My son burned his hand the other day. We were camping at a local state park. And while the menfolk fished, we lit a small fire to keep warm.
The kids were entranced.
There’s something primal about fire. That’s why we have all those “never play with matches” campaigns and fire prevention weeks: Kids naturally like fire. It’s pretty. It’s powerful. And it’s something magical—fulfilling some deep primitive need—to control fire. Fire is destructive and creative, life-giving and life-taking, danger and hearth and home all at once. We’re all pyromaniacs at the core of things, and kids are no exception.
We started with tinder, building a perfect Eagle Scout tower around it. We stacked some big logs on the edges, then sent the kids off for piles of sticks to feed it. We lit the match, and slowly the licks turned into tongues, and then turned into a merrily crackling fire.
They kids wanted to poke the fire. We let them gather wood.
“Don’t touch the fire,” we said.
They wanted to put the wood in the fire. We sent them to gather more wood. We taught them about logs and kindling, about tinder and coals. They learned to stand upwind of the smoke and not to smother a blossoming flame. We even let them roast marshmallows. But we wouldn’t let them poke the fire. We wouldn’t let them move burning wood around. And we especially wouldn’t let them get close enough to reach the burning sticks.
“Don’t touch the fire,” we said.
The 3-year-old seemed content to watch from afar, but the 5-year-old couldn’t get enough of it. He kept dancing just a little too close, holding his flaming marshmallow just a little too long. This was only going to end one way, and finally, it did.
A shriek tore over the still lake air, rising into a wail. My 5-year-old clutched his hand, mouth agape, eyes squished shut. “It…burnt…me!” he screamed.
My Eagle Scout plunged his hand into a handy cup of ice water. The screaming continued. Between the crying, we got the story. Despite warning after warning, despite us telling him again and again and again, he had to reach in and grab a seemingly unburned stick. The bottom was smoldering, and so, a burned hand.
He cried for an hour. Burns hurt. We wrapped his hand in a bandage. It wasn’t even deep enough to blister.
And boy, was I glad.
Yes, I was glad he wasn’t hurt. I was glad he hadn’t permanently injured himself. But mostly, I was glad that he’d finally learned the fundamental lesson of fire: fire burns. And if you’re not careful, you’ll end up burned yourself.
He kept his distance from the fire for the rest of the trip. Sure, he gathered wood. He even roasted a few marshmallows, But he never reached into the fire pit again. And he won’t. I can trust him not to. There was a fundamental lesson here: Do not touch the fire. Some things you have to learn on your own.
This will be the first of many things he’ll have to discover for himself. Bullheaded, kids don’t always listen. They rush into situations, despite all our parental cautions. But we can’t swathe them in bubble wrap and protect them from the world. Some things they need to learn for themselves. They need to fail. They need to get hurt, to get bruised, to get up and try again. As parents, it’s our job to be there with the ice water afterward.
The fire beckoned. He got burned. I’m glad, this time, it was only his hand.