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The Impact of Environment on Firesetting: Guidance for Parents and Caregivers

By Michael L. Slavkin Ph.D.

Dec 3, 2010 Back


During my work with children who play with fire or set fires intentionally, one factor has remained constant: adults are inherently curious about the reasons why youth use fire and that almost every person will have a specific memory of a child (possibly themselves) who has played with fire. Yet, as pervasive a problem as juvenile firesetting is, professionals, as well parents, have a limited understanding of what pushes youth to use fire irresponsibly or recklessly.

It is assumed that most young children are innately curious about fire and often will be interested in its uses. As parents, we are often encouraged to tell their children that, “fire is bad, and is not to be played with.” As straightforward and simple as this statement is, few children understand it, and often they ignore it. Though we share with our children the danger of fire, we need to remember that it is a part of their surroundings, and is often “played” with by those whose behaviors they model. Children watch us light the stove, heat up the grill, or use fire to light our cigarettes (try explaining why this isn’t playing with fire to a young child . . . they just can’t comprehend the logic!).

We tend to send mixed messages with fire in our society; fire as something to be played with is woven within our use of fire for celebratory purposes. Children are exposed to fire from their first birthday on, when they are expected to blow out the candles on their birthday cake. Families celebrate special occasions by lighting candles and putting them in the center of our tables. We light fireworks during summer festivals as a way of celebrating our independence. Fire is a part of our collective cultural experience. To ignore the power that fire has played in American society by telling our children “to ignore fire” is to ignore a part of who we are.

Though elementary-aged children may play with fire out of curiosity, as they grow older, they often use fire as a way of gaining power and control. To witness the destructive power of fire at a young age can lead to a reoccurrence of firesetting later on. Some preadolescents and adolescents are drawn to fireplay since it is connected to social status and popularity. Fire professionals and parents would be wise to first identify why children and adolescents are using fire (by the time children are around 7 or 8 years old, their “innate curiosity about fire” is reduced . . . kids beyond these ages rarely use fire to better understand it).

Junior high and high school students often attempt to emulate the behaviors of adults. As a result, they are more likely to be found engaging in fireplay activities that are similar to those modeled by older peers and significant adults: lighting candles, lighting incense, lighting fireworks, or lighting cigarettes. These behaviors should not be ignored, as they increase the familiarity of youth with independent fire use. Furthermore, these behaviors often are not paired with an understanding of the destructive power of fire.

Recent initiatives in the field of parent and family counseling have called for a re-examination of our child rearing practices, suggesting that we model appropriate and accurate behaviors that will educate our children about the realities of our world. By being truthful about our interactions with our environments, parents allow children to better understand the nature of their communities and how they are expected to behave in them. Children come to understand what they are supposed to do (and not supposed to do) based on WHAT WE DO not WHAT WE SAY. While this consistently gets me in trouble at home with my kids, remembering this can help make the difference when behaviors go awry.  Here are several suggestions for parents of younger children as is relates to modeling and teaching our children good fire safety habits:

First, rather than telling children NOT to use fire, some professionals suggest that children be taught about the dangers of fire at the same time that they learn how to use it safely. An example would be, “Fire isn’t used without an adult present. Matches are used for lighting the grill, but they can be bad too. Did you see how Mommy burned her finger?” When parents and children engage in dialogue about fire, the children are less likely to use fire for maladaptive or destructive purposes. It also tends to reduce their curiosity about fire, since they have identified how it is used, how it feels, how it can hurt others, etc.

Second, parents can discuss with their kids how fire is a tool, not a toy. We use fire to cook, we use fire to heat food up. If kids live in a rural setting, we could talk to them about how we use fire to burn trash or yard waste, but we help the child to recognize that these are tools “for an end,” not ways of experimenting. In other words, we let the child know that we know what will happen when we use fire (e.g., the food will get hot, the trash will burn down, the candle will light up the room). Using small statements that clarify the end result assist children, young children especially, in clarifying how fire works.

Third, in most cases, a discussion of firesetting and the appropriate uses of fire is not enough. Redesigning environment clearly is required. Parents and guardians should first consider how youth are obtaining incendiary (a.k.a., fire-making) items. Matches, lighters, butane candle lighters should be locked up or thrown out. Don’t have a cabinet that locks? Buy a locking banker’s box from your local Wal-Mart or market (they retail for $16.95 … well worth avoiding the thousands of dollars in expenses from a burnt down apartment or home). If candles provide a child with a focus for their curiosity, get rid of them (no candle party favor is worth it). Perhaps the most-often seen example from my own background comes from parents and family members who smoke; leaving a lighter or matches out in a purse or on a table is akin to leaving a loaded gun out … we just do not do it. Locking matches and lighters in a car may be an option, but leaving them in a high cabinet is not (my son, Jacob, could climb cabinets like a monkey at 18-months of age, and if he knew that something shiny, colorful, and interesting like a Bic lighter was in there, all the better).

Lastly, while it sounds generally harsh to say that parents and guardians need to intervene on behalf of the child or adolescent, it is accurate. Older children and adolescents may have the ability to swipe matches off a table at a restaurant or purchase a lighter at a market or gas station. Doing a full sweep of their rooms is a necessary response to keeping you and your family safe. If the youth indicates you don’t trust them, respond that until the fires stop, their trust needs to be earned back. You also can ensure that it is more difficult to find additional lighters by going to the managers of establishments (e.g., restaurants that leave matches on tables, gas stations with novelty lighters) and indicate that they should make a change in their practices. Explaining to them that they may be held legally responsible for providing a youth with an incendiary device that was used in an act of vandalism (or heaven’s forbid, in an act deemed as arson) … perhaps this might dissuade them from that practice in the future?

It makes more sense for parents, teachers, counselors, and fire professionals to take proactive steps toward teaching juveniles about proper fire usage than it does to focus our efforts on reacting to fireplay. Understanding the reasons that children use fire can help us to better control these actions, and reduce the likelihood that fire will be used later for destructive purposes. Providing children with the power to see why it is bad to use fire will help our community to reduce the damage caused by juvenile firesetting

About The Author

Michael L. Slavkin Ph.D.

Dr. Michael Slavkin is a professor of education and developmental psychology at the University of Southern Indiana. He has worked extensively with kids who set fires and has provided fire professionals and clinical professionals with counseling/community education interventions for 15 years. For further information, contact Dr. Michael Slavkin at