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knitfroggy's avatar

What's an appropriate punishment for an 8 year old firebug?

Asked by knitfroggy (8944points) May 30th, 2011

My 8 year old son got in our truck today and lit some “fabric” on fire. He was attempting to make a fireball, something he’d seen on a youtube video. I guess he knew there was a lighter in there, I was gone at work and the details are still unclear. He had told his dad he was going out to ride his bike and came in 10 minutes later saying the truck was on fire. The whole side of the passenger seat is melted, the thing you fasten your seatbelt to is melted, a large portion of the carpet beside the seat is burned. My husband said it was in flames when he went out there to see what was going on.

What do you feel is an appropriate punishment. I had no idea he was looking at stuff like that on youtube, needless to say, not my finest hour as a parent. As it stands now he is banished to his bedroom for the next 2 days and is off the internet until further notice.

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23 Answers

snowberry's avatar

Punishment is one thing. It’s time to get the kid help. Seriously. This is dangerous. Punishment may only distract. It won’t keep him from doing it again.

We used to live in an area with lots of weeds (it was out in the country in the West). When the weeds dried up in mid summer, our firebug neighbor had a ball. The community finally made him (and therefore his family) move.

zenvelo's avatar

Some people may think I am overreacting, but my initial reaction was pretty strong. For punishment a grounding plus no electronics for a couple weeks is appropriate. But my concern is if this has been happening or if this is a one off deal.

Fire play/curiosity at age 8 is not unusual, but if it goes on a lot it can be a sign of significant problems. He might need some counseling therapy.

AmWiser's avatar

Your son’s demeanor is not to be taken lightly. Instead of trying to think of a suitable punishment, think about contacting your local fire department to find out if they have personnel there that talk to children on a one-to-one basis about the hazards of starting fires and the consequences of their actions.

WestRiverrat's avatar

I think he should be punished, but I agree with the others that he needs to be educated on the danger of playing with fire, and seeing a therapist may not be a bad idea.

Maybe his punishment can be painting fire hydrants or some other chore under the Fire Department’s supervision.

Neizvestnaya's avatar

I 2nd @AmWiser as far taking your son to a local firestation so he can meet the people who respond to fire and other emergencies in your area. You name it, they’ve probably seen it. Twice. Just this encounter might switch his interest to learning about safety/nature stuff instead of being impressed by pranks.

Also, there’s no harm in installing content/site blockers on the computer he uses as well as a password in order to access the internet.

WasCy's avatar

This is one of those cases, I think, where “punishment” isn’t the right tack. Oh, it’ll make you and your husband feel a bit better, maybe, but it won’t be effective at changing behavior. That’s what you really need to do here.

In fact, that is essential.

I’d talk to school counselors, family therapists, child psychologists, even @AmWiser‘s suggestion of the local fire department. To leave this behavior unchecked could lead to much, much worse for him and for you all in the future.

It’s one thing to look at this stuff on YouTube and to be interested in it and even to experiment with it. But he experimented on your truck! That’s huge.

Many of us played with fire while younger. I played with it a lot (not at that age, I think, but not long after). But I never played with my parents’ things, I never “played” with fire in or around the house, and I always had a way to put out any fire I might have started that got bigger than I wanted.

snowberry's avatar

Another thing is that if he burns something and the police get involved, you must be able to prove to the court that you have ALREADY got him help. You must do this to protect yourself. If you don’t, the worst case scenario is that he could be taken from you, you could be charged with something (God knows what- neglect?) Please get started, for his sake and yours.

knitfroggy's avatar

Thanks for your responses. This is the first and hopefully last time he’s played with fire. I told my husband I didn’t think it was uncommon for a kid to mess with fire, I remember getting in trouble for taking some matches and lighting them in the cellar when I was younger than 8. My husband was more upset about what could have happened than the actual damage to the vehicle. He told our son that he can buy a new truck but he can’t buy a new son. I was going to haul my son to the fire department and have the firemen talk to him, but my husband didn’t want to do that today, doesn’t want it to seem like he is getting to do something special.

