But then, let them experiment and play. They may fall, but they will be okay. (Unless, of course, you take them to a slide that is 10 feet off the ground, which do not exist anymore to my knowledge.) And, if your child begins to go beyond what is safe and responsible and obedient, then it is, of course, the parents responsibility to reprove and correct the child.

      “Train up your child in the way they should go” (Proverbs 22:6).

  • Jordan

    While I agree with the premise here – don’t over protect your kids from natural consequences and shelter them from learning experiences – extremes must be avoided. For a child (such as yourself) to grow up very constrained and limited in exploration, the natural thing to do is either continue that practice yourself or go in the complete opposite direction. While I agree with most of the list, I disagree that children should be allowed to stand up in their high chair or on furniture. That is not what those things are designed for, and I believe you begin to create another problem when those types of behaviors are encouraged and not taught in the proper way.

    I think the great king, author, and philosopher – and the wisest man who ever lived – has the best advice for parents: “there is a time for everything” (King Solomon in Ecclesiastes). For example, climbing is a great, natural mode of development and exploration. Kids should be allowed to climb trees and hills and rocks. That’s the appropriate time. The inappropriate time is when they climb on the car hood or the couch or the high chair. That is not being a good steward of what God has given you and your family.

    All in all, thank you for the article. It was fun and interesting to read. Yet, we must caution ourselves of extremes in many areas of life.

  • PeaceUnicorn

    Great article to make us parents reflect on our parenting techniques. Reading over the list, I gather that most of these activities seem like things a father would be great for allowing for their children. Most men need to realize that they can spend time with kids doing “guy” stuff, getting a couple scratches here and there. It’s simply about being a mindful, proactive parent, no matter what kind family activities one decides to pursue. I would have loved for my children’s father to engage similarly.
    That being said, I am a single mom of 2 kids, a girl age 12, and my son, who is 14. We had a trampoline for some time. Two boys wrecked the net, and it has since rusted, but I used to get on the trampoline with just my own kids (so as to not embarrass kids in front of friends). I still am a “protective” parent, however, since it is just me in the home, and since I have my own neuroses.

  • sara

    this is a stupid article its like you really dont care what your kids do even if it involves them hurting people or themselfs do u have a brain like serious if u dont know how to handle a kid dont have one and dont let your kid do this its a bad habit they will turn out to be a bad person and teach there kids the exact same thing?

  • Melissa

    I would love to let my kids run around outside and go camping and nature stuff but im too afraid of poop. Theres dog and bird poop everywhere we go and the other day im pretty sure i saw rat poop on the playground.

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11 Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Kids Do

by Kevin Geary time to read: 6 min
33