The Kid Fire

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A small fire on the beach, ringed with white seashells

Some years ago I attended a beach barbecue in Juneau, Alaska on a gray summer day. The adults drank beer in a ring around a fire where salmon collars sizzled and talked about the price of boats and politics. The kids ran in a mixed-age herd closer to the surf, clambering over driftwood and getting wet. And then with the sly grace of a trickster god, a ten or eleven year old boy insinuated himself into our adult circle and lifted a burning brand from our fire, disappearing with it before I could so much as determine which adult he went with.

A few moments later, the kids had coalesced around an expertly built ‘kid fire,’ which they had lighted from that stolen spark. This ‘kid fire’ seemed to alarm none of the local adults, and indeed seemed to be a regular feature of long afternoons on the beach in Juneau. I watched with interest as the older children maintained the fire and policed access, allowing younger children only to chuck on small sticks from a distance. This would never fly in the lower 48, I thought.

By now laments about our contemporary overprotective style of parenting are commonplace, though the shift seems tricky to roll back. I am among those parents who struggle with trying to give my children a childhood that isn’t overly constrained, monitored, or stripped of autonomy and adventure. I’ve been in more than one heated exchange with what can only be describes as busybodies who try to shame me as negligent for giving my kids tiny freedoms that would have been completely unremarkable in my own youth–despite the fact that the US is a safer place for kids than it was in the 1980s by many measures. The kid fire made me feel hopeful that there are still places where parents trust older kids with potentially dangerous pastimes and with the expectation that they will keep younger kids safe.

I thought about the kid fire again recently when I decided to buy my own kids and a bunch of their cousins Swiss Army knives for Christmas. When discussing this with the parents, my friends, and online, I heard lots of stories of deep and lasting memories of receiving one’s first knife. I also heard a lot of stories—including one I hadn’t heard before from my own brother—of accidental cuts, often hidden from parents so the knife wouldn’t be taken away.

I hesitated. Then someone on Twitter sent me an anthropological study of how children in many cultures interact with potentially dangerous tools like knives. Turns out that westerners are perhaps uniquely nervous and likely to restrict their kids from risky play. Most parents, while being attentive and loving, are pretty laissez faire when it comes to sharp objects and fire, figuring that kids need to learn how to handle these tools anyway, and that there’s no substitute for experience. Accidental cuts are rare and when they happen, they are part of that learning process. I remember this from my time in the Peruvian Amazon, where tiny tots living in riverside villages wielded machetes and axes with considerably more insouciance and finesse than I am capable of.

A smiling boy, about age ten, holding an axe nearly as tall as he is.
Glenn Shepard

This led me to a whole literature out there on the costs and benefits of “risky play,” defined in one study as “play at height, speed, near dangerous elements (e.g., water, fire), with dangerous tools, rough and tumble play (e.g., play fighting), and where there is the potential for disappearing or getting lost.” That same study, a review of 21 papers on risky play, concludes that wrestling, climbing tall trees, making controlled fires, and the like are on the whole, good for kids—correlated with higher physical activity rates, improved social skills, and enhanced creativity. Denying our kids these experiences is, on balance, bad for them—even figuring in the risk for injuries.

I called Jack Perrin, who runs a makerspace and a “Maker Camp” for kids in Washington state that involves letting kids use soldering irons, hand saws, cordless drills—and things that go boom. (Perrin is a friend, and also married to LWON writer Michelle Nijhuis) I asked him about how his tool kit goes over with the kids and their parents. Unsurprisingly, the kids love it. ”They come to a camp and they are kind of blown away,” he says. “Those tools are for us, not for an adult? They have this honeymoon phase where they are crazy over the tool. And then they settle down.” The parents, in general, trust Perrin and are so thrilled by their kids increased creativity and sense of agency that they are willing to let their beloved offspring use potentially dangerous implements.

So how does Perrin determine when a kid is ready for a knife or a pack of matches? Not by age. He pays more attention to their “ability to be engaged in just one task.” Can they pay attention to just the knife and not get distracted while using it? Then they may be ready. 

