Toddlers With Knives

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Throughout most of history and to this day in some of the world, children learned the great lessons they needed to know — survival, stories, how to gut a goat — without going to school. Often they weren’t even “taught.” The assumption was that kids were naturally curious and would learn by watching, imitating, trying, and being expected to help out.

In this piece in the Wall Street Journal, Alison Gopnik wonders how come we have such a dim view of our kids that we assume they are less curious and competent than any earlier generation. It begins with Gopnik, author of “The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children,” watching a 1927 film of kids at the Harold E. Jones Child Study Center in Berkeley. She sees a 5-year-old using a saw and can’t understand why no one stops him:

My 21st-century reaction reflects a very recent change in the way that we think about children, risk and learning. In a recent paper titled “Playing with Knives” in the journal Child Development, the anthropologist David Lancy analyzed how young children learn across different cultures. He compiled a database of anthropologists’ observations of parents and children, covering over 100 preindustrial societies, from the Dusan in Borneo to the Pirahã in the Amazon and the Aka in Africa. Then Dr. Lancy looked for commonalities in what children and adults did and said.

In recent years, the psychologist Joseph Henrich and colleagues have used the acronym WEIRD—that is, Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic—to describe the strange subset of humans who have been the subject of almost all psychological studies. Dr. Lancy’s paper makes the WEIRDness of our modern attitudes toward children, for good or ill, especially vivid.

He found some striking similarities in the preindustrial societies that he analyzed. Adults take it for granted that young children are independently motivated to learn and that they do so by observing adults and playing with the tools that adults use—like knives and saws. There is very little explicit teaching.

And children do, in fact, become competent surprisingly early. Among the Maniq hunter-gatherers in Thailand, 4-year-olds skin and gut small animals without mishap. In other cultures, 3- to 5-year-olds successfully use a hoe, fishing gear, blowpipe, bow and arrow, digging stick and mortar and pestle.

Of course, those kids do not need to learn long division, or coding. But what they are learning that our kids are not is how to handle risk, and how to learn on their own. Gopnik concludes, as we often have right here:

But trying to eliminate all such risks from children’s lives also might be dangerous. There may be a psychological analog to the “hygiene hypothesis” proposed to explain the dramatic recent increase in allergies. Thanks to hygiene, antibiotics and too little outdoor play, children don’t get exposed to microbes as they once did. This may lead them to develop immune systems that overreact to substances that aren’t actually threatening—causing allergies.

In the same way, by shielding children from every possible risk, we may lead them to react with exaggerated fear to situations that aren’t risky at all and isolate them from the adult skills that they will one day have to master. We don’t have the data to draw firm causal conclusions. But at least anecdotally, many young adults now seem to feel surprisingly and irrationally fragile, fearful and vulnerable: I once heard a high schooler refuse to take a city bus “because of liability issues.”

Actually, it’s not just children thinking that way. It’s our whole culture. When moms are arrested for letting their kids do something as innocuous as play outside (without a saw!), it’s clear that it’s not just kids who are lumping together all risks, from the tiniest to the biggest. It is an entire society that has somehow blinded itself to any gradations of danger, and declared that none of it, not even the smallest speck in return for a huge reward, is “worth it.”

That’s a society paralyzed with safety. How great that Gopnik is reminding us that some of what is lost is more important than some of what is “gained.” – L

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Yes I'm fine! Quit axing me!

Yes I’m fine! Why do you ax? 

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47 Responses to Toddlers With Knives

  1. Reziac September 1, 2016 at 12:21 pm #

    Only for the currently-living generations have we had “safety” in all things. Yet somehow all our ancestors survived the ever-so-terrible risks of their unenlightened eras. How could this be? Everyone knows a child who leaves your sight for a moment, or so much as sees let alone touches an unsheathed knife, will instantly die. It follows that our ancestors all died in the cradle. 😉

  2. that mum September 1, 2016 at 12:36 pm #

    It’s somehow flowed upward for lack of a better explanation—or infected the older generation too. I was recently at my in laws home and was making dinner (I was expected to make dinner for my FIL, don’t get me started on that) I was having the kids help as they should and they were cutting carrots—he was rather beside himself telling them to be careful with the knives and peelers (they are safer than I am with them). My kids are 10 and 11 ½. I find a lot of grandparents have developed an unhealthy paranoia too these days. It is probably the same culprit media telling us “times have changed”and things are more dangerous.

