Mental Floss

10 Things Kids Shouldn't Do (in 1819)

Erin McCarthy
"The Accidents of Youth"
"The Accidents of Youth" / "The Accidents of Youth"

Childhood can be a dangerous time—especially if kids insist on not listening to their parents. Looking to curb incidents of youthful disobedience, Jas. W. and Chas. Adlard published The Accidents of Youth, a book of short cautionary tales (only slightly less horrifying than these), in 1819. The authors hoped the stories would encourage children to improve their conduct, presumably by scaring the crap out of them with tales of the extreme consequences of foolish activities that had been forbidden by parents.

“The inexperience and thoughtlessness natural at your age exposes you to many dangers,” the Adlards write in the opening letter. “You will behold the misfortunes that arise from disobedience and want of thought.” Those misfortunes include, but are not limited to, breaking an arm or a leg, cutting or burning yourself, swallowing pins, poisoning, and laming or killing yourself (or others). It’s not that the authors don’t want children to play or get exercise. Quite the opposite! “I am very much amused by your games, though they are sometimes noisy,” they write. “I wish you to be gay and to amuse yourselves at proper times; but you should never be rash or disobedient.”

Obviously, some of the advice is sound (don't play with guns and firecrackers, for starters). But sometimes, the consequences of these playtime activities are taken to the extreme. Here is a list of some of the dangerous activities the authors thought kids should probably avoid—or risk doing at their own peril.

1. Climb Trees

In “The Climbers,” Little Henry had a bad day. It all started when one of his friends, George, wanted to climb a tree to look for a bird’s nest. When the group of boys found it—all the way out on the end of a skinny limb—they were quick to recognize that the branch wouldn’t hold “the least boy among us.” But Henry and George's friend Charles called them all cowards and went to get the nest. His friends laughed as the bough began to bend, which made Charles afraid—and also made him stick with his foolish journey out to the nest. When the branch broke, “poor Charles fell to the ground … [he] could not speak, and the blood ran from his mouth and nose. … He seemed to be dead.”

Thankfully, Charles didn’t die, but he suffered a long and painful illness and would be a cripple for the rest of his life. Henry’s father, meanwhile, had strong words for his son and the other foolish boy:

I am shocked you have contributed so much toward it: the thought of it will always make you unhappy … You knew the danger he was in, and your conduct is therefore as criminal as if you had pushed him off the branch yourself. … But Charles … in climbing up the tree, he disobeyed his parents, who are wise people and, no doubt, had often warned him of the danger. … If your unhappy friend had not alarmed you by the terrible accident which befell him, I should at this moment have to deplore your death.

In other words: I told you not to climb trees, dummy! See what can happen?

2. Be a Glutton

“You might have compared him to the half-starved dogs that are always thrusting their noses into everything they meet with,” says the author, of the subject of “The Sad Adventures of Peter the Guzzler.” Peter is a glutton, and suffers a series of accidents brought on by his gluttony: He drinks medicine intended for an ill servant, which not only makes him sick but also earns him that unfortunate nickname; he hangs over a ditch to eat some strawberries, only to fall in, “where he remained, for some time, up to his neck in mud and water. He would have lost his life, if a countryman … had not come to his relief”; he is punished severely for stealing custard from a classmate; and he eats poison berries, after which “he was ill for a long time, and no one thought he would live.”

But none of that could convince him to stop eating everything he saw—until he heard the tale of another young glutton who thought he was drinking wine when he was actually drinking aqua-fortis (also known as nitric acid), with devastating results: “The unfortunate child died … the surgeons who opened him said his inside was the same as if it has been burnt. Thus, you see the shocking effects of gluttony!”

3. Tease Animals

“Old Daddy Simon; or, The Three Accidents” deals with the youthful misadventures of a man the naughty village boys call Old Daddy Simon. Simon is lame, blind in one eye, and has only one hand. When the boys (who routinely harass Simon) ask how he got to his current state, he tells them that it was because he liked to terrorize animals, despite the fact that his mother warned him not to.

When Simon was pulling out the whiskers of a tom-cat, the cat “threw out his paw so nimbly, that he scratched me in the left eye, and burst it.” Once Simon was healed, he was back to bugging animals, pulling on the ears, paws, and tails of dogs. He one day made the mistake of grabbing the paw of a very large dog, startling it: “he made a leap, turned, and at once bit my wrist nearly in two.” You’d think Simon would have learned his lesson by that point, but no: Later, when he was attempting to pull hair from a horse’s tail to make a fishing pole, the horse kicked him and broke his thigh. The moral of the story, in the words of Old Daddy Simon: “Thus, you see, for not listening to my mother, God has punished me three times.”

4. Be thoughtless

Edward, the title character of “The Thoughtless Boy” is a walking disaster. “He did every thing that came into his head, without thinking of the consequences,” the author writes. Edward walks backward and falls down the stairs; he listens at keyholes and gets his cheek scratched when his sister opens the door (the scratch somehow leaves him ill for days); he frequently almost blinds his sister, and once even shut her fingers in a door “and nearly pinched her fingers off.” Thoughtless boys also get flogged by their fathers when they put chairs on top of tiny tables to see what’s on high shelves, and almost fall and break a bone. The lesson: Be good or get beaten!

