Playing with Fire

March 22, 2008 | 24 comments
By

Tru Fire

A few weeks ago, we were eating breakfast and my three year old, staring out the kitchen window, said, “Look at all the police!” They weren’t police; they were FBI agents. Lots of them. Arresting my neighbor. Twenty feet away from my breakfast table. For being part of a world-wide child pornography ring.

S and N Fire

This week, we were on our way to tae kwon do when a man decided to make a left hand turn without checking to see if anyone was in the passing lane that he would be crossing. We were in the passing lane. Our minivan was totalled; we’re all fine. (But . . . but . . . I can’t tell you how many times my three-year-old has taken off his seat belt and I haven’t realized it until we got home. If . . . )

We criticize helicopter parents. But could I ever hover enough to protect my children?

They are 3, 6, and 9. They have the attention span of gnats with ADHD, except when I bring out the matches, candles, toothpicks, and old chopsticks (my three-year-old calls them “porkchops”). They’ll sit at the table for hours entranced by the flame, by the melting wax. I let my children play with fire. If only it were the most dangerous thing we did.

24 Responses to Playing with Fire

  1. Latter-day Guy on March 22, 2008 at 4:16 pm

    Sobering indeed.

  2. Tracy M on March 22, 2008 at 7:40 pm

    Amen, Sister Smith. Amen.

  3. marta on March 22, 2008 at 8:07 pm

    Very sobering indeed. But, as long as you\’re playing with fire, peel citrus fruit, turn off the lights and squeeze the peels into the flames. The oils in the peels make delightful fireworks and smell great, too. I\’ve done this with all my children and grandchildren and any number of missionaries who have come to dinner. Playing with fire rocks!

  4. CAW on March 22, 2008 at 9:03 pm

    I’m sure we never have a clue about all the close calls we have. I’m glad you made it through the accident okay. We always loved to put a taper candle on a wine bottle (or sparkling cider bottle…) and melt candles into the flame, which drip down over the bottle. A very pretty candle holder.

  5. Mike L. on March 22, 2008 at 9:25 pm

    We live in a neighborhood were eveyone’s kids seem to wander free, but we don’t let our daughter get out of our sight when she is outside. Sometimes I wonder if we are being over-protective and perhaps not letting her experience childhood like we did, but reading your story reminds me of why we are that way. And besides, she’s only 4 so she’ll have plenty of time to go exploring on her own when she’s older.

  6. Ben H on March 22, 2008 at 9:55 pm

    I love that you let your kids play with fire! It’s not that hard to make sure it is safe. And when they understand what is safe, they understand what is unsafe.

    There was fire extinguisher practice set up by my college’s library last spring. A big metal tub with kerosene (not gasoline!) in the bottom was the target. A bona fide fireman supervised, and we used fire extinguishers that were being retired. How are you supposed to intelligently approach a problem fire if you’ve never actually used a fire extinguisher? Now I have, and it was a lot of fun.

  7. Mephibosheth on March 22, 2008 at 11:40 pm

    Sometimes I wonder how any of us make it to adulthood. When I look back at some of the shenanigans we got into when the parents weren’t around, I thank my lucky stars that I am yet alive.

  8. manaen on March 23, 2008 at 2:24 am

    Remember, this is the first of “5 Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Children Do” (2:55 to 4:00 in here).

  9. Susan M on March 23, 2008 at 11:03 am

    My son is making one of these.

  10. Bob on March 23, 2008 at 11:07 am

    I did not wish to post on this, but having watched the Video in #8, I felt compiled.

    Fire is not a toy. It kills, it scars, it destroys. It first real lesson is pain. It’s second lesson is man is unable to stop it once it frees itself from our weak restraints
    I have dealt with many sad fire injuries and burned homes. Most started as fun, or innocence, only to end in tradity.

  11. Patricia Karamesines on March 23, 2008 at 1:29 pm

    “They have the attention span of gnats with ADHD, except when I bring out the matches, candles, toothpicks, and old chopsticks (my three-year-old calls them “porkchops”). They’ll sit at the table for hours entranced by the flame, by the melting wax.”

    Julie, maybe you’ve read Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods and seen what he has to say about children’s attentions spans, learning abilities, and nature? Here are some quotes:

    “New studies suggest that exposure to nature may reduce the symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder …, and that it can improve all children’s cognitive abilities and resistance to negative stress and depression.”

