Playing with Fire

by K. Vera (IT: Software Artist)

My parents maintained an unspoken rule that once a punishment was instituted it could not be changed. Neither of them would override the other, nor would they deliberately cancel a punishment before it had been fully executed, even if it they didn’t agree or the punishment wasn’t working.

This is best illustrated with the story about what happened when my brother was caught playing with fire.

A little backstory first. My grandmother put candles and matches in our bathroom, which she claimed was the best way to de-stinkify a stinky bathroom. To this day I am not sure how effective candles really are, versus simply opening a window, but I am sure they are a bad idea to give to kids.

We mostly used the matches to light strips of toilet paper. It was something my brother Donny discovered. Toilet paper is almost like flash paper; it goes up in a big WHOOSH of flame. After lighting it you have to let go quickly and jump back to avoid getting burned. We lit toilet paper over the bathroom sink with the candles and matches my grandmother provided.

fireLots and lots of toilet paper.

Until one sad day when Donny got caught.

My mother decided that the best punishment for him was to light 5000 matches. This was based on the time she and her siblings found some cigarettes and wanted to smoke them. So her parents had them smoke the whole pack, until they were all sick. Consequently none of the Musgrave kids ever wanted to smoke again.

Lighting matches is a little bit different though, because it doesn’t make you sick, and the 1000th match is pretty much as fun as the first one when you are eight.

My parents set Donny up on a steel table outside with a pan of water. He lit each match and then dropped it in the water with a little sizzle.

My dad supervised the first few hundred or so, and then observed to my mother that he didn’t think the punishment was working. “I think he likes it,” he said.

“Just wait,” mom said. “He’ll get tired after the first few thousand.”

But he didn’t.

My dad,however, did get tired of supervising. So before long, Donny was outside on the porch lighting matches on his own. It looked cool. It even sounded cool. I was jealous beyond words.

“Can I light one?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “This is my punishment.”

“But I played with fire too!” I said.

“But you didn’t get caught,” he said. And match after match he continued to discover new and wonderful ways to light them. He struck them on top of the table, underneath the table, on his shoe…

I snuck some matches from the bathroom, but did not have enough to figure out the shoe trick. I tried to use the long fireplace matches, but they kept breaking into smaller and smaller pieces before I could get them lit. (Seriously, the only way I have ever been to light those long fireplace matches is with a lighter.)

“If you let me light some of the matches, you won’t have to do as many.” I suggested.

“That wouldn’t be honest.” Donny said, and lit a match by flicking it with his fingernail.

I asked my dad if I could have a box of matches. He said no. I told him I had been lighting toilet paper too. He looked at me thoughtfully and told me to write a book report about fire safety.

“But that’s not fair,” I said. “Donny gets to light matches and doesn’t have to write a book report!”

“That’s your mother’s idea,” he said. “I don’t believe lighting matches is the best way to cure fire-lighting inclinations. It seems like a waste of matches to me, but if your mother says that’s what Donny should do, then that’s what he will do. Fortunately or unfortunately, you confessed to me and not your mother.”

This was a shining moment of decisive parenting for my dad. Contrast that with the time he bet me a bowl of ice cream on a game of Parcheesi. He continued to bet double or nothing until I had won so many games in a row that he probably still owes me ice cream. And since we didn’t have that much ice cream, he supplemented with any junk he could find in the house. (Honestly, I probably would have been happier with a box of matches.)

Anyway, I wrote the book report, and finished long before Donny reached his 5000th match. And I stopped playing with fire (mostly), and Donny continued to find ways to do things we hadn’t specifically been told not to do, but were generally troublesome. And my mom was never quite able to figure out how to discourage him.

Even after my parents divorced, they both maintained the rule about not undoing each others punishments. And I actually appreciated that, because it showed a level of respect that was sometimes lacking in their other exchanges.

It wasn’t necessary for them to agree, because they each supported the right of parents to discipline in the way they thought best, even when it didn’t work.