This TED Talk by Gever Tulley, who runs another maker camp, suggests something very similar. He recommends “5 dangerous things you should let your child do”—and the first two are making fires and owning a pocket knife. “You can think of the open-pit fire as a laboratory. You don’t know what they’re going to learn from playing with it,” he argues.

So the kids got the knives. And over Christmas, they tended their own kid fire in a fire pit while the adults were winterizing the garden and splitting wood. They also drove a small tractor and shot a B.B. gun at cans. And when my son predictably nicked his thumb with his brand new knife mere moments after opening it, I put a bandaid on it, gave him a kiss, told him he could have the knife back at a more calm time, and remembered what Tulley said in his talk: “They’re young. They heal fast.”

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7 thoughts on “The Kid Fire

  1. So how old are the kids that got the knives? I remember having them when I was a kid, but can’t quite remember the age I was.. Maybe 10?

  2. My kids used to spend spring break with their aunt & uncle on a farm in Bakersfield, CA. They dug ditches, played in almond orchards, and rode on the tractor with Uncle Harold. One year when they were about 9 & 11, they happened to be there the same week as a 2nd uncle showed up with all his lumberjack gear and he taught them how to use axes to help chop up a bunch of older almond trees that had been downed by a storm the previous year. We had no idea this was going on. When we showed up at the end of the week to pick them up, they were super proud of their newfound skills, and pretty buff from spending every day out chopping firewood with their uncles. It was AWESOME

  3. There were six kids between nearly six and 11. The youngest, my son, only gets to use his knife when supervised after that little mishap. The oldest is from Alaska and is an old hand at knives. He used his to butcher a duck he shot with his dad over the break! We ate it on Boxing Day.

  4. I remember my first Swiss Army knife. I got it when I was maybe 8? I immediately cut myself because I opened everything at once. And then, yes, I hid the cut from my mom, who didn’t think I should have a knife in the first place.

  5. In a terrific photo of my 10-year-old nephew he’s proudly holding a chainsaw that’s almost bigger than he is. We also have a shot of my husband helping him shoot our crossbow. I’m pretty sure those were the kid’s favorite moments visiting our cabin. And they’re our favorites, too. He’s learning to respect tools rather than fear them, something that will no doubt help him throughout his life. (Funnily enough, his mother was extremely (overly?) protective when he was an infant; I remember her stopping him from petting a cat for fear of germs and she would remove him from a room where a TV was on (for example). Thank goodness she’s now letting him find his own way.)

  6. There is absolutely nothing like learning using real tools be they knives, axes, or crochet hooks & knitting needles. Our society has made things way to safe and protected. If kids are given guidance with a knife ( and show they can pay attention ) I venture to say they can use kitchen knives as young as 3. My grandson ( true he is phenomenal ) has been cooking with me, his mom and his step-father chef since he was 2 years old. I have a long video ( taken on one of my many babysitting days ) of him chopping swiss chard with a knife and knowing exactly how to hold the knife and keep his fingers out of the way. It’s really about parents or grandparents taking the time ( and getting off their phones ) to actually interact with the kids.
    I’ve seen this sort of thing numerous times – kids are sponges – learning so fast so why not invest in their quick minds and ability to pick things up quickly. I’m sure my grandson will be able to help take care of his mom, dads, grandparents and others with the many skills he is acquiring as a child. Years ago when in college in Mexico I was at a bus station and saw a little girl – no older than 6 years old crocheting so fast I could barely see the steps she took. I was 20 years old at the time and had just tried to learn to crochet. Clearly the knife or the crochet hook can get mastered by the young. My feedback to parents – stop being afraid to let your kids live and learn, with some wise guidance from the elders.

  7. Great essay! Our very busy six year old grandson was “missing” on our property one day. I found him out by our woodpile,using our very dull maul, to split firewood. He was totally focused, splitting some of the wood, filling his wheelbarrow. We had a discussion about safety and respect of tools.
    We always try to include our grandkids in our adult chores. Most kids know their limits with tools.

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