    “… a room with a view of nature can help protect children against stress, and that nature in or around the home appears to be a significant factor in protecting the psychological well-being of children in rural areas.”

    “Children need nature for the healthy development of their senses, and therefore, for learning and creativity.”

    So on and so forth. Not to take literally your appraisal of your kids’ attention spans; rather to support one possible point that allowing your kids this intense engagement of the senses focuses them in ways other activities do not.

    I’m all for an elemental education: earth, air, water, fire. I moved my kids to the edge of the desert to make it harder for them to avoid getting elemental educations themselves. One sign their education is getting through to them shows itself in their dreams. For the second March in a row, my oldest boy and youngest girl have waken up some mornings and come out to tell me, “Mom, last night, I dreamed the hummingbirds returned.”

    The hummingbirds are not here yet, but my kids’ dreams tell me they will arrive any day now!

  12. Bob on March 23, 2008 at 3:03 pm

    Maybe my age was showing again in #10. Sorry. But I grew up in a world were matches were everywhere. A big box next to the stove, on the sidewalks in half empty match books. Almost every house had a coffee table with a lighter and ashtray. House burning almost daily from people falling asleep smoking in bed.

  13. Julie M. Smith on March 23, 2008 at 3:33 pm

    Thanks for the comments, all. Bob, I’m glad you made the follow-up comment in #12: I agree with you that a “matches are everywhere” world would be very dangerous. But my kids’ world is a “matches are nowhere” and I think that their (well supervised, I might note) play sessions with matches are more likely to encourage safe behavior than never allowing them near matches.

    Patricia, I have several thoughts about your comment. One is that you have caught me in a little maternal hyperbole: my kids will attend to hours to Legos, or a creek, or a new batch of library books, or to their Dad reading Harry Potter. The thrust of my comment is that fire seems to have an almost magnetic draw and definitely would be one of the top five attention-holding activities for my boys and is something they request more than anything else. (And as I’m sure everyone realized, the post isn’t about playing with matches but rather is a rumination on risk, danger, protection, safety, control, parenting, and fear based on some recent events.)

    But I’m also concerned with the idea that short attention spans among children (especially boys) are a problem to be solved (by drugs or more exposure to nature or any other “cure”) rather than part of their God-given natures to be embraced. They are designed to act like gnats and I’m wary of efforts to change that by any means.

    And while of course children and adults should spend a lot of time in the natural world that God created as opposed to the artificial world that people construct, I’m also wary of Louv’s or anyone else’s obsession with the natural world as a magical cure-all for all ills. Louv’s book has become one more thing for yuppie parents to feel guilty about, one more item for the checklist.

  14. Coffinberry on March 23, 2008 at 3:40 pm

    Maybe this will make you feel better, Bob.

    When our oldest was two and his brother a baby, there came a monday when it was my husband’s turn to teach family home evening. He came home from work, and told me, he had an idea pop into his head for the lesson, so though it was unusual, it was what we would learn. Thus we learned about fire, what to do if there is a fire, and how to use a fire extinguisher. We practiced: our son practiced reporting a fire to me (not screaming, but telling mommy “Fire!”), and I practiced pointing and using the extinguisher.

    The next day, as I was taking the baby out of the high chair, I intended to set the tray on the kitchen counter, but ended up putting it over the gas stove burner. As I maneuvered out of the kitchen, I unknowingly bumped a burner knob (what idiot designed them on the front of the stove, anyway). Shortly after, my son came and told me “Fire!” and pointed toward the kitchen. I flipped off the burner, grabbed the fire extinguisher, and used it like we had practiced the night before. The fire was quickly out, before damage occurred to anything (except the high-chair tray, which was melted).

    Because my husband heeded the prompting, and taught us the lesson, we were all safe.

  15. manaen on March 23, 2008 at 4:12 pm

    “… a room with a view of nature can help protect children against stress, and that nature in or around the home appears to be a significant factor in protecting the psychological well-being of children in rural areas.”
    .
    Remember those pix of nature murals in submarines? I recall one of a Russian sub that had a break room with a floor-to-wall forest photo and rocking chairs.

