Playing with Fire

2016-06-25 11.56.06There is nothing better calculated to get my teenage son outside than the prospect of fire.

Most weekends, he spends the day indoors reading books or playing computer games. He’ll come out to help in the yard or garden if we ask him to, but as soon as he’s released, he’ll be back inside.

Tell him we’re going to burn off the brush pile, though, and he’s out the door like a shot, and will spend all day pottering around the fire—tossing sticks in, raking coals together, hosing down the grass around the fire to keep it from spreading.

What makes fire so compelling, especially for teenage boys?

Believe it or not, scientists have actually tried to answer this question. Researchers at the University of Alabama found that gazing at even a video of a fire reduced subjects’ blood pressure. The longer they watched the fire, the more relaxed they became. The researchers suggest that the multisensory aspect of a fire focuses our attention and reduces anxiety.

Whether that is simply an outcome of meditation associated with this sensory focus, or an evolutionary response to the social and physical security that a fire was to our ancestors is a matter of speculation.

Fire is, in fact, essential to humans. Our power-hungry brains need the extra nutrition provided by cooked food (about one-fifth of our calories are used by our brain). We can’t grow and develop properly on a raw diet, and human culture never would have evolved without it, so it stands to reason it would be important to us.

So, why are kids so interested in fire—more so than adults?

Researchers at UCLA have studied fire play among children in various cultures, and have concluded that the desire to master the control of fire is common among cultures. This makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint—we need fire to survive, so those able to control it historically did better and produced more children.

In westernised cultures, where open fires aren’t used on a daily basis, children’s interest in fire lasts longer than in cultures where fire is a daily necessity for cooking or heating. They remain fascinated by fire until they’ve learned to master it.

This doesn’t fully explain my teen—he mastered fire years ago, learning to light and maintain a fire in our log burner. But I do think there is an aspect of control that keeps us coming back to fire, especially when we’re young. Fire has incredible destructive power. To ignite that power, then hold it in check to achieve a goal (heating the house, cooking dinner, or disposing of brushwood), is a heady thing, particularly for teens who have so little control over their own lives.

All of which leads me to believe that it’s important for us to teach our kids to safely light and control fires. Research indicates they will play around with it until they learn—it’s an innate need. Better they learn safely than by burning down the house.

I also think that giving kids safe ways to exert control is important for their growing sense of accomplishment and self-worth. There is so much we can’t let them control—they can’t drive, they have to go to school, they can’t leave home—I remember all those restrictions eating away at me when I was a teen, eager to exert myself on the world.

So, yeah, we let our kids play with fire. It’s good for them.

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