Here’s a Case for Letting Your Kid Play With Matches

Photo: Bin Cai/Getty Images

Adults have a tendency to see kids less as people and more as ticking time bombs that constantly need defusing, potential catastrophes on legs stumbling from one danger to the next. In part, it’s for good reason — compared to grown-ups, they’re less concerned about risk, they don’t know enough to know when something might be a bad idea, and their brains haven’t yet learned to focus in on things in their surroundings that might harm them.

Even so, there’s a case to be made that sometimes we can be too cautious, and that the best way to teach a kid how to do something safely isn’t through repeated warnings and cautionary tales, but by, well, just teaching them to do it safely. As Sara Zaske recently reported in the New York Times, that’s the idea behind a workshop in Germany that encourages kids to play with fire:

[Workshop leader Kain] Karawahn teaches children how to burn things properly — how to hold a match, use a lighter, light candles and build small bonfires. He lets them play with fire openly, under adult supervision, so they can indulge their curiosity and learn about fire without feeling the need to do so in secret.

Mr. Karawahn has trained nearly 2,000 educators in Germany in his method and earned the support of fire officials, insurance companies and safety organizations in that country. His approach stands in stark contrast to the “Learn Not to Burn” message promoted by the National Fire Protection Association in the United States, which urges children never to touch matches or lighters, let alone explore their use.

As the paper noted, there’s no real research out there examining which of the two vastly different approaches might be a more effective one, and experts seem to be divided: One the one hand, mental health counselor Paul Schwatzman told Zaske that the kids Karawahn teaches, some of them not yet in kindergarten, “don’t have the intellectual ability to understand what’s going to happen or how quickly it can get out of control.”

But on the other hand, as Frieder Kircher, a deputy assistant chief with the Berlin Fire Department, put it to the Times: “All the things you prohibit are interesting for young children, and the more you prohibit them, the more interesting they are.” In a way, it’s similar to the arguments people make about lowering the drinking age or teaching comprehensive sex ed: If teens are going to be teens no matter what, we might as well teach them how to be teens in the safest way possible. The same thing goes for the young’uns and their more wholesome pastimes. It’s never to early to inject some lessons about responsibility into the things they find cool.

Here’s a Case for Letting Your Kid Play With Matches