There’s a new book on the shelves that is getting quite a lot of attention. It is The Dangerous Book for Boys by Conn and Hal Iggulden.
I don’t know a whole lot about this book except that it is full of instructions on play that is active and exploratory and useful and fun. Apparently it is a reaction to today’s play standards that emphasize safety and sanity. Times have changed and the question is, is that for the better?
When I was a kid we played Chicken and Mumbly Peg with pocket knives. As I recall in chicken one kid (the chicken) stands on the lawn with his or her feet apart and the other kid tosses a pocket knife between the chicken’s feet. The knife is extracted, the chicken brings his or her feet closer together and the thrower repeats until the the chicken chickens out because the target space is just too narrow for comfort. The margin for error is pretty huge and the danger in that is pretty obvious. I never got a knife blade through my foot but I’m sure some kids did. Mumbly Peg is a series of maneuvers with a pocket knife. Not as dangerous but there’s plenty of opportunity to get cut and I’m sure we did.
We played outside, without supervision all the time. There was some empty land behind my house with a grove of trees in the middle of it and we made it our fort. We would only come inside when our Mom’s called us for dinner. We walked downtown and roamed the stores whenever we wanted. We walked to a park that had a rope suspension bridge over a gorge and ran back and forth across it. It’s a wonder no one ever fell over. I know I must have been young because this all took place in Ohio and we moved from there when I was 10.
By contrast, I didn’t let my daughter walk from my house to 7-11 a quarter of a mile away by herself until she was about 10. Was I overly protective? Probably but by the time my daughter was 5 or 6 there had been 3 snatched from the street stranger abductions in this area and not of those girls has ever been found – so sue me. Did I let my kids play with knives? Not knowingly but I was adamant about sticks – no sticks because anyone with half a brain knows that it’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye. That having been said my daughter got hit in the face with a Frisbee when she was 4 and had to have stitches. Kids get hurt no matter what you do.
But back to the book. It has great stuff in it. Here is a subsection of the table of contents: (click link for the full entry):
1. Essential Gear
2. Questions About the World
3. Making a Battery
4. The Rules of Soccer
6. Understanding Grammar
7. Table Football
8. U.S. Naval Flag Codes
9. Making Crystals
10. Insects and Spiders
12. Making a Paper Hat, Boat and Water Bomb
13. Astronomy — the Study of the Heavens
14. Marbling Paper
Great stuff and really, not so dangerous. I think the title is there just for grab. And about that title… (you knew this was coming, right??)
Boys and girls are different. I have a long and amusing anecdote about how I discovered this with my own children but I’ll save that for another time. For now let’s just assume that in general, they just are, although the gap widens with age. Little kids are a lot alike regardless of gender. Boys and girls both want to explore the world and learn new things and the things in the TOC of the Dangerous Book for Boys look pretty appealing to girls.
Now you can argue that the title isn’t really exclusionary and that there’s no reason a girl can’t enjoy the book but you would be wrong. Any girl who picks up that book and says, “Oh Wow – I love this stuff!” has immediately embraced a counter-culture position. This the the Dangerous Book for BOYS and if, as a girl, you covet that book and enjoy the activities then you have to deal with the fact that you are, a priori, acting like a boy and that is very frowned upon in a culture that is preoccupied with pointing out the differences between boys and girls.
There are parts of the book that focus specifically on what it means to be a boy or how to enjoy your maleness or something. I haven’t read it so I can’t really express that and I am not about to be critical when I don’t know. I do know that girls have been discouraged from romping and rough housing and learning a lot of useful skills for years and years (while the boys learned wood working in shop I learned how to make a pot roast in home ec) and that drawing those lines doesn’t do anyone any good. I know that when I was married, if I so much as looked at a screwdriver my husband about had a heart attack and immediately bleated out “I’LL TAKE CARE OF THAT!” as though if I made an attempt to fix something the whole house would fall down around us. Girls really can be mechanically inclined and that’s okay. It doesn’t have to be the sole provenance of boys to be the builders in this world and yet that is all too often the party line.
It’s just too bad the author didn’t call it ‘The Dangerous Book for Kids’ and focus on getting back to play that emphasizes exploration and hands on learning and gets kids – all of them – away from a video screen. It’s too bad that the author had to associate gender identity with hands on learning. I think he missed the boat there.