Let Your Children Play with Matches

“Quality time” with our kids is overstated and overrated. Did anyone ever ask the kids how much time they want to spend with us? Who said that we as parents should play every game with our kids and take every nature walk with them? Now don’t get me wrong, we should spend time with our kids, but not all of their free time should be consumed by us. They need time on their own and time with their peers. Do you remember your parents hovering over your every move? I don’t and I wouldn’t have wanted them to.

I remember when I was young I’d be gone for hours and sometimes most of the day with neighbor kids or just my brothers and sister. We built forts and went exploring. Once we tried to build a raft and float it on the shallow creek that cut through our farm. We ran in and out occasionally to get tools or food, but no one’s parents ever interfered in what we were doing or even came to snoop. We really would have considered that an intrusion.

We knew they were there if we got into any trouble but they went about their business and we went about ours. We knew the big rules, such as no one could do anything to harm someone else or someone else’s property. We hung out with a group of neighbors and cousins with kids that varied in age. We were much better, back then, at being inclusive rather than exclusive. We never seemed to get into any real trouble. We occasionally got hurt, but nothing serious. We occasionally broke things, but nothing irreplaceable. We learned to make good decisions, to be self reliant and careful. It built our self esteem and prepared us for the bigger world.

Now it seems as if we don’t allow our kids enough time to explore the world without us. It occurred to me one day when my kids were planning a trek into the woods behind our house. They had water bottles, a flashlight (even though it was the middle of the day), some snacks and a bucket for nature finds. I said this looks good, what are we going to look for? They all looked at me as if I was speaking a foreign language and in the silence I could read their faces. They didn’t want to hurt my feelings, but they clearly had not planned on inviting me. Inviting an adult took away the adventure and the uncertainty. It took away the excitement. I gracefully backed out and said, “oh, I forgot I have to fold the socks,” and they all smiled and said, “yeah, maybe next time,” and ran off. Kids sometimes just need other kids. How else will they learn independence and self reliance? They need room to make small mistakes before they are allowed the big decisions.

I heard on the news a while ago about a house burning down because of children playing with matches. The children seemed to be too old to be setting a house on fire by playing with matches. I got to thinking. I know that a preoccupation with fire can be a sign of abuse in children. I also know from growing up and from being on enough camp outs that fire is a fascinating thing for anyone. We all poke and dig at the campfire and try to cook things over it. We all like starting the fire. Kids are no different. However, if they have never been allowed to touch matches or lighters, the fascination becomes even more intense. Back on the farm we used to be able to burn our paper trash. We were responsible for this at a fairly young age. Our parents had taught us that fire was hot and then trusted us to be careful with the matches and burning the trash. I decided one day that I didn’t want my children to be 16 years old and not know how to respect fire or worse yet, be 10 years old and be so fascinated with it that they had to secretly try matches and maybe end up burning something down. One day I told my 9-year- old son and 12-year-old daughter to get the box of matches and start a fire in our fire pit and burn the sticks that had fallen in the yard. They both stopped dead in their tracks and said, “We can?” I said “sure,” much to my husband’s dismay, but he could tell where I was going with this.

I told them to be careful. They spent hours at the fire pit and went through an entire box of matches. I never went to the fire pit during the burning but occasionally looked out to make sure the woods were not on fire. If anyone burned their fingers I didn’t hear about it and every stick in the yard was cleaned up. When they were done they hosed out the fire as they had seen us do. They reported back that they were done and had put out the fire. You could tell that they were proud of a job well done, but more proud that they were entrusted with the task.

I have come to the conclusion that we may sometimes be over protective with our kids, to their detriment. We are raising a generation of kids who may not have the confidence to be self-reliant and know how to make good decisions, despite all of our talking. We have been very successful adults in part because we were given experiences early on to gain independence, self reliance, leadership skills and responsibility. We were expected to make good choices, but not every little choice was scrutinized, criticized or even known about, much less discussed to death.

If we don’t let our kids make small mistakes and some bad choices growing up, how are we going to expect them to make good choices on the big issues. We cannot keep them totally protected and then all of a sudden release them and expect them to be able to handle all the choices, obstacles, dangers, and responsibilities of life. They learned to walk by starting to crawl and gained more and more independence. They need to do the same with responsibility and independence. Hug your kids tightly, but don’t suffocate their independence. We need to be there for them, but not insist on having them spend all of their free time with us. Love them, trust them and show confidence in them to complete difficult tasks, even if they are at a young age.

If you show a high level of confidence in them and their abilities, they will live up to your expectations. If you expect a lot you will get a lot and they will gain the skills necessary to have confidence in their own abilities and to make good choices.