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Information and Perspective for Parents and Caregivers

“Don’t worry that children never listen to you, worry that they are always watching you.” by Robert Fulgham

Many think that “children and fire” is as natural as peanut butter and jelly. But the sad facts are far different. Children will take the lives of hundreds of people this year across the United States when they will play with fire. Tragically, the most likely victim of these fires are preschool age children (not always the child who is actually setting the fire). While they are most often the victims of their own acts with fire, they are also at risk when siblings or neighbor children misuse fire.

Many believe that fires set by children must be hostile, violent acts committed by angry adolescents. This does occur. However, the vast majority of fires set by children stem from innocent fire play where the intent is to do no harm whatsoever. The obvious question that follows is “Why? Don’t children realize that fire can kill people and destroy property?” In most cases, no!

Fire is a great contradiction in our society. We expect people to be afraid of it and respect it yet everyday, it surrounds us in our day-to-day lives. Sometimes these uses become so routine that, as adults, not only do we let our guard down but we also teach our children (with our behavior) that fire is not dangerous. A child’s primary method of learning is through what they see, not what is said. Never underestimate the power of an example set by an adult.

Birthday candles, incense, gas stoves, barbecues, and campfires all minimize the dangers of even the smallest flame. And then there are cigarettes. While cigarette smoking adults do not cause children to play with fire, the example they give minimizes the dangers. Numerous times a day a smoker will hold that flame within inches of his or her face. This same person will tell a child that using that device will kill someone or destroy property. The child has just seen an adult use the device (the match or lighter) in what appears to be a satisfactory or safe manner. This is a contradiction that leaves a child with the idea that death does not necessarily result from the use of these items, which can confuse and misinform.

Also common in the homes of smokers is ready access to matches and lighters. A child in a home with a smoker will be twice as likely to be involved with fire play as a child who is in a home with a non-smoker.

If these are the problems that lead the children of our nation to take hundreds of lives and damage hundreds of millions in property each year, then what are the solutions? First and foremost is watchful and conscientious parenting. Parents teach their children about the dangers of knives, guns, and drugs, but often overlook deadly devices that are common within our homes: matches and lighters.

Fortunately, the solutions are easy. The following steps can help caregivers prevent children from misusing fire and placing themselves, their families, and their communities at-risk.

  • Adults must set a good example when using matches and lighters. Children will do as you do, not as you say.
  • Teach children, through actions and words, that matches and lighters are Tools for adults, NOT toys for children.
  • Answer children’s questions about fire. When children ask questions, they want to learn. There is no better time to explain the proper use of fire.
  • Give children opportunities to use fire only when they are responsible enough to do so safely. This usually occurs around age 12, although parents know their own children best. Always error to the side of safety.
  • Understand that a child’s interest in fire is normal. Almost all humans, adults or children, have some interest in fire. Its appropriate use is the critical issue. A child’s ideas about the use of fire will mirror their parents behavior with fire. The misuse of fire by anyone is dangerous.
  • Keep matches and lighters in a safe place, out of sight and out of reach (locked up if necessary). This is important at all times. Even if you do not have children of your own, you may have young visitors from time to time.

Fire safety does begin at home. Resources are available if you don’t feel your efforts are effective and you should not hesitate to seek them out. However, a concious effort to teach safety before problems occur remains the best defense of all.