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Sunday, 25 March 2001

Five-Year-Old Sets Fire

Written by  Esther Boylan Wolfson

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QDear WholeFamily Counselor,

I was reading your article, Making the Punishment Fit the Crime and it makes absolute sense. I have a situation however that I need help with, maybe you would have a suggestion?

I have a five-year- rambunctious boy. He is very active, although he is not hyperactive or ADD. We refer to him as Dennis the Menace, because of the trouble he is constantly getting into. He does things that I would never imagine. How he thinks up this stuff really bothers me. Last night was the ultimate. I was talking to my mother on the phone in the Living Room and had been on the phone for about five or so minutes when I heard the smoke alarm going off. I immediately ran to his room and found him standing on the stairs screaming with a tea towel up in flames on the carpet. He had climbed up on the counter in the Kitchen, went into the cabinet over the refrigerator and got out a lighter we use to start the grill with. He then lit the tea towel on fire and headed to his room with it. We have a brand new house that we have only lived in a month. Now our carpet is destroyed on the stairs, however I am grateful that my son is fine and that the whole house didn't burn down. It could have been a lot worse. He was extremely scared by all of this, however I need to do some form of punishment to get his attention. We talked to him last night and sent him to bed, but I need to make the punishment fit the crime.... Any suggestions?

Thanks for your help.

AFirst of all, I want to compliment you on setting up your home as a safe environment for your children. Your story is a perfect example of why everyone needs smoke alarms. Also, while I can tell you are frustrated by your son's behavior problems (understandably), it also seems to me from your letter that you are a mother that accepts him and deals with his behavior in an appropriate manner.

With that said, obviously this is an incident that calls for more than just the average punishment. It seems to me that the scare that your son got from the actual event will probably stay with him for a long time. In that sense, he has already learned about the "consequences of his actions." I would suggest, that you give him more detailed information about the dangers of fire. Call up your local fire department and see if you can arrange for your son to visit the fire station. Perhaps one of the fire fighters could find time for a short talk with your son. You may also want to go to your local library and look for books on the topic.

In addition, for the next few days, be especially attentive to your son's activities. Consider supervising him a bit more carefully than usual. (I know this is easier said than done.) If he complains about this supervision, remind him that he did something dangerous and that taught you that he needs to be watched more carefully. Explain to him that he must now earn your trust.

At the same time, be sensitive to his feelings. Remember, he is a little boy that was probably very scared. Sit with him on your lap, hold him close and give him a chance to discuss his feelings. Tell him how you felt. Explain how much you love him and how you are upset because he did something dangerous and that he could have gotten hurt or could have hurt others.

You mentioned that you just moved into a new home. It may be that your son is having a difficult time with this transition and is therefore acting out more than usual. Make sure to stress to him that while you are very upset over what happened and what could have happened to your home, you are most upset because something could have happened to him or to the other people who were in the home at the time.

Overall, I feel the approach to this particular incident should be based on increasing your son's understanding of the seriousness of his actions. He has already seen the consequences.

Since you mentioned that his behavior is difficult on a regular basis, you may want to check out two other articles from our site, Time-Out Program and Parenting With Love. Each of these articles, together with the article Making the Punishment Fit the Crime, gives you possible methods to use to help your child improve his behavior. There is no one correct way to discipline your child. Instead, the answer may be a combination of these methods or another method that works best for you.

Good luck and once again, my compliments on being a caring and careful parent.

Best Wishes,

Esther Boylan Wolfson
Director, Early Childhood Development Center


Response: Thanks for your help!! I think you are right, the scare of the fire itself did punish him somewhat. I think he now does know the consequences of fire.

Yesterday my husband took him by a house in our community that had burned to the ground and he was very saddened by it. Telling me later about it and how the family doesn't have any of their toys anymore. I will check out the other articles you suggested. I am sure they will prove to be helpful.

Thanks again for your time, I really appreciate the help!

Last modified on Thursday, 30 May 2013 10:01
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Esther Boylan Wolfson

Esther Boylan Wolfson

Esther Wolfson , director of our Early Childhood Development Center is an Early Childhood Specialist, who received her BA in English Communications from Stern College for Women, Yeshiva University and an MA in Early Childhood Special Education from Teachers College, Columbia University, both in New York City. Esther worked as a pre-school special education teacher for seven years. Three of those years were spent working in a school for language delayed pre-schoolers, which is her area of specialty. Another special love of hers is cooking with young children. One of her most enjoyable projects was developing a program for cooking with pre-school children for three special education programs. Esther and her husband Myles have three boys aged eight, five and two-years-old. While her three lively boys and her work at WholeFamily, keep her quite busy, in her spare time (if she ever has any!) she is an avid reader who also enjoys creative writing, exercising and swimming.

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