What's up with Adolescent Boys and Lighters?

Updated on March 21, 2012
J.B. asks from Boston, MA
13 answers

My husband found a cigarette lighter hiding in my oldest son's (age 14) pillowcase. This is the second time this happened - I think the last time was a year ago or longer, when my husband found the remnants of a burnt piece of Kleenex in the bathroom sink, which my son admitted to burning "just to see what would happen." Other than the Kleenex, I have never witnessed or heard of him setting anything on fire and while we do have a fire pit, he doesn't seem to have a fascination with it.

So I don't think he's a secret fire starter, which bring up the question of why else would a boy have a lighter? I asked him what he thought parents might assume when finding a hidden lighter and he said "that the kid is smoking something," which is what I was getting at. I'm 99.9% sure he has never smoked cigarettes because I am very sensitive to cigarette smoke and can smell it a mile away. He is also pretty grossed out at the smell of smoke and avoids friends houses that smell of it. I did get an at-home drug test this afternoon (I had always said that if I found any paraphernalia, including lighters, that I would test them immediately so I had to follow through on that) and he took it and is clean.

So...why the heck did he have a lighter? I've talked to other guys about this in the past and most of them say "yeah, it's a normal boy thing we had them just to have them." Is that true? Is this just a normal, age-appropriate vice?

Finally...what would you do for a consequence? I've told him that something is coming but that I had to think about it. That I'm going to come up with something memorable so that the next time he "comes across" a stray lighter, he clearly remembers that this is a non-allowed item and isn't tempted to take it and hide it.

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So What Happened?

Thanks everyone - great info and ideas, please keep it coming! @Momma L. I totally forgot that we used to spray our jeans with hairspray at slumber parties and then light our legs on fire. It would burn out in a second. Now that I think about it, I think we used to turn on the (electric) stove burners and try to light various foods on fire (strands of spaghetti, etc). When I was in high school, one Halloween we went around a neighborhood writing messages on the street with lighter fluid and setting them on fire. Funny how quickly we forget these things!

More Answers


answers from Jacksonville on

It's a boy thing, maybe just an age thing. I say cut him some slack since he didn't lie or pitch fits and yet or protest ridiculously at your drug testing. (He didn't, did he?)

My son is 13 and he too, LOVES anything to do with fire. I try to find healthy ways to let him be around it without creating a temptation and yet not making it taboo either. Fine line, I know.
He is acolyte at church (the one who carries the flame up the aisle to the altar and lights the candles, and also extinguishes them and carries the sole remaining flame out at the end of the service). So he gets to light the "candle lighter" from a match or bic lighter or whatever as a "duty". :)
We also burn yard debris sometimes, and I'll let him light the stuff. He thinks it is great to maybe pretend he has some sort of man vs. wild thing going on. They LOVE roasting anything over the fire (hotdogs, or smores, doesn't matter. Heck, they'll just hold sticks to get them lighted, then wave them around until the end only glows of embers).

My husband grills on a charcoal grill regularly, more in the summer. It is now our son's duty to clean the grill grate beforehand, and then he gets to light the charcoal (under husband's supervision).
He loves "tricks" like putting a paper cup full of water onto a pile of embers/fire, to see how long it takes before it explodes/spills the water. (hint: it can take a while).

Perhaps you could look for some normal/natural situations where it might be "ok" for your son to be involved with fire. It's like science and coming of age--think of how powerful prehistoric man must have felt when they mastered "fire". Your son is on the cusp of manhood. It's VERY age appropriate that he is fascinated by it.

And having him write a paper about the dangers of playing around with fire, or whatever along those lines, is not a bad idea--if you want a discipline action for having HIDDEN the lighter. Perhaps you might consider designating a place in your home/kitchen where all fire paraphernalia must be kept when not in use... ?

4 moms found this helpful


answers from Minneapolis on

It is a very normal thing for kids - boys and girls - to be fascinated with lighters, matches, and fire. When my daughter was 9, I let her learn how to use them, in my presence. She lit candles and burned paper and tissue - yes, just to see what would happen. If she is around a firepit or bonfire I let her play in it, within reason.

When I was her age, my mother's solution to our fascination with fire was to make one of our jobs taking out the garbage and burning it. This was on a farm in the 60s/70s and was how all farmers disposed of their trash. The idea was that we would play in it, learn how fire worked, maybe get burned a bit, and move past that stage. It worked.

I do not operate under a "zero tolerance" kind of parenting. My daughter (now 10) is allowed to light a match or lighter, as long as I am there. She owns her own pocketknife (as I did at her age). She knows when it is apropriate and not apropriate to use it or carry it. (Dang school would expel her for having a two inche pocketknife accidentally left in her backpack. Freakin' ridiculous!)

Added: Based on another's suggestion I found this: 50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do) by Gever Tulley

4 moms found this helpful


answers from New York on

Your son is 14. I think you are over reacting. He can learn to use fire safely and appropriately in the BBQ or fire pit. You or you husband can teach him. Or put him in scouting. I was in scouting from 2nd grade and by 12 I could start a charcoal or wood fire, cook on it and put it out safely. At 14 or 15 we were teaching the younger kids these skills. We (myself and my friends in scouting) also all knew how to use a pocket knife safely at that age.

