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Khwezi,” I said, throwing my son the car keys, “there comes a time in every young man’s life when his father teaches him to drive.”
I was obviously joking, Khwezi is four, but it got me thinking. We live in a world that’s subjected to ever more stringent child safety regulations. There doesn’t seem to be any limit to how crazy child safety regulations can get. We even put warnings on coffee cups to tell us their contents may be hot. One of the sillier labels I’ve come across was “Caution: this packet may contain nuts”. It was on a bag of nuts.
I realised that in the delicate balance of protecting and overprotecting, I sometimes crossed the line. I was in danger of becoming a “don’t run with scissors” kind of dad to Khwezi and his 14-year-old brother Samuel. Sure, they know their way around the World Wide Web, but what will happen when they’re confronted by the real world? Will I have equipped them with enough street smarts to navigate their way safely? Will I have passed my dad job? It was time for my boys to do dangerous things.
1. Play with Fire
Khwezi, PS2 control in hand, is knocking over poles and slamming into virtual cars when I toss him a box of matches. “Let’s have some real fun,” I say. “Let’s burn stuff.” We go outside and build a campfire. I show him how to stack the wood and after a few attempts, we’ve got a fire. We jab marshmallows onto sticks and roast them. I watch Khwezi perform little experiments. He pokes at the fire with his stick. He drops a twig in the flames. Then his marshmallow. From playing with fire children learn about intake, combustion, exhaust – the components that make fire possible. “The open pit is a laboratory,” says Tulley. “You don’t know what they are going to learn from playing with it. Let them fool around with it… Trust me, they’re going to learn things you can’t get from playing with toys.” Khwezi is hypnotised by the fire. “What have you learnt about fire?” I asked my little boy. Khwezi thought thoughtfully. Then he tilted his head, waggled his finger PW-style and said: “You can play with fire, but remember, your dad won’t like it if you burn down the house.” Good point.
2. Give Him a Pocket Knife
On my eleventh birthday, my father presented me with a Swiss Army knife. I flicked it open – blade, corkscrew, screwdriver, tweezers, scissors and even a toothpick. I punched the air. Although I didn’t have the words for it, I knew that this was more than a knife; it was a symbol of my independence. A few days later I would also know that if you absolutely have to carve your initials into a chunk of wood, make sure it’s not the expensive stinkwood table in your parents’ dining room. I called Sam aside and handed him a pocket knife. “This, my boy,” I beamed, “is your freedom.” “No, dad,” he said, rolling his eyes. “It’s a knife.” I pulled out my own knife, which I still carry with me, and explained to him why it’s one of my most treasured possessions. I told him about the duties it’s performed on camping trips and explained the time I used it MacGyver-style to pick a lock when I got stuck in a public toilet. Then I explained to him who MacGyver was. Sam nodded. He got it. According to Tulley, pocket knives are drifting out of our cultural consciousness, which is a shame, because they are powerful and empowering tools. “Kids can develop an extended sense of self through a tool at a very young age,” he explains. He also advises you to lay down three simple rules when giving your kid a knife: always cut away from your body, keep the blade sharp and never ever force it. “Yeah, they are going to cut themselves, but they’re young – they heal fast.”
3. Throw a Spear
Throwing a spear is a good whole body workout, but, explains Tulley, it provides more than just physical benefits – it increases visualisation skills. I couldn’t find a spear, so I hauled out my pocket knife and whittled a point at the end of a long stick for Khwezi. We went to a park, put a target on a tree and spent hours throwing the spear at the target. We set ground rules – namely, don’t throw sharp sticks at people, even by “accident” – and nobody lost an eye. “Our brains are wired for throwing things and, just like muscles, if you don’t use part of your brain it tends to atrophy over time,” says Tulley, who adds that throwing things has been shown to stimulate the frontal and parietal lobes, which helps develop problem-solving skills. Target-based practice helps kids develop concentration skills. As I watched Khwezi throw his stick, I realised that it’s important for boys to honour their inner “caveman” and do the kind of things we had to do for 99 percent of human history – it’s hardwired into our DNA and needs to find expression somehow.
4. Deconstruct Appliances
Taking appliances apart and seeing how they work is a fantastic experience for children, says Tulley. “It’s complicated inside, but puzzling out [what the parts] might be for is a really good practice for kids to get a sense that no matter how complex things are, they can understand parts of them – and that means that eventually they can understand all of them. It’s a sense that something is knowable.” I pulled out an old radio that I’d used to listen to Alex Jay when he still had a ponytail and was considered cool. I dusted it, plugged it in and switched it on. Sweet barnacles, Alex Jay was still on air. I used my pocket knife to open the radio to show Khwezi how it works. “Wow,” he cooed as a spaghetti-bowl of coloured wires spilled out. “How does it work?” Anticipating this question, I’d been on the Internet. I babbled on about radio waves, frequency, electric and magnetic vectors, amplitude and frequency modulation. Khwezi’s eyes glazed over. “I think,” he corrected me, “that little people live inside the radio and they talk and sing.” He pointed to the tiny colourful transistors: “See, there are their houses.”
5. Break the Law
Tulley urges parents to allow their kids to break the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to show them that laws get broken accidentally and laws have to be interpreted. “There are laws beyond safety regulations that attempt to limit how we interact with the things we own [like] digital media.” I remember my father teaching me that sometimes it’s okay to break a law. He was taking me and Eddie, my best friend, to see ET. He made us hide behind a pillar as he bought tickets. Then he herded us into the theatre and into our seats. This was 1982 and Eddie, as a black kid, was not allowed into the “slegs blanke” movies. That day I learnt that it’s important to stand up for your friends and that you have to question authority. Fortunately, apartheid laws have been scrapped, so I decided I’d teach Khwezi to drive. After all, as Tulley points out, driving a car is really empowering for a child.
“Kids get interested in cars at about the same time they latch onto dinosaurs,” he says. They are trying to get a grip on big things and, according to Tulley, getting your kid behind the wheel will give him a handle on the world in a way that he doesn’t often have access to. I’ve seen the manic gleam in Khwezi’s eyes and the virtual damage he causes when he plays Need for Speed, so his driving lessons start just as soon as I find out where his mother has hidden her car keys.
– Jonathan Ancer