Six-year-old Aisha and five-year-old Brioni may have spent some time at this last campsite learning how to light the kerosene lantern, but the real lesson was for David and me. We’ve been learning to let go of fears that prompt us to interfere with our children’s natural inclinations to learn.

The setting is a bush camp. It’s evening, and the campfire is roaring. Dinner has been served, but we’d like some extra lights and the 12-volt system in our travelling rig is not working. We’ve previously admitted that we let our children play with fire, and so letting them experiment in lighting the kerosene lantern is familiar Fisher style.

Lighting the lamp, October 2011
Carefully coordinating the match, position of the glass and the height of the wick, 6yo Aisha practices lighting our kerosene lantern.

While staying in Oberon, we had bought extra-long matches to help the girls light their fires more successfully. Conventional matches had proved hard for them to keep alight long enough to make a fire start. So we were prepared for this lesson.

We provided detailed instructions on our own methods for lighting the lantern and then handed it over. Aisha and Brioni negotiated their own turn-taking system, and we sat back to watch their progress.

Eagerly, a girl would open up the sliding drawer, remove a match, strike it against the side of the box and make an attempt to light the wick. Sometimes they were successful — coordinating their movements successfully to light the lantern — but then they would blow out the lantern and start again.

As David and I watched the girls light match after match — often losing the flame to the wind, other times struggling with the lantern’s glass or wick and blowing out the match as the flame crept close to their little fingers — we felt anxiety. This was a waste of good matches!

In line with our philosophy of gentle parenting, we tried leading our girls in the way we wanted them to go. “Do you think you’d like to save some matches for tomorrow?” we’d ask. “Wouldn’t it be nice to leave the lantern on when it’s lit?”

Aisha and Brioni ignored our leading questions. They were intent on figuring out the best way to light the lamp, and in this case — practice makes perfect.

When David and I discussed our attitudes objectively, we could see that our motivation to conserve the matches was foolish. We somehow felt that the remaining matches were of greater value than the practice that the girls were having in learning how to light the lantern.

Truthfully, the $2.79 that I paid for the box of premium, extra-long matches was a bargain for the lesson that our children gave themselves! But in the irrational heat of the moment, all I could feel was attachment for those special matches that I bought and negative emotion at watching them being wasted!

Letting go of the idea that money is more important than our relationship with our children is a necessary lesson for us. When even a trifling amount can trigger a reaction within us, we’re demonstrating that we would rather save $2.79 and quell our children’s inclination towards experimentation.

Thankfully, David and I stopped ourselves in time from stifling our children’s spontaneous lesson. At some point, Aisha and Brioni had enough, and the lamp remained lit. Later — after they had gone to bed — I fingered the matches that were left in the box.

17. That’s more than enough for tomorrow’s fire. Unless the girls want to play with the lantern again, and then it’s an educational bargain. This we have learned. And we shall not forget.