    Knives are the same though…

  3. Ken Hagler September 1, 2016 at 12:50 pm #

    The weirdness is definitely very recent. I carried a knife to school every day starting in the fourth or fifth grade, and learned to shoot in high school–and this was in Southern California, which is widely regarded as a bastion of progressive lunacy. This was in the 1970s and 1980s, so I’m probably around the same age as the parents who are insisting on treating their children like mentally retarded dogs.

  4. JulieH September 1, 2016 at 12:56 pm #

    Fond memories of Grandma…as a high schooler helping her in the kitchen, she didn’t want me using a knife (never mind I had been using sharp knives since age 6-7 helping mom can peaches and tomatoes) – Grandpa walked over and handed me the sharpest knife in the kitchen. She also didn’t think I should carry in the “heavy” bags of groceries for her, even though she couldn’t even stand up straight.

    As a Girl Scout leader, I see this a lot. We have challenges with getting pocket knife skills into camp these days (even the parents that aren’t scared of the kids getting hurt ARE scared of the kid taking the pocket knife to school – accidentally or on purpose – and getting kicked out over zero tolerance), BUT we did institute other knife skills for food preparation, gradually working up the skill ladder as the kids get older. Most of the kids arriving at camp have never used a sharp knife, so we teach it.

    I have had to bring a lot of things into the troop environment that kids need to know but aren’t learning at home – sewing on a button, cooking, knives, matches, touching earthworms and dirt, gardening, bike maintenance. And I will never forget the day one of the mom’s arrived to the meeting with an iron – she didn’t know how to use it but she wanted to learn – I think it was pretty neat that she felt we were the safe place to come and ask for help.

  5. JulieC September 1, 2016 at 1:14 pm #

    my kids have been using knives for many years, and had great training in the Boy Scouts. They also enjoyed shooting shotguns at boy scout camp.

    I was with some friends recently who were both saying they planned to teach their college-aged children to cook this summer (we all have juniors in college). I didn’t say anything, but my boys have been cooking since forever. While I was with them, my 16 year old texted to say not to worry about dinner, as he had already cooked and it would be in the fridge when I got home. I should have offered to have him come and teach their kids how to cook!

  6. elizabeth September 1, 2016 at 1:16 pm #

    My brothers and i got to play with old saws, a bit of scrap wood, and a hammer and some nails a few times. No one lost a finger and we learned how to work together on a project. We didnt make anything fancy but we made something at least.

  7. Jessica September 1, 2016 at 1:23 pm #

    @that mum
    Yes! My mom is 71, and she is the worst for being overprotective. My son was 4, and we were staying on two different floors of a hotel. For an adventure, I wanted him to walk to the elevator, go down one floor, and meet his grandparents at their room. (We live in a high-rise, so he’s an old hand at elevators.). My mom freaked out! Sheesh.

  8. fred schueler September 1, 2016 at 1:38 pm #

    I was just talking to the free-range daughter about this post, and discussing how the free-range grandson was using a paring knife to cut up his food on his high-chair tray in his extreme youth – she reminds me that he was hitting at wood with an axe at a year-and-a-half, and that she thinks this was important for the development of his sense of capability. Certainly at 2.5 he said “I’m a lumberjack, I work with wood every day” when he was helping us load stovewood into the pickup truck. The interesting thing about the precocious axe use was that he couldn’t swing it hard enough to hurt himself or do much damage to the wood – it was a big deal when he actually began to be able to cut sticks.

  9. Jana September 1, 2016 at 1:43 pm #

    I like Gopnik’s posts… Thank you, well written!

  10. lollipoplover September 1, 2016 at 1:44 pm #

    “In other cultures, 3- to 5-year-olds successfully use a hoe, fishing gear, blowpipe, bow and arrow, digging stick and mortar and pestle.”

    In our culture, 3 to 5 year-olds successfully use a mouse, ipad, and video game controller routinely.
    Give children knives? Pfffft. Most of what they eat is pre-cut for them anyway….food is a choking hazard. Or they drink it out of pouches or boxes.