  16. Patricia Karamesines on March 23, 2008 at 4:34 pm

    “One is that you have caught me in a little maternal hyperbole: my kids will attend to hours to Legos, or a creek, or a new batch of library books, or to their Dad reading Harry Potter.”

    Julie, mine, too. And I didn’t mean to “catch” hyperbole of any sort. Merely to support your post.

    “The thrust of my comment is that fire seems to have an almost magnetic draw and definitely would be one of the top five attention-holding activities for my boys and is something they request more than anything else.”

    I apologize if my comment “rather to support one possible point that allowing your kids this intense engagement of the senses focuses them in ways other activities do not” missed the mark so widely.

    “But I’m also concerned with the idea that short attention spans among children (especially boys) are a problem to be solved (by drugs or more exposure to nature or any other “cure”) rather than part of their God-given natures to be embraced. They are designed to act like gnats and I’m wary of efforts to change that by any means.”

    Agreed. Didn’t mean to imply otherwise. My girl, 11, acts like a (excuse the metaphor based on nature) gnat as well; always has.

    “And while of course children and adults should spend a lot of time in the natural world that God created as opposed to the artificial world that people construct, I’m also wary of Louv’s or anyone else’s obsession with the natural world as a magical cure-all for all ills. Louv’s book has become one more thing for yuppie parents to feel guilty about, one more item for the checklist.”

    Wow, I didn’t get that from Louv’s book at all. Especially since he acknowledges the importance of the electronic (i.e. “artifical”) frontier et alia.

  17. Ellis on March 23, 2008 at 4:57 pm

    It does seem like society has become too protective of kids. You can’t just send a kindergarten child of to walk to school when s/he misses the bus. You can’t ask the school to let a child who has forgotten her/his homework walk home and get it. You can’t let a child under the age of 13 babysit while you run a quick errand. Society will not support parents who do. It is called neglect.

    Supervised play with some dangerous things might be all right, even fire but no supervision or inadequate supervision is never acceptable. Unattended space heaters cause fires. Portable generators produce CO gas and every year children die because adults forget to read and heed the warning labels. There needs to be some balance.

  18. Bob on March 23, 2008 at 8:15 pm

    Thank you for giving a little space. Also remember, I was raised by a protective mom from an Idaho farm with 13 siblings, a cast iron wood burning stove, boiling water in cast iron pots (24/7 scalding of the girls) while cooking, laundering, bathing, birthing. My mom also shoveled coal 3 times a day. It was hard to get though the day without getting burned. But few feared being in a car accident. Yes, Yes, Balance.

  19. TMD on March 24, 2008 at 10:17 am

    There does seem to be something almost genetic in the fascination with the flickering flames of real fire–be it a candle or on a campout.

  20. Raymond Takashi Swenson on March 24, 2008 at 10:14 pm

    Frankly, when I was growing up, kids experienced all of the hazards we are concerned aobut today, but we did not worry about them. We did not take the attitude that, with forethought, the bad consequences could be avoided. Kids wandered off and fell into irrigation canals; very sad, but no one thought about fencing the canals or the homes. Kids were injured and killed sitting in cars without seat belts or any kind of restraints. Very sad, but no one thought that there might be a way to avoid injuries even in an accident. Kids fell out of trees, drowned in bathtubs, were electrocuted by frayed wiring, and were burned by playing with matches or scalded by tubs of boiling water or soup that fell off a stove. Kids who survived badly scarred were hidden away. Those with severe disabilities were not taken out in public. Kids who died of infectious diseases were mourned, but they were often not talked about for fear of upsetting a parent.

    My mother had a sister who was adopted out to a childless relative, but who died of a childhood disease. I didn’t know about it until I saw a picture years later.

    Kids who were sexually abused by strangers or relatives were either not believed, or it was a shame that parents would not discuss with anyone. We know from the lawsuits that have been brought against some Catholic priests and other child abusers that they were doing these things back in what we thought were the “safe” 1950s. That safety was very much an illusion.

    People who managed to survive all these hazards had a very teenager-like attitude toward danger. Death eliminated people who were unlucky enough to suffer from the foolishness of themselves, their parents, or the friend who was driving recklessly. How many children were kidnapped, raped and murdered, never being seen again by their families? Many of the teenagers who used to be classed casually as “runaways” were victims that police were just too lazy or inept to save. By not looking for them for three days, they ensured that there was no evidence that could be followed.

