Parenting: Autonomy vs. Safety


I spent a couple hours outside in the Mississippi heat and humidity (98 degrees with a heat index of 107) the other day burning yard debris. Not surprisingly, standing close to a large bonfire when it is that warm out was not terribly pleasant. There were a few times where I had to look down to make sure I wasn't on fire since it felt like I might be. I do this a couple times a year, and I usually think about how some Christians burned things (or people) they feared when I do.

This time was different, as I found myself thinking about how social norms around parenting and the safety of children have changed since I was a child. Based on what many parents with young children have told me, fire safety is a much bigger deal now than it was back then. That's probably a good thing. I know many people are fond of the narrative that contemporary parents are making a mistake by focusing so much on safety that their children are no longer allowed to be children. I think there's some truth to this; however, much of my early exposure to fire seems hard to justify.

My family did a lot of camping when I was a child, and that meant having a camp fire every night. For us, camping meant tents and not RVs. Even when the adults eventually moved on to trailers of various sizes, the kids slept in tents. Since this was long before cell phones, media streaming, or even portable satellite dishes, there wasn't much to do once the sun went down. The period between dinner and bedtime was filled with one thing: sitting around the camp fire. But since we were children, sitting around a fire was never as interesting as playing with the fire.

One of our favorite thing to do involved finding long sticks, sticking one end into the fire until it ignited, waving it around, and repeating the process. Inevitably, the burning stick would get too close to someone's face, and scolding would ensue. Our parents were clearly annoyed by this but were surprisingly tolerant until we managed to start another fire or hit someone with our burning sticks, both of which happened on multiple occasions. We would then get yelled at about how fire wasn't a toy and we needed to respect it, but I can't say there there was ever much instruction about what that meant.

When we were a little older, we were allowed to occupy our own camp site, which was either directly adjacent to or near the one our parents occupied. This meant that we had our own fire pit and were allowed to build our own fire. I have no idea what our parents were thinking here. Our fires were always dangerously large, and my best friend would usually start them with so much lighter fluid that the wood was floating when he threw the match. Some of our fires prompted visits from angry park rangers, and a couple temporarily ignited nearby trees.

As I found myself standing next to a fire in my backyard that turned out to be much larger and hotter than I had expected, I thought back to some of what I probably should have learned about fire as a child but didn't. At least I had a hose with a high pressure nozzle in my hand this time. I don't envy parents who have to figure out how best to balance allowing their children the freedom to grow with keeping them safe. That can't be easy.