Does your mental picture of kids playing conjure paper airplanes, tree houses, and slingshots -- not video games, DVDs, and other high-tech gadgets?
You're not alone. The nostalgia in part inspired and in part propelled The Dangerous Book for Boys. Written by British brothers Conn and Hal Iggulden, the book is a manifesto of everything and anything that boys liked and apparently still like to do -- from building go-carts, tree houses, and fortresses to playing stickball and poker. Its front-of-book essential gear list includes a switchblade, a box of matches, and fish hooks.
But the new compendium is not without its critics. Some say The Dangerous Book for Boys is, well, dangerous -- and promotes activities with questionable health and safety implications (see essential gear list above). Others chastise its gender-specific premise that boys should be boys and girls should be girls.
This is obviously not how the brothers Iggulden see it.
Kids Playing Video Games vs. Kids Playing Stickball
"The boys of today get a raw deal," contends Conn Iggulden. "Yes, they have incredible computers, but the trade-off is that they are rarely allowed to test themselves outside. They are overprotected by litigation-fearing institutions. And of course, they are subjected to noncompetitive sports days, coursework, oral schoolwork," he gripes.
Slingshots aren't dangerous, video games are, he says.
"Video games are dangerous in the sense that they make boys into passive consumers instead of allowing them to develop their imagination," he says. "Give me a day playing war rather than a PC war game any day!"
"My father’s generation thought nothing of ... going off for the day unsupervised to swim and climb, build camps, ride bikes, and everything else that kept them fit and strong," he says. "Spending six hours a day with a PlayStation just gives you a sore thumb."
It's not that computers are intrinsically evil, he says. "The problem is when it is used as a babysitter/pacifier at the expense of raising boys to be the sort of men we want in society."
Columbus, Ohio-based parenting expert Brenda Nixon, MA, author of Parenting Power in the Early Years, agrees. "Slingshots and other activities mentioned in this book are probably less dangerous than video games as far as development, because they foster social skills, language development, and motor function, which solitary video games do not," she tells WebMD.
Keeping an Eye on the Kids
Another plus of this old-fashioned type of play is that parents will likely keep a watchful eye on kids playing if they are setting up camp in a tree house or playing war games, she says.
"It's too easy to let a child play with a computer game or a CD-ROM as your electronic babysitter, while building a fort or learning how to tie knots, build tents, and play with a slingshot usually involves supervision and parental involvement," she says.
And the new book doesn’t have to be for boys only, she says.
"If parents of females want to read this book and allow their female children to engage in these activities, go ahead if they show interest," she says, "Young boys, if given the opportunity, will be drawn to playing house and nurturing dolls, and this can teach them to be empathetic, caring, and nurturing," she says. Too often, "our society will take a doll out of a boy's hand and say 'play with this truck,'” she says. "The book may be gender-specific, but so what?"
"I think it’s tougher being a kid today and tougher parenting a kid today," says Vic Strasburger, MD, a professor of pediatrics at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine in Albuquerque and the program chairman for the American Academy of Pediatrics' council on communications and the media.
In a way it's a double-edged sword, he says.
"The media are a lot more dangerous and a lot more helpful," he says. "The Internet has made a significant contribution to doing homework, but there are first-person shooter video games that are incredibly dangerous," he says. "These games are desensitizing, and they teach kids how to kill," he says, "Slingshots are bad enough -- you could shoot someone's eye out with a slingshot -- but guns teach kids to kill."
"It’s the best of times and the worst of times," Strasburger tells WebMD.
Questions of Safety
When asked if she believes this new book is dangerous, Rebecca Kiki Weingarten, MScEd, MFA, a psychotherapist and the co-founder/coach of Daily Life Consulting in New York City, says that "it all depends on what you mean by dangerous. In a way, children live in a more dangerous world all around today then they did in the past."
We rarely see kids playing outside on the block because of crime, she points out.
This lack of perceived safety has sired the whole concept of the “helicopter parent," she explains. "Parents literally don’t let their kids breathe and everything is so, so controlled that kids end up in the house using technological toys," she says.
"They do this to the exclusion of other activities, and kids’ attention spans become shorter, and some of the content of these video games is really way inappropriate and not psychologically healthy," she says.
In this sense, "this book is a backlash," she says.
This book also sires father-son bonding, she tells WebMD.
"It's a way to connect boys with fathers," Weingarten says. "Boys can now say, 'hey can you help me make this paper airplane,' and fathers and sons are doing projects together, and that is fantastic," she says.
In terms of physical danger posed by some of these activities, "kids scrape their knees and break their bones, it happens," she says.
"Playing is crucial, and play is learning, and that is what everyone is forgetting, and a book like this brings it back," she says.
And that is sort of what the brothers Iggulden were hoping for when they first put pen to paper.
"The original idea came about when I had a son of my own in 2000," Conn Iggulden explains. "I started looking for the sort of books I enjoyed as a boy and couldn’t find any with the sort of verve and attitude I wanted."
From there, the Iggulden brothers worked for six months in a shed, reliving everything they had ever done as kids and a few things they cared about as adults. "We honestly thought no one else would be interested, [and] it’s been enormously satisfying finding out that society has moved on from the dubious decades where we all pretended boys and girls were the same."
- What did you do for playtime when you were a kid? Tell us about it on WebMD's Parenting: Preschoolers and Grade Schoolers board.