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Reevaluating Our Prohibition of Fire

Other cultures show that children are capable of handling dangerous things

“Don’t play with fire!” is a warning so common in the U.S. we take its truth for granted. We believe that the best way to deal with kids' fascination with fire is to prohibit it entirely. But this is not universal to all cultures.

In societies where fire is still a necessity for cooking, for heat, and light, young children often build and tend fires. But also, take a look at Germany, a culture relatively close to ours—Western, modern industrial—and you will find fire handled in a very different way. They teach kids how to use matches safely rather than to forbid it.

I wrote about this difference in a New York Times article and in my book Achtung Baby, but it is perhaps even more compelling to see it in practice:

The video features a fire workshop at a Kita (a day care center/pre-school) conducted by Kain Karawahn, a fire artist and educator, who is a big proponent of teaching kids to use fire safely.

I also asked other German experts—a lead firefighter, an insurance professional, a risk researcher as well as parents and educators—about why they teach children to light matches, and they all gave a similar answer: prohibition makes fire more appealing, not less, and that is the true danger because children will then play with fire in secret. They believe it is far safer to teach children how to use matches (or knives or tools for that matter) in the open with adults present than to prohibit them entirely. This is the pedagogy, they said, the accepted educational wisdom in Germany.

Which is right? Teach children to never play with fire, or teach them how to use matches and make fires safely? I have found no evidence that German children start dangerous house fires at any higher rates than American kids. Which raises the question: does fire prohibition work to keep kids safe? If children were allowed to play with fire in the open with adult supervision, could tragedies like the Bronx apartment fire have been prevented? More cross-cultural studies in this area would certainly help answer this important question.

Also, if our fire prohibition isn't effective, American children are missing out something that has fascinated all of us since the human race began.

They are missing out on this:

The children in this video are ages four to six. They are cutting wood, cooking food, and making fires. They are engaged, capable kids, learning one of the most elemental of human skills.

Maybe, it is time to reevaluate how we teach children about fire here in the U.S.

About the Author
Sara Zaske

Sara Zaske is an American writer living in Berlin, Germany. Her articles have appeared in Time, the San Francisco Examiner, and Sierra magazine among others.