I have a plea. Parents, teach your children how to handle certain basic pieces of equipment. It is sensible to tell a toddler "don't play with matches" or "don't touch the cooker". But at some point between toddlerhood and adulthood, those children need to learn.
I'm a Guide Leader. Guides (Girl Scouts for my US friends!) are girls aged between 10 and 15. Tonight we were doing some badgework, in the course of which the girls got to set up and light gas stoves, light barbecues, toast marshmallows and bake bananas with chocolate. All good fun.
I'm 34. Does that make me old? I feel it sometimes. When I was a Guide, toasting marshmallows was a nearly weekly event. We used candles and toothpicks and it was our standard celebration. Birthdays, Trefoils, new girls, you name it, we toasted a marshmallow for it. The Guiders were in th same room but never actively involved. I remember the odd scorched thumb and an occasional burnt mouth - the temptation to eat that liquid lava far too early. But we all survived. I don't remember either that any of us went on to burn our own homes down. Although I'm pretty sure that a couple of girls in my class at school did in fact have an incident after burning their physics books in a rubbish bin after their GCSE exams. They weren't Guides though (or they'd have had a proper bonfire. With buns)!
Today we had to do some basic fire safety first. We had to explain why it was a bad idea to lean over open flames with loose hair. Why it might not be a good idea to run and skip and hop next to the fire. Fair enough; we tend to start any hot things activities with a brief reminder. But we also had to teach the majority of the girls how to strike a match. How to hold the match, even how to blow it out, and how it might be a good idea to blow it out before the flame reached your fingertips. We had to reassure teenagers that "don't play with matches" was indeed good advice for a three year old, but that learning how to strike a match was in fact a useful life skill once you were older. Unless you go camping, you probably aren't familiar with camping gas stoves, and we don't expect them to know how to use them instantly - that's why we teach them. But we don't expect the match lighting to be the complicated bit.
When we take the girls on summer camp now, we have to ask their parents to teach them three things before they go. They need to be able to peel a potato, light a match, and wash up (without a dishwasher). It is surprising to me how many of the girls, even the older ones, don't know how to do these things. I understand you don't want to make a small child into your slave. But are you really doing a child any favours at all by preventing them from taking any kind of responsibility? We also nearly always have one child who has never slept without a nightlight, and whose parents have not twigged to the fact that camping under canvas means no electricity, and therefore no light other than the moon and stars. But I digress.
You may have a dishwasher, but will your child when they leave home? Most student accommodation doesn't come with much more than a cracked sink and a drainer, ditto much first digs. You may not want your child to have to spend every waking hour hanging up wet washing, but it is something they might want to learn how to do before they leave home. And basic cooking skills - do you really want your child to be reliant on readymeals and takeaways?
Playing with matches is probably a bad idea. That's where Little Fish is at the moment. She knows she doesn't touch the matches; I know she's too young to understand why so I make sure they're out of her reach. She does however get to blow them out whenever I use one to light the stove. But she's 2. By the time she's old enough to be a Guide I sincerely hope she'll have been using matches wisely for several years.
Meanwhile, tonight we had the pleasure of teaching about 20 girls how to hold a match, how to light it, and what fun it is to watch marshmallows go from pudgy to oozy-squishous-delicious. We also had to remind them that running around the carpark in the dark is probably not a very wise plan - again, parents, isn't this a sensible thing for you to have taught your children before they reach us? But we'll stick with the cooking. The girls had a great time. The evening flew by, we had volunteers to help with the washing up - they get real satisfaction out of seeing how easy it is once you have a bit of hot soapy water rather than a cold damp dishrag. This is something Little Fish already knows.
So please, parents, teach your children some of life's basics. Yes, schoolwork is important. Yes, enrichment activities are good and valuable things for your child to be doing (although I pity the many girls we have who have fourteen or more separate out of school activities going on; when do they ever have the time to just sit and be?). But learning life is just as important. Not just so that they know how to do these things before they come camping with us, but so that they can do them when they need to. We the Guiders love teaching your girls these things - I love the look of achievement on a girl's face when she has finally skinned that whole potato, when that final bit of black has finally come off the bottom of the pan, when those scared hands have stopped shaking for long enough to strike a match and touch it to a candle wick. That's one of the reasons we enjoy being Guiders. But we do feel bad for you, for what you miss out on by not teaching them yourselves.
I have a friend who has Multiple Sclerosis. Relapsing/remitting, it means that there are times when she can run for miles and times when she is confined to a powered wheelchair. At those times, her four year old daughter is now capable of cooking basic meals. She knows to use oven gloves, she knows how to work the microwave, and she can put fish fingers and oven chips into a roasting pan. Certainly that's not something most children need to be able to do at that age, but neither is it beyond her capacities. It isn't something the child has to do on a regular basis, but it is something she can do when needed. So give it a go, see what your child can do for you. And maybe this Mother's Day you might just get something extra nice delivered to you in bed, not a slice of burnt toast!
I realise I talk about daughters. That's because I have girls, and because as a Guider I spend time with other girls. It isn't because I think boys shouldn't be doing this too. Teach your children, boys and girls. My brothers are fine cooks.
This is sounding preachy. Sorry. I'm not trying to tell you how to raise your children. I hope that I'm giving you something to consider, if you don't already include your children in lessons for living.