    Everything is relative. My kids grew up chopping and cutting in the kitchen, digging in the garden, and yes, cool, shiny knives to whittle or cut with. My oldest is outdoorsy and made his first fishing rod out of bamboo with a knife, fishing line, and hooks. He fishes almost every day and has a “Make your own Lure” book on his workbench. I hear saws running outside and don’t panic, but I’m genuinely interested to see what he is working on as a new project. He’s also good at repairing our fence (which our dogs are skilled at destroying) and enjoys the workout from chopping firewood. We are set for winter. How is any of that bad?

    I think what’s bad is when we make such items *forbidden* to young ages. It only makes them more curious. Teaching young kids how to responsibly use knives and tools is an invaluable life lesson. A child doesn’t make a knife dangerous, if it did there wouldn’t be so many adults seen in ER’s for cutting themselves while trying to slice a bagel. A child taught and observed to use good judgement is a different story.

  11. Shawn D. September 1, 2016 at 2:03 pm #

    “In the same way, by shielding children from every possible risk, we may lead them to react with exaggerated fear to situations that aren’t risky at all and isolate them from the adult skills that they will one day have to master.”

    And thus we have “safe spaces”…

  12. Jo September 1, 2016 at 2:21 pm #

    One of the reasons I love Montessori education is that it lines up with my free-range tendencies more than traditional education. My 18mo is learning to use a knife right now (starting with a crinkle-cutter), learning to cook scrambled eggs, and helps around the house. Some other parents think I’m alternately brave/crazy but kids are so much more competent than we give them credit for, especially if we model the behavior for them and then expect them to do it.

  13. Dee September 1, 2016 at 2:25 pm #

    I can really see the correlation b/t kids not getting exposed to germs in dirt and becoming more allergic to things. A lot of kids now have stress over things that we didn’t think twice about: sleepovers, riding bikes to the store, really any new situation that was once routine. Worse, we load everything up w/ trigger warnings (even benign things) so kids EXPECT to freak out over it.

  14. JulieC September 1, 2016 at 2:31 pm #

    This reminds me of a recent news story about a professor of pediatrics at U of Iowa worried that the angry looking mascot for the school was too mean and scary looking and that college students should be greeted with calm, nurturing images. Seriously? These must be the same kids who don’t know how to use a knife!

  15. Renee Anne September 1, 2016 at 2:38 pm #

    One of the things I really like about Montessori is that things like using knives and pouring drinks into glasses (using actual glass!) are common and encouraged. My 5 year old can use a sharp knife to cut his own hot dogs or cheese or whatever. Granted, it’s a paring knife because that’s what fits his little hands…but he does it. He also uses actual glass successfully. He still gets plastic but that’s because of his younger brother, who doesn’t quite understand that broken glass can cause owies. ::sigh::

  16. Tim September 1, 2016 at 3:20 pm #

    @JulieC

    A pediatrician concerned with college students? I understand the human brain is still growing in early adulthood, but I don’t think the answer is to “protect” adult students from scary mascots.

    The Seabees have a mean looking bee as a mascot. Maybe they should change it so it’s not so scary for sailors to go into their quonset huts with the mean bee on the front.

  17. BL September 1, 2016 at 3:26 pm #

    “mascot for the school was too mean and scary looking and that college students should be greeted with calm, nurturing images”

    Where I live, the local high school’s mascot is a very fierce looking, fire-breathing dragon.

    I’ve yet to hear of anyone troubled by it.

  18. that mum September 1, 2016 at 3:26 pm #

    I’ve been letting my 10 year old use a penknife for whittling for years now—she loves it and I bought her her own Swiss army knife for xmas. She is the child who knocked out one of her baby teeth with a hammer at age 5 but that didn’t stop me letting her try things. She decided wood was boring and tried hammering a boulder—it bounced up and hit her in the mouth.

    JuileH I’m a Girl Guide Leader in Canada—I hear you– we always encourage the girls to try new things but we sometimes have teenagers who won’t do an overnight camp and are in awe of us letting them light a fire. yet on the other hand have some leaders who want to teach them about “stranger danger” constantly and not let them out of their sight… it’s frustrating.

  19. Backroads September 1, 2016 at 3:36 pm #

    Just yesterday I let my three-year-old chop some tomatoes.

