(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY Saws. The kind you buy at the hardware store to cut wood. That's what the play-group teacher dumped on the ground for 3- and 4-year-old kids to play with. Knowing that doing this, in the U.S., would result in the teacher being, at minimum, fired and most likely charged with child endangerment, I had visions of emergency room trips and severed limbs dancing through my mind.
But this happened not in the U.S. but in Switzerland, where they believe children are capable of handling saws at age 3 and where kindergarten teachers counsel parents to let their 4- and 5-year-olds walk to school alone. "Children have pride when they can walk by themselves," the head of the Münchenstein, Switzerland, Kindergartens said last week at a parents meeting, reminding those in attendance that after the first few weeks of school children should be walking with friends, not mom.
So looking down at the saws, I tried to hide my American-bred fear and casually asked the teacher about her procedures in case of emergencies. She rattled them off to me in perfect English (that's another thing the Swiss believe -- that anyone is capable of learning multiple languages), but added, "I've been a forest play-group teacher for 10 years, and I've never had to call a parent because of injury."
What's a "forest" teacher? (No, that 's not a typo or pre-school name.) That alludes to a tradition here that we signed our 3-year-old up for. Every Friday, whether rain, shine, snow, or heat, he goes into the forest for four hours with 10 other children. In addition to playing with saws and files, they roast their own hot dogs over an open fire. If a child drops a hot dog, the teacher picks it up, brushes the dirt off, and hands it back.
The school year ends next week, and so far the only injury has been one two millimeter long cut received from a pocket knife. The teacher slapped a cartoon band-aid on it and all was well. No injury form to fill out. No trip to the doctor for an extra tetanus booster. No panic. In fact, she didn't even think it necessary to mention the incident to me. Which it wasn't.
Does this mean that Swiss children are capable of handling saws and crossing roads at the same age that American parents are still cutting their children's food and getting arrested for letting them go to the park?
Lenore Skenazy's Free Range Kids tracks the stories of how we're failing to prepare our children for leadership. Many parents in U.S. seem to be convinced that children are incapable of making any of their own decisions or even functioning by themselves at the playground. While a high school principal recently threatened to suspend a group of seniors for the dangerous act of riding their bikes to school, and a group of parents protested that their misbehaving 17-18 year-olds were sent home alone on a train, I looked around me and saw 4-year-olds walking to school by themselves and teenagers also traveling alone across Europe, handling transactions with different currency and in different languages.
The leadership at many American companies were raised in a similar way to the Swiss children in my neighborhood. Boys had pocket knives. Everyone rode bikes to school. Kids started babysitting other children at 11- or 12-years-old. Now? We coddle and protect and argue with teachers when our little darlings receive anything worse than an A on a paper.
The result? Well, the preliminary results from this method of parenting are hitting the workforce now. They are poor communicators who insist on using text-speak. Their mothers are calling employers. They believe they should be given rewards and promotions for the act of showing up to work on time.
If this trend in the U.S. continues, American children will become more crippled in their ability to make their own decisions (mom is always around), manage risk (at what age do you become magically able to use a saw?) or overcome a setback (you learn nothing when mom and dad sue the school district to get your grade changed).
By contrast, my son learns about risk management every week. He'll be in a school system that has no qualms about holding a child back if he doesn't understand the material. And "helicopter" parenting? Not tolerated by the schools or the other mothers at the playground.
So, while he's 4 and generally covered in dirt, I suspect he'll be more prepared for leadership when we move back to the U.S. than will children who have no freedom and responsibility and face no consequences.
That is, if he doesn't cut off his own hand with the saw.