On a knife’s edge

Hmmm, this sounds ominous. “Yeeess?”
“I’ve lost my penknife.”
Is that all. “Well, if you have a little tidy of your bedroom when we get back, I’m sure you’ll find it…
We were walking back from the school bus stop, a fact that was just filtering into my brain.
“Hang on. What?! Where did you lose it?” Surely not…
At school.”
Oh no. No, NO! “What was your penknife doing at school?”
“I found it in my pocket.”
“And how did it get into your coat pocket?”
“It wasn’t in my coat pocket, it was in my cardigan pocket.”
It gets worse! “So you had it inside the classroom? How did your penknife get into your pocket?”
“I don’t know…”
And that’s when I got cross. There are lots of things I disagree with school over, and there have been plenty of times when I have taken up my child’s rights with teachers, but on this there was no room for manoeuvre. Knives do not go into school – end of.

It turned out that Melody had lost the penknife playing out at lunch time, not confessed because she knew she shouldn’t have had the knife in school, and spent afternoon playtime searching for it. Having witnessed Melody’s version of “looking” many times, I marched her straight back up to school and we scoured the place she had lost it. It wasn’t there and it became clear that, unless Melody’s version of events were made up (not something she normally does), the penknife could not be there – there was simply nowhere for it to remain hidden. In the end, I wrote a note and posted it in at the school office, explaining the situation and apologising, then went home to await the fall out. I was pretty sure one of the other children must have been pleased to find a lovely, wooden handled child’s knife and we would never see it again, and that by writing a note to the school, all I had done was open our family to more criticism. However, if there was a chance of getting back Melody’s precious knife for her, I couldn’t just give up.

I shouldn’t have been cross with Melody. She loves her knife, so why wouldn’t she slip it into her pocket to keep her going through the school day that she finds so difficult. But with a knife, comes responsibility. I find it so hard to draw a balance with my children, especially when I often push the boundaries of what is generally recognised to be acceptable. Am I reckless with my children’s safety?  Am I more inclined to take risk with them because I feel the opportunities for my children to take responsibility for themselves are so limited? At Melody’s age I was cycling around our suburb, going to the shops alone and I was far less intensely supervised than she is. I had the opportunity to remember not to leave my jumper at the park – I’d only have to go back and get it myself. I had the chance to learn to deal with fallings out between friends without rapid adult intervention, to learn by making mistakes and being responsible for my own actions. Not that I’m saying all was brilliant when I was a child – the health and safety measures that are in place for children today are there to make things better. But for me, there has to be a balance. A ten year old who leaps from a tree, without recognising that all ground is not the rubber safety surface of many play areas, is going to hurt themselves more than a small toddler making an experimental jump from a small log; but the lesson of caution will be learned by both. I’m scared that dangers may be building up ahead of my children because of the so safe environment they usually experience. Perhaps I am overcompensating with the knife…

It took a while for me to realise it was unusual for children to have penknives these days; I was expressing to a friend last year how I felt so uninteresting, so mundane, so boringly normal. She joked with me. “You give your children knives – you are not normal!” It turns out she is right, but I stand by my decision. I hope to instil in my children a respect for knives and a sense of responsibility from owning one. I hope my children will learn to use knives safely, and derive a sense of enjoyment and achievement from being able to whittle wood. I find working with wood and knives very satisfying and I know Joe finds it therapeutic.

So, on the evening Melody lost her knife I decided if that if I was going to stand true to my belief that Melody should have a knife, I must also be prepared to deal with any repercussions. After a night of unsettled sleep, dreaming about four year olds with severed fingers, I was uncharacteristically glad to see it raining heavily. When it is very wet, I let Melody and Amos catch the school bus, rather us walking to school together.  Normally, I hate not seeing the children into school, but that morning I was relieved not to be on the premises, bearing in mind this was a school in which, when asked to go and help the children make apple crumble, I was presented with butter knives to cut the apples with. Have you ever tried to cut a large Brambly with a butter knife? Don’t. I came away with blisters and the belief that the children were more in danger of going home with a black eye, due to all the flying apples that pinged away from the blunt knives, rather than a cut from the use of a sharp knife under supervision.

It was the school secretary that phoned to tell me the penknife had been handed in by a parent. She was very nice about it.  A year-one child, (i.e. a five year old…), had taken it home rather than hand it in the previous day. I was so relieved… until Melody jumped off the bus that night saying “I’ve found my penknife.  Oh, and the Headmistress gave me a letter for you.” When I got the letter out of Melody’s bag, it was addressed to the Dr. version of me – always a bad sign. I apprehensively opened the envelope to find just the knife. I was surprised. I had expected a good talking to. Perhaps I shouldn’t have worried. But then, perhaps this was a lesson Melody needed to learn. My wonderful Melody, who has no sense of urgency, who will stop on the way to school whether we are late or not, to tie up daffodils that are drooping into the road or to move worms that might get run over. The girl who hates having her hair brushed and will run in the opposite direction shouting, “Comb’s are evil.” I want to encourage her individuality and support her to develop, as I hope I can for all my children. I do not want to smother them. Sometimes there are things that cannot be learned under supervision, things that have to be achieved alone.

I have been accused of not living in the real world. My children do not have mobile phones, they have limited screen time and we do not have games consoles in the house. Maybe people see us as old fashioned, unrealistic perhaps. But I have not seen my children held back. They have an excellent grasp of technology, are pleasingly aware of current affairs, and have a good understanding of issues affecting the planet and the things that live on it. Perhaps I just have a different definition of the real world to some people. For me, you can’t get much closer to the real world than in the wood. The natural environment is the reason we are here and as we gradually lose touch with it and destroy it, we jeopardise our own futures. I see our woodland as different classroom, a place where the children can learn things that they have limited opportunity to learn in the so-safe environment they normally find themselves in. The knife incident made me question my philosophy, but in the end, made me more determined. I will continue to watch, heart in mouth, as my children climb high in the trees; I will continue to worry when one of my children has not yet returned from a wander. I will cope with the guilty feeling I get when I have to put a plaster on a small knife nick or plunge a finger into cold water to a relieve a small burn, the result of a mishap with the open fire. I will close my eyes to small arguments in the wood, hoping that the children will learn tact, diplomacy – the art of living together. I will continue to debate my justification for allowing the children to play unsupervised in the wood…  for asking them to light a fire and get the kettle boiling…

I do not believe I am carelessly taking risks with my children’s safety.  I hope I am not. It takes self control to make these choices because I see the risk in them. But I know that at some point, the safely net will be taken away. If I do not give my children the opportunity to practice now, later they will fall further and harder. That is one risk I am not prepared to take.

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