  20. SteveS September 1, 2016 at 3:45 pm #

    This is unfortunate. I wonder why kids that grew up doing these things are somehow reluctant to let their own kids do the same thing. I recall being allowed to use knives and hatchets at a fairly young age, but I am sure the neighbors would call CPS if I sent my kids out the door with either.

  21. Matthew Kopans September 1, 2016 at 3:55 pm #

    At our Forest Kindergarten in Saratoga Springs, we give kids as young as 3 knives for carving. Many Waldorf Schools give students tools early for them to explore with. Check it out: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/30/nyregion/30forest.html?_r=0

  22. Anna September 1, 2016 at 3:56 pm #

    I let my 4-year-old use a sharp knife, so far only on relatively soft things like hotdogs and bananas, and cook oatmeal or scrambled eggs on the gas stove. He has tried sawing a few times, which I don’t see as a safety issue at all. Unless you have the skill and strength to get it going very fast, a handsaw would be very difficult to injure yourself with. My son’s problem with the saw is not safety, but the difficulty of mastering the smooth strokes and rhythm needed to actually cut anything. I’ve actually been wanting to find him a nice little saw to learn with – does anybody know of a good one?

  23. NY Mom September 1, 2016 at 4:02 pm #

    Maria Montessori let toddlers use knives and carry bowls of hot soup in her nursery schools–because they could.
    Even pampered rich kids could do this.
    Amazing.

  24. EricS September 1, 2016 at 4:25 pm #

    It’s simple observational skills. Compare children in the last 15 years, and children in the years before that. There is a striking difference in how they thought, and learned. Previous generations were far more self sufficient, less fragile (mentally and emotionally), and less stressed than today’s generation. Obviously something has changed. It’s not the children, it’s the parents/adults that govern the lives of children. They’ve become more fearful, and use less common sense and reason, and it (whether they believe or not, or want to believe or not) has a dire affect on children. If parents truly wanted the best for their children, they need loosen the reigns. And let them be kids. How were you as a child, what did your parents teach you? Did you turn out ok? Then teach the same things to your children.

    I think this whole new age parenting issue really is all about the fragile emotions of parents. And the things they do to make themselves feel better. They think they are doing right by their kids. But evidence shows the contrary.

  25. Vaughan Evans September 1, 2016 at 4:32 pm #

    It is true that parents a paranoid

    Many childhod ames-such as dodgeball and Red Rover are contra-indicated-because of dangers.

  26. EricS September 1, 2016 at 4:33 pm #

    @that mum: Ironically enough, children are meant to fail, meant to hurt themselves when trying new things. This is how the brain prepares human beings. Children need to experience all the things parents are so afraid of them experiencing, so that they can develop their brains, so that they can easily adapt as they get older. Without, experiencing life and all it offers (whether we want them or not), the brain doesn’t learn how to cope with future experiences. And that is very detrimental to all of us.

    David Suzuki explains this on one of his episodes of The Nature of Things. The episode is called “Surviving The Teenage Brain”. If you can find this episode, it’s a great eye opener for those parents who just don’t seem to get it, and assurance to those that do. It’s a scientific, psychological, and physiological explanation of the growth of children to become successful adults. And in turn, the continuation of our species. So fearful parents, stop being so fearful, or you’ll contribute to the demise of the human race. lol

  27. theresa September 1, 2016 at 4:33 pm #

    This story reminds of another. Some kids were building a tree house and some lady called the cops over the site not being neat. But it gets worse. The cop goes there in don’t even think about messing with me mode and points a gun at the kids and scares them half to death. The kids run home to mom in tears.

  28. Momof8 September 1, 2016 at 5:18 pm #

    I’m laughing because of “letting their kids do something as innocuous as play outside (without a saw!)” reminds me of my nephews, who played in the woods, carrying machetes to chop down foliage. The youngest was maybe 4 or 5, and I was horrified. His parents said, “They (the machetes) aren’t even that sharp.” (The kids never did get hurt.)

  29. Donald Christensen September 1, 2016 at 5:41 pm #

    I love it!

    I’m glad to see that the world is learning about the hazards of being too safe.

    If a child only ‘knows’ that everything is dangerous and that they have been taught that they are helpless unless an adult is there to lead them through the ‘minefield’, the won’t develop self reliance.

