Is it a rite of passage to burn off some eyebrows as a kid playing with fire? Serious question but not so serious. When I was a kid, I was fascinated by fire. I snuck matches from my parents’ fireplace mantle and ran to the backyard to experiment. I learned on my own how to light them and experimented with different ways to chain link their ignition. Maybe once or twice I built a fire that was a little too large and had to grab the hose before the neighbors called the police. I don’t think I was unsafe but I definitely took a few chances. Today, I respect fire much more and after hundreds, perhaps thousands of nights in the field over my lifetime, I can say my fire skills have improved since my adolescence. Typically, when I write an article or speak about fire safety, I address what adults need to do. Rather than following that suit, I want to speak to my younger self and to parents of kids who are like I was when I was their age. I want to help introduce you to being both comfortable and confident with fire to ultimately harness it when you need it.
Putting Out Fire
In the classroom section of my adult survival courses, I never neglect to say, “don’t start fires you can’t put out.” That is a universal safety statement that works for adults and kids alike. For that reason, it makes sense to show kids how to put fires out first. Start small with a controlled experiment. Give them a cup of water and use that to put out a small twig fire. Work up to using a garden hose to put out a larger campfire in the backyard. Teach them fire science by snuffing out fire with dirt, a blanket, or putting a glass jar over a candle. Show your kids other fire safety tips along the way like removing flammable materials from around the fire ring and having them stomp out embers that spit from the bed of coals with their boots. Kids will learn their new “superpower” and want to use it anytime there is a campfire. Remind your kid that fire burns and that their job isn’t done until there is no more smoke present. Set your kids up for the next phase of their fire curiosity before they get there on their own.
At some point, kids are going to want to light a fire. They will make the connection that fires put out have to be lit in the first place. They might want to watch the process from start to finish instead of just participating at the end of it. Parents might have some reluctance to hand off a fire starter to a child. Other parents might make the mistake of giving a kid a ferro rod and scraper as their first fire starter but it is too advanced of a tool for them to understand at a young age. It also requires some finesse and coordination they may not have yet. The best first fire starter is a gas grill butane lighter. This keeps the flame far from their hands and it only requires pulling a trigger on a handle. Teach your kid the hottest part of the flame is the tip. Teach them fire burns up and they should light the base. Retain control of the lighter and hand it off to them only to light the fire before taking it back to them. Remind them they are only to use the lighter in your presence and teach them to respect the process.
Much like my younger self, your little one will probably want to learn other ways to make fire. You can graduate them from the grill lighter to a standard lighter to matches. Matches are easy to teach a young child as you can put their hand in yours as you control the striker. Show them how a match burns slower held with the match head up and that it accelerates as it is held sideways. Teach them the danger of holding it with the head down for too long but don’t let them feel the heat. That is something they will learn on their own. While controversial, I believe a child needs to learn that fire is hot and if done correctly, they can’t burn themselves severely. They may cry from the brief pain of touching a hot match or match head but it won’t be life-threatening. I’m pretty sure each kid has felt this at some point and ran to mom or dad to make it all better. Embrace the moments when you get to be their hero and take away the pain with a kiss on their hand or perhaps a cartoon character bandage. Think of teaching kids about fire the way you would teach a child about alcohol. Let them experiment a little in front of you or they could overdo it when you’re not around. Eventually, you can teach them the ferro rod and as they mature, the various friction fire methods. Make sure to match the tool with their maturity level.
Equip and Empower Them
Once you know your child has the competency to light a fire, equip and empower them. Children love toys but you must remind them the firestarters you gift them are not toys. Give them some slack and see what they do with it. If you see them goofing off with their firestarter, don’t be afraid to take them back for a period of time. Goofing off can include unnecessary flicking of a lighter or fast-scraping a ferro rod creating a hollow in the rod. However, if you know they are treating their tools with respect, give them a task next time a fire needs to be lit. See if they can verbalize the process and explain what they are doing. It will demonstrate a different level of understanding than just the physical. See if they can problem solve by giving them sub-par firewood to work with. Ask them to build different types of fires instead of your standard tipi, log cabin, or platform and brace. Be a source of knowledge for them but let their experience teach them. Coach them along but don’t make it easy. Remember, we learn best from failure than success.
Just like the moment you remove training wheels from a bicycle, you must take them off when it comes to fire-starting. You’ll know they are ready when they ask you fewer questions each time you supervise them. Empower them more by saying, “I’m going to unpack the ____, you build the fire.” They won’t even notice you are not over their shoulder until they look for you and see you just out of arms' reach. It will inspire them and give them confidence. You can’t physically hold their hand forever but each time they build a fire, it is the lessons you teach them that will guide their hands. We won’t always be around them but the skills we pass down to them will never leave their side. They’ll never forget these lessons and one day will pass the flame to their kids in the way you did to them.