    Medical malpractice has been with us since doctors claimed they could cure illnesses. It was only in the 20th Century that survival of people who sought medical treatment exceeeded that of people who didn’t. Even now, many cases of malpractice are ignored by embarrassed doctors and not pursued by family members who don’t want to think about painful memories.

    There are arguments that children need more exposure to raw nature for the health of their psyches and their immune systems. But there are real dangers out there, and there is no reason to be ashamed of our awareness of those dangers, and of taking rational measures to reduce those dangers, and teach our children about them.

    We still see church-related Boy Scout excursions that involve hazards that are beyond the traininig and skill of not only the kids but their adult leaders. Climbing mountains without proper safety gear and practices. Riding in the back of open pickup trucks. Letting 13 year olds drive snowmobiles at high speeds across natural terrain with hidden pitfalls and obstacles. Taking teenagers on white water rafting trips that are beyond their ability and without proper flotation devices. Disregarding weather reports of coming flash floods and snowstorms. My own Boy Scout troop had nothing but a succession of minor disasters with every outing. Looking back, I am amazed no one got killed in the vehicle collisions, blizzards, unexpected storms, rock falls, and other accidents we experienced. We seem to think God will protect us if we are on a Church excursion. And in my experience, LDS scouting activities are planned ten times as well as most non-LDS activities.

    Some people express the idea that it spoils childhood to learn there are nasty people in the world. And that some of the nastiest people give the appearance of being nice. Sadly, some of the worst abusers are people we know in our own extended families and in our church associations. But it also spoils childhood to undergo the trauma of being a victim of a violent crime or harmful negligence. A lot of the social maladaptations of people are due to traumas that were inflicted on them in their childhood and youth, and their emotional problems carry over into their roles as spouses and parents.

    Over and over, when someone suffers trauma, it is because they or someone they trusted did something that was just stupid. No matter how heroic they were in digging out of the jamb, we should not avoid the lesson that they were stupid to get into in the first place. Most of the tragedy of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina was stupidity, comparable to what one would expect in a third world banana republic.

    If the glory of God is intelligence, shouldn’t we be seeking to use our intelligence to protect our families? And teaching our kids to do the same?

  21. Bob on March 24, 2008 at 11:01 pm

    #20: We both agree, we have moved beyond Julie’s candles or crafts.
    These are hard calls, we not only want to protect our kids bodies, but also their ‘innocence’. I had a kinda wild 14 year old daughter. I would come home at night, maybe with a briefcase full of police photos of a motorcycle accident that day that had killed two her age. Do I show her these pictures, or even tell her of my day investigating this accident? Do I just let her ‘go on her way’? (note: it’s ok, my wife would only let my show the vehicle damage, if anything).

  22. Alison Moore Smith on March 30, 2008 at 4:42 am

    I am SUCH a helicopter parent…so worried about every little thing. The more kids I\’ve had, the more paranoid I\’ve become, it just meant I had so much more at risk!

  23. sheila hunter on April 6, 2008 at 5:21 am

    Hi all~

    From my professional background as a journalist, I\’ve seen too many parents not be protective and cautious enough. Some pointers I think are helpful to parents nowadays:

    1. Speak to them of the dangers of sexual abuse as young as age 6 or 7. You don\’t have to be graphic, just explain to them their bodies are sacred and special and absolutely NOONE should touch them their or ask them to keep a secret from you as the parent.

    2. I agree with Bob that fire should be respected. I also think it\’s terrific this mom is teaching her boys safety rules when \”playing with fire.\”

    3. I kind of fall under the \”free to be, you and me\” Marlo Thomas generation. (I\’m 42, from Long Island.) I think in a way, we are \”getting back to nature\” on a world scale do to what we\’ve done with natural resources etc. Did you ever meet anyone from Oregon or Washington State who wasn\’t the most pleasant, well-educated person? :) It\’s interesting that those who care about the environment, animals and children seem to be more Christlike in their attitude toward their fellow man as opposed to those who I would dub \”cold\” and unaffectionate.

    Nice site by the way. Kittywaymo

  24. sheila hunter on April 6, 2008 at 5:29 am

    PS, needed to correct my link!