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Farm Parents Face the Question: `When Can I Drive the Tractor?'
Hard work is a tradition, some say a virtue, of growing up on a farm. But farm parents often struggle with assigning tasks to their children. What tasks are too difficult? What jobs are too dangerous? All the while, a chorus of, "When can I drive the tractor?" echoes in the background.
"It's good that children are anxious to take on added responsibility, and the farm provides ample opportunities to do that," notes George Maher, an agricultural safety specialist with the North Dakota State University Extension Service. "But that enthusiasm has to be tempered by parents' good judgment."
The North American Guidelines for Children's Agricultural Tasks can help parents make decisions, Maher says. The manual, developed by the National Children's Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety, is available in county offices of the NDSU Extension Service.
"The manual is the nation's best resource on this topic. The information it provides is up-to-date and based on research from across the nation," Maher says. Maher can also answer questions about the manual and involving youngsters in farm work. He can be reached at (701) 231-8288.
"Maturity, judgment and responsibility are the key qualities needed to operate farm machinery safely," Maher says. "Expecting a youngster to have each of these qualities can be expecting too much."
Asking too much of youngsters can have devastating consequences. Between 1991 and 1996, the North Dakota Agricultural Occupational Health Nurses Program reported 552 children younger than 16 received treatment by a physician for injuries suffered on North Dakota farms. Many of the injuries involved farm equipment.
"Even though adults on the farm developed their tractor-driving skills at a young age, they may want to recall the many dangerous situations and near-misses they were involved in," Maher says. "Is that something you want to risk with your own children?" Although safety features have made modern farm equipment safer, increases in size, speed and power have increased risks.
Maher says each youngster must be evaluated individually. "How responsible is your youngster in getting assigned chores done? Are the tools for the chores handled safely? Is there responsibility in the care of personal possessions? How about the possessions of others? Is the individual responsible for his or her actions and miss-doings?"
Physical size must also be considered. While seated normally on the tractor, can the youngster reach and operate all the controls? Can the individual see everything from the seat? That visibility is an absolute must, Maher says.
Never extend the pedals or levers for a youngster.
"Allowing your child to operate a tractor or other farm equipment isn't a decision to be made lightly. And there is no easy formula to follow," Maher says. "Spend time with your children. Observe them as they grow and mature, and look for clues to level of maturity, judgment and responsibility. Those qualities are equally as important as physical size and strength."