    They then grow to an adult age where still have the mentality of children. Anxiety and depression are REAL dangers! They aren’t the perceived ones.

  30. JimK September 1, 2016 at 6:07 pm #

    Gotta agree with JulieH.

    Get your kids into Scouts (Boy or Girl) All the leaders in our Troop were convinced that half the reason the kids stuck with Scouts was/is that they get to play with knives and start fires, cook their own meals, camp, play in the dirt, etc. etc.

  31. CharlesWT September 1, 2016 at 6:19 pm #

    Trinity Play Park, Dallas, Texas, 1900

  32. K September 1, 2016 at 6:50 pm #

    CharlesWT, that’s amazing! I love it!

  33. heather September 1, 2016 at 7:19 pm #

    Both my brother and I are in our 30s. Our school handbooks sed to include information on what size pocket knives were allowed. I believe the requirement was no blade larger than 2 inches and it had to be a pocket knife, no sheathed blades. Go figure, our middle didn’t allow shorts though and we lived in Florida.

  34. Dave September 1, 2016 at 9:46 pm #

    I have a friend who owns an excavating company in the Boston area with some incredibly large and complex excavators, dump trucks, loaders, and other equipment. His sons were operating these machines in the backyard pretty much from the time they could walk. One son stayed with it and became proficient at an adult level by the time he was eight. At twelve, dad started letting him work on job sites after school and on weekends. Imagine the look on the face of the customer who was talking to dad around three one afternoon when a kid rode up on his BMX bike, leaned it against a tree, hopped in a huge excavator, and went to work! He got all excited and said “hey, there’s a kid in your machine!” Dad’s casual reply was, “yeah, and he’s ten minutes late, too.”

  35. elizabeth September 1, 2016 at 11:18 pm #

    Dave, my mom and i lol’d so hard at the last sentence.

  36. sexhysteria September 2, 2016 at 1:56 am #

    Children should not learn how to gut a goat until after midnight of their 14th birthday, and even then only under strict supervision by a licensed goat-gutter.

  37. lollipoplover September 2, 2016 at 8:32 am #

    @Anna-

    I just asked my son what saw he would recommend for a 4 year-old (he loved this question, btw) and he showed me a compact hack saw (his is Toro). He said for small projects, like cutting sticks, it would do the job. Another tool that was used until it died was his wood burning set. We got it at a craft store (Michaels) using a 50% off coupon and he spent hours at his workbench burning wood projects after tracing them onto pieces of wood.
    He got the workbench as a Christmas gift when he was 7 or 8 and I think it was the best money we ever spent for a gift.

  38. Brooks September 2, 2016 at 9:41 am #

    I saw several references to scouting below, and it led me to look up the guidelines from the BSA. My son has carried a knife at campouts as long as I can remember.

    From the BSA guidelines:
    Knives

    A sharp pocketknife with a can opener on it is an invaluable backcountry tool. Keep it clean, sharp, and handy. The BSA believes choosing the right equipment for the job at hand is the best answer to the question of what specific knife should be used. We are aware that many councils or camps may have limits on the type or style of knife that should be used. The BSA neither encourages nor bans fixed-blade knives nor do we set a limit on blade length. Since its inception, Boy Scouting has relied heavily on an outdoor program to achieve its objectives. This program meets more of the purposes of Scouting than any other single feature. We believe we have a duty to instill in our members, youth and adult, the knowledge of how to use, handle, and store legally owned knives with the highest concern for safety and responsibility.

    Remember—knives are not allowed on school premises, nor can they be taken aboard commercial aircraft.

  39. Anna September 2, 2016 at 10:49 am #

    @lollipoplover: Thanks for replying! We actually have a compact hacksaw, but I hadn’t thought of it – for some reason, I was looking for a small-sized wood saw, but the hacksaw might be a good first step.

    If your son has other tool ideas, do pass them on – I recently decided all those stupid plastic toy tools should go out the door in favor of real tools the right size for to learn to use for real, but they’re not the easiest things to find, given the current safety climate.

  40. CharlesWT September 2, 2016 at 12:11 pm #

    Real Tool Sets for Kids

  41. lollipoplover September 2, 2016 at 2:02 pm #

    @Anna-

    I’m looking out my window and seeing two of his early wood projects that have stood the test of time and are highly recommended.

