Sarah Thompson wonders if she has missed the point by keeping her little darlings entirely out of harm’s way on bonfire night, November 5th.
My children and I are lucky enough to live in a house on a hill, with far-reaching views across the town where we live. When they were small I would pretend I was giving them a really special treat by taking the kids all the way upstairs to my son’s bedroom, from where we could see all of the many firework displays taking place in our town on Bonfire Night. We had hot chocolate and marshmallows and for a few years back there, this seemed like a winning strategy on all fronts: it was free, warm and most of all safe.
Since my own childhood (in the actual last century – sob) Bonfire Night has become a loud chorus of safety messages sung, somewhat confusingly for children, during a ritual celebration of fire and blowing things up. We must keep them safe. We must attend organised, supervised displays. We must stand back and enjoy the show from an acceptable distance. We must buy the glow-in-the-dark merchandise.
Of course fire safety is important – of course. No-one thinks it’s a good idea to let children get high on sugar and run around in the dark with matches and flammable materials and hope for the best. But I can’t help wondering if we are missing a trick here. I hate to sound like one of those people on Facebook who tuts about screen time and says they only played with sticks and didn’t come home until it was dark when they were two-years-old. But have we spoilt the fun of Bonfire Night with our obsessive focus on health and safety? And more importantly, by keeping them so far removed from any possible danger, are we doing more harm than good?
My own memories of Bonfire Night involve my dad building a massive fire in the garden (I realise now this was actually a gardening job disguised as fun for the kids, or just me – the kid), and burning a guy/scarecrow, who was wearing one of my dad’s shirts, while occasionally poking sausages into the flames. That’s how close I was allowed to stand to a six-foot-high bonfire – I could flamegrill my very own sausage on it. Sparklers seemed to me like stars sent direct from heaven. I would stand there burning them, lighting one with another, mesmerised by their dancing light, amazed that I was a) allowed to hold one and b) successfully not burning any body parts off. Was this irresponsible parenting? Am I more or less cautious around fire as a result? I did accidentally set fire to my hair at a student party once, but I was very drunk.
There’s a lot in the press at the moment about the rise of Scandi-style nurseries and forest schools here in the UK. Children are being encouraged to play outside more, where they learn better because they are given greater independence and it’s generally way more fun.
One of the most significant differences in the way the Scandis do pre-school is in their approach to danger. They tend to believe in a child’s self-righting instincts, and that by giving them trust and responsibility to explore and behave sensibly around potential dangers (anything from climbing too high, going too far away, playing with sharp things and – you guessed it – fire) you eventually produce a child who is far more responsible and safe, than one who has no experience of these things.
In stark contrast to the ‘DON’T TOUCH’ messages we screech at our children about matches, as they tremble, terrified, in their non-flammable nighties – Scandinavian children (and kids in many other northern European countries) are encouraged to explore their innate curiosity around fire.
Under supervision from trained adults, they learn to build and start fires for themselves, to cook on fire and crucially – to manage it. Put it out, leave it safe. I can’t help wondering if by keeping them tucked up at home, upstairs with the hot chocs (or even on the rare occasions I have ventured to my local safety-first display) I have deprived my own children of some valuable fire-management experience?
You could argue we live in a highly-developed society where, £40 scented candles aside, our children are unlikely to come into contact with fire on a regular basis. What’s the big deal? Why should we even care? Surely it’s a no-brainer to keep children away from matches and fire until they are big enough to handle them?
But I have a nagging suspicion that the point is, it’s not just the fire they learn to handle, it’s themselves. Having confidence in their own abilities and knowing how to navigate difficult or stressful situations, knowing when to take precautions and looking out for others. You know, all that grit and resilience stuff they need to thrive as adults. (Is there anything they don’t get right in Scandinavia, damn it?)
As with all parenting issues, my official position is: I don’t know/too tired/wine. All I do know is that as my son approaches his early teens, his fascination with fire isn’t going to wane, while his enthusiasm for spending Bonfire Night in his room with his mum and little sister definitely is. He’ll be out on the town soon, high on sugar with easy access to matches and flammable materials.
So I’m going to make the effort this year, to get a little closer to the action and give my children some of the more visceral memories I have of Bonfire Night. We’ll have a fire and grill some sausages, burn some sparklers. Hopefully they’ll gain some healthy respect for fire and all its dangers at the same time, and we’ll all go to bed feeling a little bit more Scandinavian.
Now, which shirt shall I burn first?
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