Firebug and Firebug Junior: Why Share Your Childhood Mistakes?

firebugA pre-story warning: Please do not try any of the “scientific” experiments you read about in this blog at home. Bad things will happen.

When I was 7 years old my best friend Jerry lived next door. Our neighborhood was perfect. It had wide streets for bike riding, fruit trees for quick snacks, a nearby clubhouse with ping pong tables, a pond, and a big field surrounding it that was always fun to explore.

One fine summer day we discovered some discarded fireworks in the field.

Like most kids, Jerry and I were enthralled by fire. Of course, fire was forbidden. That was part of the attraction. But beyond that, the mystery of flame, mesmerizing and colorful, transfixed my gaze at every candle, campfire, and hearthside. In a strange way that I lacked the words to express at the time, I felt a kinship to humanity going all the way back to the dawn of mankind whenever I looked at fire.

But let’s get back to those fireworks. They had been discarded for a reason. They were very, very old. But Jerry and I were not discouraged in the least from performing certain—ahem—scientific experiments with those fireworks.

The field by the pond was our laboratory. Matches were easy to find at any mantelpiece, patio grill, or kitchen. Off we ran to get the needed supplies and quickly regrouped to begin the experiment.

Again and again, we’d strike a match, hold it to a fuse, and toss our projectile into the field. But none of them would light. Rats! A bunch of duds! We weren’t rewarded for our efforts with exciting, colorful explosions. None of those firecrackers managed more than a halfhearted smolder.

Enter the first lesson about fire: smoldering projectile + tinder dry summer field = bad combination.

Smoke began rising from the field. Within seconds of noticing the smoke, we saw small tongues of flame.

An immediate confab was in order. What could we do?! I had a brilliant idea. We could smother it with cardboard! We ran home with panicked, winged feet, rummaging through our garages for old pieces of cardboard.

Back at the field, we learned our second lesson about fire: unattended fires spread, and spread like—well, like wildfire.

Desperately flapping the sheets of clumsy cardboard at the ground, the flames only grew larger. Ack! This wasn’t going well. Although Jerry and I were both fire savvy (we thought), knowing that fire required fuel and oxygen, we had yet to understand the finer points of that principle. Since the fire had extended to a size larger than the footprint of our cardboard, we weren’t smothering it, we were only adding more oxygen.

Lesson three: adding oxygen to a fire causes it to spread even more. Bad idea.

Another quick confab. Water! That was the remedy! We shoulda thoughta that first! Another mad dash home for buckets. We filled a watering can and a bucket at the backyard spigot and applied their contents to the blaze. It was like trying to pay the national debt with nickels.

By now, our firecracker adventure was a full-fledged wildfire, and at that point, there remained only one option—full retreat, and every man for himself.

Within minutes, I was hiding under my bed. I assume Jerry was similarly camouflaged. Great minds think alike that way.

I will be forever grateful for the firemen whose sirens I heard shortly thereafter. They saved the day, and probably the neighborhood too. After that, Jerry and I never risked any more fire situations.

Funnily enough, as all adults eventually learn, life has a sense of humor. And by that I mean that when I became a parent, it was unsettling to learn that my own son was also a devotee of the flame.

After my wife and I discovered several piles of torched toilet paper in our house, we attempted to redirect our son’s behavior (or so we thought). Quite some months passed without incident, but unbeknownst to us, our son had figured out that  lighting squares of TP over the open toilet bowl would both conceal his hobby and safely snuff out the flames as well. Safety first and all that.

Imagine our surprise one day as we apprehensively followed our noses only to locate the singed, blackened, and blistered surface of the toilet seat in the hall bathroom. Oops.

At this point I saw the wisdom in sharing my own fire experiences with my son. It did the trick, and we never had any more problems after that.

While we would love to be perfect, and love it even more if our kids viewed us as such, being willing to share our mistakes and the lessons we’ve learned from them is an important part of parenting. Not only do they benefit from our object lessons, but we model vulnerability, honesty, and responsibility through that sharing.

What life experiences have you shared with your kids? I’d love to hear from you.