playing with fire

My kids have found something new to play with. It’s cheap and accessible. It helps them develop their fine motor skills and their communication skills. It allows them to explore changing states of matter. It fosters cooperation and a sense of community and looking out for one’s peers. It promotes role-playing, imaginative play and self control. It is fire. My kids are playing with fire.

I asked them to light the candles at the table one evening and showed them how to strike the match. Later, when I saw them tentatively playing with the candle –  feeling the heat around it, poking it with the burnt matchstick – I offered to put the candle in the empty sink where they could play with it without sending our napkins up in flames. They pulled two chairs over to the sink and set to work. They burned all the matches. Then they burned the empty matchbox. They were careful. Like, extremely careful. No one got burned. No one got even close to getting burned. They squeaked and gasped and winced each time they lit a match. K and I stood behind them and held in giggles. We looked at each other and rolled our eyes. Are our kids boring? What’s wrong with them? Why aren’t they better at doing bad stuff?

When I was 6 and my sister was 8 we bought cigarettes, telling the shopkeeper they were for our parents. We took them to the gulley and smoked them all (I didn’t inhale!). We then returned to the shop for caramels to soothe our raw throats. I’m not advocating this. I don’t wish my kids would smoke a pack. I share the story simply to convey that I’m pretty sure that striking the matches was not the biggest challenge that day. Getting money and hiding smokes was. We thought nothing of making a little flame.

We all know what happens when you play with fire: you get burned. And what happens when you get burned by a match? It hurts; maybe a small blister. That’s it. Is it unpleasant? Yes. Is it preventable? Also yes. Is it so terrible that it must be avoided at any cost and therefore a wall of caution and fear must be erected around fire so that children never, ever try to investigate and control its allure and may forever doubt their own ability to approach and manage risk? No. No it isn’t.

Now playing with fire has become one of their favourite things to do. When Akka had a friend over and they were leaving Malli out I tried to occupy him for a while with card games but that quickly got boring (for me). “Hey,” I said. “You want to light some matches?” I set him up at a little table with a tealight candle and a book of matches. He set about burning them; holding them for a long as he could before blowing them out, then waiting for the tip to cool and holding the other end to the flame to turn the whole matchstick black. He was entranced; I was free to get other things done. He had a lot of questions about what things burn. Plastic, I assured him, was a bad idea. But sure, lots of other things burn. Like this wine cork from the other night! No, not the plastic one but the real cork one. First he asked for a cup of water to keep next to him (see? careful!). Then he burned it.

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A few days later both kids were set up for our new game: burning stuff. I gave them a baking tray to hold all their paraphernalia and they burned a whole box of matches, then the box itself, then some cardboard strips. I opened the windows to air out the apartment and wondered about the reliability of our smoke alarms which never objected during any of this. Must check those.

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Look, I’m glad they’re cautious. I’m glad I never glance up to find them walking the roof ridge-line or paddling the canoe out to open water without a life jacket. But I do think it’s fine if they burn small stuff to see what happens. And I don’t think it should be me who shows them; I think they need to figure this out for themselves. So maybe this winter they can make a small fire-pit in the backyard snow. Or maybe next summer at Poppa’s cottage – after a hard rain, when the forest fire advisory is low – I’ll carelessly leave a book of matches and some dry sticks and leaves in the sand while I go take a nap.

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