Farm kids have unique opportunities to learn the value of hard work and a job well done with equipment or animals that many of their peers have never seen.
The risks of living on a farm are different than the risks of town life, and safe risks and unsafe risks are defined differently in every family.
No responsible parent, urban or rural, intentionally puts a child in harm’s way. Yet without learning to identify risks and act on safe risk and avoid unsafe risk, it’s harder for kids to learn to be responsible adults with good judgment.
Kids who grow up on a farm quickly learn to recognize what is safe on a farm and what isn’t. Kids who don’t grow up on a farm — or even kids who grew up with a different type of ag operation — don’t have that natural foundation and may see unsafe risks as fun instead.
Many factors are in play in determining safe risk and unsafe risk on a farm.
What do Mom and Dad do on a daily basis that can be safely modeled and taught? What tasks can be entrusted to kids with little instruction, with close supervision, or something in between? What’s OK for kids to do when they’re playing?
What should kids never be allowed to do? What should no one, ever, be allowed to do?
At our house, there are a few things that are not negotiable.
• Equipment, vehicles and tools are not toys or playground equipment. Never, ever touch a moving part, or a knob, handle, lever, pedal, switch or key. When equipment is parked and no adults are nearby, stay away. When equipment is moving, kids must either be passengers in the cab or far, far away.
• Moving grain is dangerous. Never climb on or get in a grain truck without an adult’s approval and supervision. Never get on or in a grain bin, period. Stay completely away from augers.
• Stay out of the animal pens. Cattle, horses, sheep and other animals are curious and unpredictable. Mamas are defensive. All of them are bigger than you. There are occasions when being in the pen is OK with an adult’s approval and supervision, but otherwise, respect the fence.
Farm parents are attuned to their children and know each child’s maturity level, abilities and limitations. It’s a constant judgment call predicated on logic and common sense.
Our 7-year-old son is learning to help us with irrigation pipe. His job is to slowly move the pipe trailer forward using the four-wheeler in first gear so my husband and I can load or unload pipe.
Is this a job for every 7-year-old? Unequivocally, the answer is no. Are some 7-year-olds doing the same job, but using a pickup instead? Undoubtedly, yes. But not our kid, not now. Maybe in a couple of years.
That same child also mows the lawn — with a push mower, not a riding mower. He has shown he is responsible and willing, but he has not yet shown the hand-eye coordination necessary to control the large mower.
Our kids don’t help work cattle, though I know many kids their age do more than just bottle-feed calves. Their day for working with animals will come, but now is not that time.
Teaching kids the reason behind safe risk-taking decisions is difficult. It sometimes takes more than just “no”.
In the early 1980s, my dad visited every year with a fellow custom harvester who had a hook for a hand. During milo harvest one year, Mel reached to knock an icicle off the running unloading auger on a Massey Ferguson 410 combine, and in an instant, the ice and his arm were gone.
He was very straightforward with us kids: That was stupid. Don’t do it. If it’s running, keep your hands off.
Talk about a lasting impression.
Our goal — and that of every parent, whether farm or not — is to provide opportunities for learning and developing responsibility in ways that match each child’s abilities, maturity and temperament.
Our older children respond well to the school safety day provided annually in Holdrege and to the Progressive Agriculture Safety Days they attend at U.S. Custom Harvesters, Inc. conventions. We also read fun books with safety themes, such as Tales from Riverside Farm (see them at http://www.agrikids.ie).
Parents should instruct, restrict and model, but safe risk-taking is reinforced when the message is universal and recurring.
This Soils and Streams column first appeared in the Sept. 12, 2015, issue of the Kearney Hub.