If this were something we’d dealt with repeatedly, I’d be a lot more concerned than I am. I am very concerned, but I honestly think the whole situation scared my son a lot, hopefully so he will never do anything like it again.

Buttonstc's avatar

If an 8 yr. old child does this one time out of curiosity that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s an arsonist (or a firebug).

And since the consequences of this time were so serious it should deter him in the future if he’s a normal child. But if he ever plays around with fire again, even in a milder way, that indicates a fascination with fire itself rather that just imitation or curiosity.

Then you would have a SERIOUS PROBLEM on your hands so be alert in the future.

I was a third grade teacher (8 yr. olds) and they do some really stupid things because they don’t have enough life experience to predict the consequences of their actions.

That’s what parents are for. I think the call to the Fire dept for advice is a good idea. He really needs to understand that this could really kill people and has.

This time it was property damage to a car. Had he done this in the house, he could have caused serious injury or death to his parents or siblings. If he’s a normal child this info should keep him from further fascination with fire.

He should definitely receive a strong enough punishment to make this memorable for him.

But in adition to just the punishment, there really needs to be ongoing communication to foster critical thinking.

At this age kids watch all types of violence on all types of media but most of it is still pretty unreal to them. They’re only beginning to comprehend death and it’s finality and few of them have ever dealt with life disabling injury unless a close friend or family member has suffered a tragedy.

I mean, some of them still believe in Santa Claus still so reality isn’t necessarily that sharply focused yet. Some of them are still fascinated by a Birthday party magician. They’re not old enough to be hard boiled cynics like most middle schoolers. It’s one of the qualities I found so delightful about this age group :)

Both parents need to take every reasonable action to ground him in reality regarding a lot of what’s portrayed in media because it rarely shows consequences. In little kids minds it’s not that dissimilar to cartoon violence.

There are even worse YT clips showing kids jumping off of roofs, mattress surfing and all variety of dangerous stunts which just show the cool looking stuff.

There aren’t any clips of the painful debilitating ER visits and teens in wheelchairs.

If it were my child, I wouldn’t allow him Internet access privately in his room. His computer would henceforth be in the family room.

And he wouldn’t get computer access until I installed a background safety program which would track every single page he visits and every video he watches. I would want to know what influences are impinging upon my child’s mind.

During the period he’s off the computer, both parents should go through his browsers history files. If you don’t know how, LEARN. I guarantee it will be an eye opener.

But I wouldn’t necessarily punish him for what you find. Just learn from it and use it for future dialogue with him about it.

Yes kids do need discipline, especially when they know they’ve done wrong. But what they need most is accurate information and guidance in good decision making. This is an ongoing process.

At this age they simply don’t know enough about how the world really works so they’re going to make plenty of mistakes. Hopefully you can head off the mistakes with the most serious and irreversible consequences.

Hopefully this will serve as a wakeup call and by the time he reaches his teens he will look down his nose at the other kids stupid enough to go jumping off of roofs on a dare.

He will know that he doesn’t want to risk a lifetime of paralysis for a dimwit stunt. His patents will have inculcated him with enough critical thinking skills and independence of mind to view stupid YT crap with the derision it deserves. He’ll know that he doesn’t need to follow the crowd.

You can turn this stupid impulsive act of his around to educate him.

You might also want to consider a prearranged visit with a Dr. whose good at dealing with kids in a tour of a burn unit where he might develop some compassion for those whose lives have been devastated by fire.

If he’s a normal kid (and chances are he most likely is) seeing the tangible effects of fire will cure his fascination with it as fun. He’ll see that it is a powerful force not to be treated lightly. That doesn’t get portrayed in the YT clips, does it?

But if he were my kid i would still install a computer tracking program for the future. You never know what he will investigate in the future. I’d prefer to know sooner than later.

I wouldn’t necessarily tell him about it until absolutely necessary tho. One of the main things it will do is prevent him from erasing the history files when he figures out how to do that :)

I guarantee that as he gets older you’ll be glad you did.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

snowberry's avatar

You don’t say if he has history prior to this incident. The truck fire shows real fore-thought, which is troubling, and it tells me it’s not the first time he’s played with fire. If there is a next time (God forbid) and it’s someone else’s property that’s damaged, it will come out that you didn’t get him help the first time. Won’t look good.

You are absolutely right that you don’t want to reward his firebuggy habit with a “treat” by taking him to the firestation right away, but do make some calls and find out who you can have him speak to.

Firestarters are addicted to the adrenaline rush prompted by the suspense and fear of what might happen. This is why he’s a danger to himself and others, and why it’s an addiction.
Edit: Just PM’ed @John65pennington. He’s a retired police officer.

filmfann's avatar

When I was young, my younger brother played with matches in the basement of the house. You could see from the burn marks he came close to starting the basement door afire.
My dad was livid, and held my brothers hand, and burned one finger with a match. My brother screamed and cried, and my father told him his whole body would feel like that, had he caught the house on fire.
A few years back, that story greatly upset my brothers wife. She said some very bad things about my dad. I don’t know if he did the wrong thing, but I know my brother didn’t mess with fire like that again.
I would like to know what your son’s response to the fire was. Was he horrified, or was he grooving on the flames?
How he felt is important to what you should do next.

Buttonstc's avatar

We really have no way of knowing that this child has ever done this before.

I respectfully disagree about the issue of forethought being “proof” of his doing this before.

If you read the details from the OP he knew that the truck was where an accessible lighter was likely to be. That indicates to me that the patents weren’t leaving them irresponsibly all over the house.

So while it’s true that getting the lighter in the truck indicates forethought but certainly not experience. He obviously had no idea about how quickly it could get out of hand.

And his first instinct was to run and get help from his parent. A firebug with previous experience would have run and hid in order to watch it.

Yes, this is definitely a serious incident and the parents are giving it the seriousness it deserves. But let’s not be so quick to pathologize a child’s one act of stupidity.

Some 8 yr. olde are incredibly naive and imitative. YT videos don’t show the consequences, just the cool looking fireball.

If he ever plays with fire after meeting an actual burn victim and see the scars firsthand, THEN is when you worry that he’s an arsonist.

In my mind, with the info given, he’s an immature 8 yr. old who made a very serious error in judgement but did the right thing once he realized it. The parents need to find a way to drive this point home to him. I’m sure they’ll be speaking with Fire and Medical personnel to figure out the best way to accomplish this.

I think kids learn best by seeing or doing and I’m hoping there’s a large enough hospital with a burn ward or even one local person who has suffered from fire who now is available to educate kids. Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words.

Plus, visiting a firehouse might be a “fun” trip in a kids eyes but there’s nothing glamourous about up close with burn survivors if they’re concerned about the wrong impression given by a Firehouse visit.

It’s obvious the husband remembers what it’s like to be an 8 yr. old boy and wants to hold off on a trip to a fire station for now. All those shiny red trucks are quite distracting for a little boy :)

And let’s kindly remember, he is still a LITTLE boy. If he were eleven or twelve yrs. old, I would suggest an immediate trip to a psychiatrist cuz kids at that age definitely know better. But this age 8 is still on the edge of full accountability. Some are less mature than others and just do incredibly stupid stuff. They just can’t see around corners yet and lack the common sense to look.

That doesn’t mean something this destructive gets overlooked but save the prison bars or looney bin for a few years down the road. Just give him a whopping dose of reality. That should wake him up and do the trick.

Coloma's avatar

I was involved with a group of kids that accidently set fire to a field as a child. I was about 10.
We were playing with fireworks after the 4th of July and a smoke bomb caught some dry grass on fire. We all managed to put it out ourselves, but, it was very scary.

One episode is not indicative of a future pyromaniac, but, should be taken VERY seriously!

He needs to somehow understand the gravity of the potential of some serious, if not, life threatening possible consequences.

Neizvestnaya's avatar

Ack Ack! @filmfann‘s story of his dad burning his brother’s finger took me back to when my grandmother did the same to me and laid on the horrible guilt about that pain being what mom, dad and pets would have felt (me too) if our entire house burned down. I had tried to warm a sofa cushion on a wall radiator and caught our house on fire, by accident. Still, the fear never left me about playing with fire or seeing others do it.

Cruiser's avatar

I would take him on a visit to the Fire Station nearest you. Kids don’t really listen to their parents the same way they will a teacher, principal, policeman and fireman. I would call the station and explain your situation and I am positive there will be a great opportunity waiting you and your son to learn just how important it is to respect fire. Good luck.

Buttonstc's avatar


Your little anecdote was really interesting. Of course your SIL thinks your father was needlessly cruel. She loves this guy and can’t bear the thought of him being hurt as a child :)

And your father’s method likely wouldn’t fly in this day and age. The kid might put in a call to CPS.

But I will say this for your dad. His method may have been a bit crude but no lasting damage was done to your brother. Your father instinctively knew that all the words in the world wouldn’t have the impact of a few moments of actual experience. Kids learn by doing. And what your brother had to do to endure those few moments of momentary pain left a lasting impression upon him (and you) and took all the glamor out of playing with fire. It got the job done.

Maybe it wasn’t a sophisticated method but it was definitely an effective one :)

It’s not something I would advise a parent to do since there are other ways to accomplish the same thing, but even tho crude, your fathers motivation was not cruelty but protection. So I’m willing to give him a pass. His heart was in the right place.

And your brother definitely developed empathy from his own experience, didn’t he?

john65pennington's avatar

Needless to say, a parent should be able to trust an 8 year old without a minute to minute evaluation of their location and what they are doing. In most cases, this is normal parent to child relations, but not in this case.

I worked a case where we had a firebug in mothers neighborhood. We suspected a young child that lived up the street, but no proof. I asked the neighbors for their help in watching this child for any suspicious activity on his part. Another garage fire on the next street over from my mothers house. We took photos of all the children that were watching the fire. Three days later, another garage fire next to my mothers house. Photos also taken of the observers. The final straw was a womans house two doors up from my mothers house. This time, the pyromaniac set fire to an under the house garage, which resulted in major fire damage to the whole house. Photos taken of the observers. Comparing all three fires, we noticed that one boy child was at each fire location. Upon talking to his parents, we learned that this had been a problem for their son, since he was about 9 years old.

They stated that they had never had their child evaluated.

I hope this true incident will hit home to the parents of this 8 year old child. House punishment is not the proper avenue of treatment, in this situation. This child needs psychiatric attention in the worst way. Today, it was the pickup truck. Tomorrow it may be his dead parents in his home he has torched. Adults and children that love to play with fire are unpredictible people.

This child needs an evaluation.

knitfroggy's avatar

Thanks again for more responses. Jack has never messed with fire before, this was a first time incident. As @Buttonstc mentioned some children at 8 still believe in Santa and Jack is one of those children. He still has trouble understanding what is real and what is not real on TV. As I thought more about the fire, and why he did it, it occurred to me that either way, if he made a fireball or not, he was messing with fire and what did he think the outcome was going to be? I know he wasn’t thinking, just wanted to do something cool. He’s a very intelligent child, reads at a 5th grade level in 2nd grade, does great in math etc. I really think the whole situation scared him enough that he won’t do this again. I’m going to call the fire department today and ask which station I can take him to to get a talking to. I told him he was going to tell the firemen what he did and he was terribly concerned about it. He doesn’t want to talk to the firemen.

knitfroggy's avatar

I should also add, I don’t believe Jack’s intention was to cause property damage to the truck. We live in Kansas and had high gusty winds yesterday, so I think he was in the truck to be able to get the lighter going. If his intentions were to burn the truck down, I’d be taking him to a therapist immediately. I know it doesn’t make what happened any better, but if he were purposely trying to cause property damage, I’d be scared.

Dr_Lawrence's avatar

I agree with @john65pennington that a psychological assessment is indicated. The assumption that this is the first incident of lighting fires needs to be examined. If someone in the community who has suffered extensive burns is willing to meet with this child and the child’s parents, it may be an important learning experience. A visit to the fire station won’t hurt either.

YouTube is full of all kinds of examples of inappropriate behaviour. To what extent has this child had adequate supervision when they use the Internet?

Some withdrawal of previously earned privileges for unsupervised activities may be indicated but such consequences alone would not be adequate.

Intervention now may prevent future tragedies.

WasCy's avatar

Based on the new information, @knitfroggy, I think he definitely needs to learn about fire safety, maybe without all of the dire warnings we’ve been giving here. Using the lighter inside the truck, attempting to duplicate a YouTube fireball video, starting a fire outdoors on a windy day… there are so many things your son needs to know here.

It’s not bad parenting – you can’t watch an 8-year-old round the clock – and if you say that it’s not “intent” and maliciousness on his part, well, you know him better than any of us. But he needs to understand the magnitude of the danger he put himself (and you) into, and he needs to have his curiosity addressed with strict supervision in this area.

So I’d modify my advice and say, “not punishment”, but “computer usage with strict moderation, and then only if he brings to you all of the questions that he has”. If he starts asking his friends questions before talking to you, then that’s going to require stricter moderation. That way, you train him to “come to the ‘rents first”, and you have a better idea of what he’s up to.

I’m glad it wasn’t more serious. Accidental near-disasters were a staple of my own childhood.

Buttonstc's avatar

I don’t know why this didn’t occur to me till now. I stated that YouTube doesn’t show the consequences. And that’s true for the fireball perpetrators.

However, I popped the words “BURN SURVIVORS” into the search function on YouTube and it’s quite illuminating.

Since he’s already interested in the site, this may be a good way to teach him critical thinking skills and researching consequences BEFORE ACTING (both for this and any other “cool” acts of stupidity which kids are so obsessed with these days.)

I looked at the first three on the list and I’d suggest both of you sit with him while he clicks on each one and watches it. Be especially cognizant of his reactions.

Many times when kids get talked to by adults they doubt that it’s as serious as it sounds. They know it’s important to the adults but not necessarily why.

After watching these, there should be no doubt in his mind that it could have easily happened to him.

Yes, What happened to these people is horrific and difficult to look at. Do I think it’s too much for a child? No, not for this child. And it is REALITY and the bravery of these folks is also inspiring.

The second one is especially timely for Memorial Day as it shows the struggles and triumphs of a badly burned soldier. Initially I found it difficult to look at but this guy’s resilient personality comes shining through.

As a mother, your instinct may be to shield your son from this. But it is reality and he badly needs a dose of reality. These vids were not made for sensationalism or voyeurism. They simply show the reality of what fire can do.

Your husbands comment to him was so poignant. “I can replace a truck but I can’t replace a son”. Seeing what easily could have happened to himself may really solidify the point of that statement for your son.

He already knows that all of this is a pretty big deal. This will show him exactly WHY it’s a big deal.

And it may even remain in his memory as a teen if he is ever tempted to think it’s no big deal to have a few drinks and get behind the wheel of his car “just this once”. That’s how the girl in the first one was so badly injured. I think it should be required annual viewing for every teen in the country. I wish there were some way to enforce that.

Anyhow, I urge you to override your instincts to shield your son from the images in these videos. These aren’t frivolous Hollywood entertainment concoctions (like Freddy Krueger).

These are real life and designed to inform. And as a teacher, I’m firmly convinced that it’s never too early for any child to learn that actions have consequences in a concrete way.

I’m sure the Fireman will be stressing the same things but words can be rather abstract for young kids. Backing up the info with reality can only help.

Seeing is believing. Since he is so intelligent, you can use that quality of his in this effort.

Basically this is like an update of the method used by filmfann’s father. You don’t literally need to burn your son’s finger. But he should feel some kind of real pain, in this case emotional.

And if he doesn’t have an emotional reaction to these videos, THEN it’s time to start worrying and heading to a therapist.

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