5. Throw Stones

In “The Danger of Throwing Stones,” the author finds a young man crying over the grave of his mother. Years before, the man—then a boy—had picked up the habit of throwing stones at animals and property from some other wayward youth. His mother told him to play with a woolen ball, and not stones, but he never did. One day, he threw some stones at a few birds on a hedge; the largest stone went through the bush and hit his mother, who was walking by, in the temple, killing her. His father sent him away to boarding school, and the young man never saw him again, only returning home after his father had died. “This melancholy tale will certainly teach children how dangerous it is to throw stones at any time, and how fatal the effects of disobedience may be,” the author writes.

6. Stick your head in staircase balustrade

You might want to look down through the railing, kids, but just don’t do it. Your head will get stuck, like the little girl’s in “The Balustrade of the Staircase.” Her father told her to stay there or to get out on her own, because “I wish to make you remember that your mamma told you never to look through the railing of the staircase.” The little girl eventually figures out how to free herself, “but not until she had scratched her ear sadly.”

Things ended kind of happily for her, the author notes, but not all children are so lucky. One little boy, pretending he was on horseback, got in the balustrade and then fell to his death.

7. Pound on Windows

Hit glass, and it might break: That’s the lesson Victor learns in “The Broken Window.” He’s banging on the window, pretending it’s a drum, despite warnings from his parents and the maid not to do so. The glass breaks, “cutting his hand in a shocking manner.” After his mother dresses his hand—and despite the fact that her son is in great pain—she tells him “your accident was your own fault; you ought to have listened to the good advice that was given to you. … You must think yourself very lucky … for you might have been lamed for life. Go to your room; your disobedience gives me more pain than your accident.” Way harsh, mom.

8. Play with pins

There are many reasons why you shouldn’t play with pins. For one, if you put them in your mouth—they could be dirty. Or a large dog could jump on your back, forcing them down your throat, as happened to little George in “The Pins”: “The more he tried to vomit them up,” the author says of the pins, which were in George’s throat crossways, “the faster they stuck.” Even a surgeon could do nothing for poor George, who “suffered the most dreadful agony for five or six days, died, and and left all his friends to deplore his unhappy end.”

Then there’s Amelia in “The Pin in the Soup.” Despite being warned not to store her pins in the front part of her dress (“some day when you are at table, one may fall in your plate, and you may swallow it”) Amelia did just that, and one day, a pin fell in her soup and she swallowed it. Thankfully, a surgeon saved her, but she still “suffered dreadfully.”

But the danger from pins doesn’t just come from swallowing them. In “The Pin in the Chair,” a mischievous little boy hides a pin in a chair cushion and tries to get his sister to sit on it. She refuses, and he forgets about the pin—and later sits on it himself when he comes to dinner. “The pin made a very bad wound, and they were obliged to send for a surgeon. For some time everybody thought he would be lame for life; but nobody pitied him.” The moral? "The wicked must suffer at one time or other!"

9. Get too close to fire

In “The Fire,” little Thomas pays his mother no heed when she tells him to step back from the candle. Instead, he gets too close, and sets his own hair aflame. His cries of distress bring his mother, who puts the fire out with a handkerchief. Here, the author has some advice: Don’t just cry like a baby, as Thomas did. Take action! “Make haste and smother the flame with the first thing you can find. … Many children [would do] nothing but cry, till they had been burned to death.” Still, Thomas learned a valuable lesson from singeing his hair: “The accident did him good, by teaching him to be more careful and obedient.”

The author isn’t done with fire, though. “The Little Girl Who Was Burnt” tells the story of Elizabeth, a beautiful but vain little girl who one day put on her mother’s jewelry and went to admire herself in the looking glass above the fireplace. But she stood too close to the flame, and her dress caught on fire. Her cries brought help, but too late: “The fire had burnt her clothes to ashes and scorched her in a shocking manner, and she expired, a few hours later, in the greatest agony,—leaving a dreadful lesson to those children who play too near to fire.”

10. Stick a stick in a beehive

“The Bees” opens with an authority figure telling William—“a naughty boy, who frequently did what he was told not to do”—not to go near the bees in the garden: “The bees are armed with a sting, which inflicts a severe wound; and they never fail to use it when they are disturbed.”

But William loves honey almost as much as he loves disobeying, and so he goes into the garden and thrusts a stick into the hive. He hopes to get a sweet treat, but what he gets instead is a swarm of bees, which settle on his head and start stinging “everything that was uncovered.” William runs into the house, still covered in bees; his family eventually drives the bees off, and William eventually turns “red as scarlet, and swelled beyond conception. The pain was so great that it was thought he would die.”

William had a fever and was ill for a long time, but eventually recovered, a valuable lesson learned: “I can assure you, that he never went again to disturb the bees, and was ever afterwards attentive to what was told him.”