Why I Let My Kids Play with Matches (and other dangerous things)

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playing with matches

When I was growing up, playing with matches was frowned upon and for good reason. When I was six, I snuck some matches out into the woods and tried to light a fire. I shudder to think what would have happened if I’d managed it! My own children were banned from using matches, too . . . until something very scary happened.

My then five year old son came in with a burned finger. He wouldn’t tell me where he got it and I knew there was nothing hot out where he’d been playing. I went out with him and found . . . matches. Burned out matches. He’d snuck a box out and was playing with them and in the process, he’d burned his finger. It wasn’t a bad burn, but it worried me that he’d snuck these out. We punished him and put the matches on top of the fridge. But a week later, I discovered that he was playing with matches again! That’s when we decided to apply a principle we’d applied to his big brother.

Harnessing the Runaway

When my oldest son was tiny, he didn’t play with matches, but he wandered. When he was two, he figured out how to open the door to the street and disappeared. After a desperate search of the property and the neighbor’s land, we found him strolling back in the door, with a cookie in his hand. He’d walked down to the bakery and told them that his papa would pay them later.

This happened over and over, despite our attempts to keep him corralled. One day, he was with my MIL and she sent him and his then 18 month old brother back to my house at the back of the property, and she left. I had no idea she was gone. My son turned around and took his brother out the door and into the street. A neighbor brought the boys back, but not until they had already walked several blocks away.

We couldn’t figure out what to do with this kid who managed to escape all the time . . . and then we figured, why not give him the freedom he obviously craves? So the next day, we gave him the tortilla money and asked him to go buy tortillas.

Now, the tortilla place was right across the street from our house, but it required him walking to the main door at my MIL’s house, opening it, crossing the street (which never had any vehicles, just foot traffic) and buying his tortillas to bring back to us. We set up a system. As soon as he left our house, we called the other house to ask them to check that he walked by them, without letting him see. Then someone would stand by the door and peek through, watching him cross the little street and when he came back, they’d report to us.

My son had no idea that this was going on. He was confident that he was going on his own to buy tortillas. And since he had a specific task, he proudly carried it out. He felt independent and like he was helping the family. From that day forward, he never ran off again.

Applying the Supervised Danger Method to Playing with Matches

play with matchesWe called our method the Supervised Danger Method and it isn’t a new idea. In fact, in Europe and elsewhere, it’s fairly common. Playgrounds like this one are designed to let kids explore danger in a very personal way and they’ve seen great success with this method. With my second son so fascinated with fire, it was obvious he needed to use it, too.

First, I taught him about the dangers of fire. He was tiny, but we looked up information on Google and saw pictures of children who had been burned. He saw how dangerous it really could be. Then we talked about how fire can spread and to demonstrate, I used a candle and a piece of toilet paper that touched it and instantly flared up. He was fascinated and impressed.

Once we’d discussed the dangers, we looked at how to do things safely. I showed him how to clear the area of anything flammable and to make sure that he never, ever threw hot or lit matches into anything that could catch fire. Then I showed him how to strike a match away from his body and how to prevent burning by holding the match straight instead of down.

Finally, we worked on lighting candles and making sure to always blow them out before leaving the room. In the ends, my son would come and ask me if he could light a candle and he would do it in an area where I could see him and he used safe techniques.

Today, he is 10 years old and lights our gas stove and cooks meals for the family. Has he burned himself? Sure, sometimes, but it’s never been a severe burn, thanks to learning fire safety at an early age. Now, his five year old brother is learning to use matches safely, as well.

Why We Use the Supervised Danger Method

You may be wondering how we can be such irresponsible parents, thinking playing with matches is acceptable. You may even be getting ready to pick up the phone to call CPS (don’t bother, we don’t live in the US), but here’s why we do this:

It produces confident kids. Our children are not afraid of fire, but they respect it. They know how it works and how it can destroy . . . and how to avoid this problem. They know their limitations and if they need to start a fire for warmth or cooking, they know they can do it.

It reduces accidents. Children will find ways to do dangerous things. It’s virtually impossible to watch them every second of the day, so there’s something to be said to teaching them to be careful with dangerous things. If they don’t know how to be careful, there will be accidents.

It helps kids be more independent. When children are able to handle things like knives and fire, they can help you out more and they are able to be productive within the family. This boosts confidence and makes them feel like they are really contributing to the family. This is great for self-esteem!

There are plenty of advantages to teaching children to do things that are commonly considered dangerous.

How YOU Can Implement the Supervised Danger Method

Do you want to try this method with your kids? Here’s the step-by-step process to doing so.play with matches

  1. Make sure your child is ready. A two year old is not ready to learn how to strike a match, since they still don’t have the dexterity. However, they can be taught fire safety at this age. A fascination or obsession with a specific dangerous task is a good indication that they need to be taught safety.
  2. Teach the safety rules. Whatever you’re teaching them, it’s essential to begin with safety. Use visuals like the candle and toilet paper if need be, to really cement it in their heads. Repeat the safety rules often, so they’ll remember and have them repeat the rules back to you.
  3. Decide on a safe amount of danger. That sounds like an oxymoron, but for example, I wouldn’t have sent my son into the next town at 3 years old to buy tortillas. Crossing the street outside our home was just the right amount of “danger” for him to feel free and learn to handle himself.
  4. Demonstrate the action. If needed, such as in the case of playing with matches, you’ll want to show your child how to do it safely. Guide their hands if necessary for the first few times.
  5. Watch them perform the action. When you feel they’re ready, let them strike the match or do whatever the task is. You can watch and correct as needed. Don’t forget to praise them when they do it well.
  6. Continue supervision. Whenever your child wants to play with fire or whatever it is that you’ve taught them, remind them to do it where you can see them.

What are your thoughts on playing with matches?

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13 Comments

  1. Wow. I love what you’re doing. I completely agree with your approach – let kids go and explore…and see the results safely. We all need to learn about life and this is a great way to do it.

  2. I just recently had a discussion in a parent group on facebook if we should give a 5 years old a swiss knife or not. Some were hysterical and some were ok with it. I am ok with it for the same reason as yours. Just have to have patience and not freak out.

  3. My son would love to play with the matches, but I thinks he’s too little at this stage as he’s not even 3 yet. What age would you recommend?

    • I would definitely wait a bit. You will know when he’s coordinated enough, but I start letting them use matches around 5.

    • You can start with things that aren’t quite so scary first. For example, let your daughter use a knife to cut things or have her help you stir a pot of soup. Build up to it, you can do it!

    • It’s all about supervising and sticking to age-appropriate skills. I’m glad you found the article interesting, Natalie!

  4. Very funny that you say that. This is something that I get when I ask why I teach my girl scouts knife skills sometime the way I do my boy scouts. The answer is simple: teaching moments!

  5. wow, that really interesting and you encouraged your child to buy tortillas and made him feel independent. These experiments every parent should do with their children. thanks for sharing.

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