I can kind of understand why you don't like that he was hiding it but lighters and matches are not all that hard to get. We are a household of non smokers and there are still matches and lighters in the house (for candles, BBQ, etc). There is also a fire extinguisher in the kitchen and baking soda for grease fires.

2 moms found this helpful


answers from Las Vegas on

Funny, my mother and I were just talking about this.

I was about 4 years old, while on vacation and my parents left my older sisters and me in the car while they ran in a fast food restaurant to buy some dinner. (Yes, they left us in the car, many years ago)

My two older sisters were in the backseat sleeping and I was in the front seat. (Yes, they left the 4 year old in charge) I saw a book of matches and wondered what it felt like to light the match, so I did. (Yes, they left matches in my reach) The match started getting shorter, so I tried to shake the match out like I saw my father do. It didn’t go out, so I dropped it because it was starting to burn my finger. Well that synthetic carpet caught fire really fast and before I knew it the flame was huge. I was scared, so I hopped in the back seat with my sisters to pretend like I was asleep with them.

Two strange men saw the fire and banged on the windows to get us out of the car. By this time, my parents saw some men opening the doors and ran out to stop them, only to find that I lit the family car on fire and almost killed us all.

Well, there are a lot of lessons here, but for this post, perhaps you can point out that sometimes things get out of control and even adults can’t think quick enough to stop it. That is how forests are burned down, homes burn down, and cars blow up.

I wouldn’t punish him this time. I would educate him and tell him next time is a strong punishment because of the danger involved. Google “burned people” then click images for him. Let him know how real the danger is.

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answers from Houston on

I remember spraying our arms and legs with hairspray and setting ourselves on fire. My sister and I would do it then immediately jump in the pool. It wasn't scary fire, just a tiny little flame. We would burn nail polish and all sorts of stuff.

My husband and his brother used to do stuff like that too, one time it even got out of hand. I think a LOT of kids that age do it. Boys tend to get into the fireworks more than girls do.

Usually though, the one who brought the lighter usually had cigarettes (or worse too).

As for punishment... I just don't know!He was honest and fessed up. That is a good thing to communicate. I would put him on major lawn duty and take away some of his tv/videogame time, but I wouldn't ostracize him or treat him like a criminal. Also, it sounds like he should do a fire safety course or do some major studying on the subject. Have him teach the family a class on fire safety, do a home fire drill, how to build a safe campfire, how to use a fire extinguisher, what to do if the house catches on fire, how to help treat a burn... that sort of thing.

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answers from Portland on

As a Camp Fire Girl, I was taught to light matches, candles and fires by the age of 12. I was to experiment with fire only in an adult's presence or with adult permission, but I was allowed to handle fire, and I was utterly fascinated. And extremely careful.

Did you ask your son what the deal is? Fascination (curiosity, scientific interest) is really a good enough reason, since he's of an age to be able to make decent choices about it and not be reckless. He'd be far more likely to have some sort of fire accident if he's messing with it and somebody walks in. How or where might he try stashing the evidence on very short notice? It seems to me that teaching a child that age to handle it responsibly is far better.

Here's an interesting TED Talk on 5 dangerous things you should let kids do: www.ted.com/.../gever_tulley_on_5_dangerous_things_for_ki....

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answers from San Francisco on

When I was his age I would take liquid hair spray and pour it on the street in fancy loops, then catch it on fire. It made awesome blue flames. Then when I saw a car coming I'd stomp it out like crazy. Sometimes getting some of the hairspray on my shoes, causing hotfoot.

I remember how special it was to have my very own lighter, that my parents didn't know about. It made fire, and fire was powerful. Even just holding it without lighting it was a thrill because of the potential that it held. I used to walk home from school and daydream that I was lost in the woods and the only things I had to survive was a sharp Bowie knife and a lighter. God help me if my lighter ran out of fluid. Those imaginary nights were so cold.

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Washington DC on

I have two that are/have been also fascinated by fires. One is 11, the other 23.
My 11 yo is in scouts where he can light them when camping. We have a firepit and I do not forbid him to burn stuff. We burn our trash daily, that's one of his jobs. He is "in charge" when I need a grill lit. He's burned himself a couple times, not badly, but enough to understand what fire can do.
My 23 yo had a lighter collection. He had the same jobs as his little brother. He burned everything, I would say, I don't care what it is, but it has to be in the grill or pit.

I would educate him. Maybe take him to the fire station. Give him a place for his lighter, in the kitchen. Get him a flint. Do not make these things forbidden, just not in the bedroom.

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answers from Houston on

Fire in general is a boy thing IMO. I used to burn things in the back yard ALL the time. And to this day I'm fascinated when someone has a burn barrel.
You know your son better than anyone else, so if you don't suspect drugs, then you are probably right.
Maybe encourage him or let him burn something in your BBQ grill or a fire pit??? It may quell his curiosity. