Fire – dangerous, yet necessary to our everyday lives. Whether singing over birthday candles or lighting the stove, kids are going to be exposed to fire and may want to play with it.
While a child’s curiosity might spark concern, local experts say open conversations and securing combustible materials can help keep your family safe from little firebugs.
Starting the safety convo
There’s no set age or development level for fire curiosity, but it piques many kids’ interest early on. “During the preschool years, fire is just another part of the world they’re exploring,” notes the KidsHealth website.
While your child will likely have fire drills and “stop, drop and roll” lessons in school, it’s important to discuss fire safety when they first show signs of curiosity. How you begin that discussion not only helps your child understand fire safety, but also helps you understand whether their fascination is something more.
“Acknowledge that curiosity is something not unusual, then move forward with the conversation,” says Dr. Cynthia Bilinsky of the psychology group Wentworth and Associates in Utica. “A good approach is to ask where this is coming from; ask open-ended questions to spur dialogue.”
She adds that fire safety should be part of your house rules. “Discuss rules of the household without shame or fear. Look at this behavior as an opportunity to teach.”
Amariah Houseknecht, a social worker with Nature’s Playhouse in Ferndale, also suggests asking children why they are drawn to playing with fire.
If they’re simply curious, talk about safe ways to explore it – like helping a parent in the kitchen. If they say they’re playing with fire to express their emotions, extra steps may be needed to educate them on the dangers of their behavior.
While talking about fire safety is an important first step, there are other precautions you should implement to protect your family. For instance, make sure any fire paraphernalia like matches, lighters and candles are hidden and secure. Supervise kids in the kitchen and post a printed fire safety plan in a place everyone can see.
“Have a crisis plan with all of the potential exits in the home, numbers for local hospitals, police and fire stations and the locations of fire extinguishers,” Houseknecht says. “Make sure that everyone can get out.”
It’s also a good idea to have fire safety conversations frequently – and to use available resources to further teach your children.
“Do research, get books about fire, go to smokeybear.com or other government websites that have information on fire safety,” Bilinsky says. “Use kid-friendly, interactive resources.”
Curiosity or cry for help?
If you’ve taken all precautions against accidental fires and they keep happening, your child could be more than curious – he or she could be acting out intentionally.
“Kids express emotions through behavior and have low impulse control,” Houseknecht says. “Engaging in life-threatening behavior with no remorse is not the norm. Neither is intentionally harming or choosing to do something dangerous to harm others.”
Bilinsky adds, “If a child is being sneaky and continuing this behavior after multiple conversations, additional support may be needed.”
If children are starting fires out of anger, boredom or a reaction to their environment, seek professional help.
Houseknecht also suggests talking with kids about how they can avoid triggers for this behavior, helping them think of different strategies to deal with emotions – and coming up with a list of people kids can talk to about those emotions.
Illustration by Brent Mosser