This week the first and second grades have started their unit on energy, force, and motion. Here they learn about the forces that make our universe work. They've seen me demonstrate fire in the classroom and they will also see me use electricity to make things work. While doing one of these experiments I was taken aback at the excitement that was caused in the classroom when I lit a small candle and set some newspaper afire. It reminded me of an important parenting lesson I had a year back.
Last year the school had false fire alarm. We did not plan a fire drill and the teachers suspected that a child had pulled the alarm while playing with it. Still in yet, we followed protocol and quietly escorted the children per the emergency evacuation plan.
Some hours after we were back inside, my five-year-old son's teacher, Mrs. Montgomery, told me that Zahi, my son, was incredibly anxious and frightened that the school was still on fire. He was afraid that the fire was trapped in the walls and that, any moment, it would come out and consume him. He could not work or focus in class.
I pulled my son out of class and took him into the kitchen.
“You are a Homo Sapien,” I told him. “You are not allowed to be afraid or fire.”
I got a metal pan and some scrap paper. I gave my son a cup of water and lit a small fire in the pan.
His eyes began to widen with panic. He didn't know what to do.
“Well,” I said, “Put the fire out. Use the water.”
I watched my son pour the water on the fire dousing the flame and his anxiety.
He was never scared of fire again. At the same time, I never caught him lighting fires in the bathroom or playing with the stove.
That day, I realized that, as a parent, I had done wonderful job of teaching my children to be safe around fire. But I'd done a horrible job of teaching them to handle fire. Handling and manipulating fire is the birthright of our species.
On a more practical level, my son's fear of fire would have prevented him from doing what was needed to save himself from a fire.
Our protection of our children has gone a bit overboard. We've gone from teaching our children mastery of fear to just teaching them fear, and stunting their development as productive adults. How would my son, scared of fire, ever function in a chemistry class with a Bunsen burner? What good would he be as an electrical engineer if he does not know what properties of electricity make it so dangerous to stick a fork in a socket.
Let us not forget that the most effective teaching tool that we have is exploration. I learned more about electricity by opening up old appliances than in all of my years in elementary school. How much do you know about electricity? Have you ever taken something apart just to see what was inside?
In the Parent Resource Center, I've included a link to a TED lecture called 5 Dangerous Things for Your Kids. While I can't endorse everything the lecturer says, I strongly support his premise and I will be purchasing my sons some pocket knives. Pray for us.