    The first is a primitive stick table. If you can get a library book on primitive furniture projects, do it! He made a stick table out of 4 solid base tree limbs and topped with straight sticks. He reinforced the base with 4 more sticks but did the entire project with found wood (bring a backpack in the forest) and using that small hacksaw, hammer, and nails. It still stands and has a very cool aged patina on it and holds our herb garden planters.
    He’s made these several times and sold them. One neighbor had him make a stick-structure cat tree (multi-level) and paid him well. He loved that project.

    The other one is a treehouse planter. We found a clearance priced Charlie Brown tree in a planter at Home Depot that was dying. He said, “No one’s going to buy that tree”so I made a point of buying it and told him to do something with it. He pruned off the dead part and made the open space where he put the platform for a dollhouse-type treehouse made out of sticks for his sister’s birthday gift. He had a bunch of stick ladders (he used wood glue and that hacksaw)and little bendy stick bridges with twine. Over the years we’ve added seashells, a koi pond, and all kinds of stones and flotsam. Most of the little kids go right to it when playing outside…it’s a kid magnet. I’ve bought little glass or stone figurines from goodwill of little animals to add to the play.

    Good luck! Having them find hobbies they enjoy doing for hours is an amazing thing. There’s nothing better as a parent than being genuinely blown away by a child’s creativity. Their brains are amazing. Give those kids a saw!

  42. Anna September 2, 2016 at 6:05 pm #

    @CharlesWT:

    Yeah, I tried that, but did you look at the search results? Most are simply toy sets, and the one that claims not to be has a “fiberglass hammer” (?!?) Wouldn’t want anybody to pinch a finger, would we?

  43. CharlesWT September 2, 2016 at 6:28 pm #

    In looking at the enlarged images of the tool kit with the fiberglass hammer, the tools appear to be real with the hammer appearing to have a rough cast metal head.

  44. steverinoCT September 3, 2016 at 7:51 am #

    Funny– I was just commenting to my wife about this. No kids, but we often host our grand-nieces. We’d go out to eat, and they’d automatically surrender their knives to us. And we’d have to cut up their food. Finally got them out of that, but on our last visit this weekend, we had hot dogs, and Mom cut up a hot dog for her youngest, because that’s how she likes it. Her youngest is two months shy of nine years old.

  45. Frustrated High School Teacher September 4, 2016 at 1:17 pm #

    When I was 5, our family traveled from Chicago to New York City for the 1964 Worlds Fair. For years afterward, we had a shoe box of lost and left over pieces of toy, games, etc and other kid “collectables”. Included in this box were a couple of buttons (like political campaign buttons) that said something like “I have lost my parents. We are staying at the xxxxx Hotel on xx Street. Please take me there so I can find them”. The hotel provided them to all the families who stayed at their property. My 10 year old brother and I wore those while we were in the City. The precautions our parents took were to pin a return address button on us. Can you imagine a hotel taking on the “liability” of handing out such buttons, today?

  46. Gina Badalaty September 6, 2016 at 10:15 am #

    Very well said! My mom, with all the best intentions, tried to shield me from everything. The result is that I struggle now as a 50 year old adult to do difficult things, and when I do, I can get anxiety or panic. I’m resolved not to let this happen to my kids. However, the monkey wrench is that they have learning and intellectual disabilities. I was shocked when, at my daughter’s new school, the cooking and sewing teachers were afraid for her safety because she has Down syndrome. She is 13 and can cut her own food! Not only that, but she is big on safety. So I’m not really worried that a sewing machine will land her in the hospital.

  47. Jeremy September 7, 2016 at 1:04 pm #

    @Dave

    My grandfather owned an excavating company. At the age of 7 in 1984, I was operating backhoe, front end loader, and skid loader, driving trucks, and using gas- and pneumatic power tools like tampers, rock drills and jackhammers on real job sites. Even at that time, there were busybodies who wanted to cause trouble with respect to child labor laws (didn’t apply, since it was a family business) and child endangerment. We sort of bowed to them, in that I always kept a book in the truck, and if anybody said anything, or if we saw them behaving suspiciously, I would grab my book and find a comfortable place to read. Dealing with women (they were was always women) like this was common enough, but we never had any official trouble.

    I worked for my grandfather every summer from when I was 7 until he retired in my early teens.