How to Talk to Your Kids About Fire Safety

SSI spoke with Dr. Robert Cole, president of Fireproof Children, on the common mistakes parents make when it comes to relaying the potential dangers of candles, matches, lighters and other risk factors for fires.

A young boy stands at the head of the kitchen table surrounded by family and friends. It’s the day of his fifth birthday party, and after a day-long circus of activities, it’s time for cake.

His mother sets down his favorite chocolate cake with candles spread across the colorful, delicious display. The boy can barely contain his excitement as those in attendance ring out as a chorus. Finally, the moment comes as the boy is told to make a wish and blow out the candles. The boy looks down, takes in a big deep breath and bellows out with all his might to cap off the happy, momentous occasion.

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All is happy. But does the young boy know how dangerous those candles he blew out can be? Dr. Robert Cole has spent nearly 30 years devoted to that cause.

Cole, an associate professor at the University of Rochester and president of Fireproof Children, has been working since the 1980s to teach children about fire safety and arm families with the necessary education to pass on proper safety lessons to children, particularly those in preschool.

“Children have quite a bit of experience and are quite familiar with [fire], but what they don’t understand is the risk, the potential danger,” Cole said in a phone interview. “We really encourage parents talk to their children about fire.”

Children don’t have the intellectual capabilities yet to understand complex chains of cause and effect that can lead from a small match or candle up to a large fire. They have a false sense of control and a false understanding of how benign fire can be. They really don’t understand the risks.– Dr. Robert Cole

Cole has worked with Bic for 21 years as part of its play safe! be safe! program, a fire safety program aimed at children ages three to five. Bic develops fire safety kits for kids and sponsors workshops that Cole and others conduct all over the country for people who work with young children.

“It’s had a really important impact on raising awareness and safety in the communities we’ve done the programs,” Cole said.

Bic had been particularly concerned with safety tips around its lighters as well as candles. But recently it started incorporating a family-oriented perspective rather than narrowing in on just children.

“Rather than just being about young children and young children’s curiosity and what to teach young children and talking about putting matches and lighters out of sight and reach, we’re now talking about outdoor grilling safety, candle safety, fireplace safety, a much broader perspective that the whole family might engage in,” Cole said.

By now, Cole has heard just about every excuse in the book from parents when they discuss why they haven’t talked with their children about fire safety.

My kid doesn’t know what matches or lighters are. If I bring it up to them, that’s just going to focus their attention on them.

My kid is 5. He knows candles are hot. He’s not stupid. We don’t need to tell him.

Too many parents don’t want to mention or bring up the issue of fire safety to their children, Cole says, but children need to know the dangers so they can be another line of defense for the family should they spot a lit match or candle unattended.

Kids need to know “my role is to tell mom or dad, and then the parents have to follow up on putting them out of sight and out of reach,” Cole said.

Families need to reinforce the dangers of these items by keeping candles, matches and lighters out of sight, just as if they were a lawnmower or saw. They are “grownup tools,” and should be treated as such. If they’re accessible to children, the message parents send to kids on the dangers of fire loses its effectiveness because children will become desensitized to them and their potential dangers.

Cole says other families will explain the dangers of fire, but not in an effective manner. They’ll go into the physics of fire with their young child, but preschoolers don’t have the ability to see a small match lying on the ground and think it can lead to an entire house on fire.

“Children don’t have the intellectual capabilities yet to understand complex chains of cause and effect that can lead from a small match or candle up to a large fire,” Cole said. “They have a false sense of control and a false understanding of how benign fire can be. They really don’t understand the risks.”

Perhaps the biggest mistake parents make about fire safety is letting their guard down when they’re home with their kids. Many parents feel as long as they’re in the house, a fire cannot start but as Cole explains, a surprising number of fires start with parents at home.

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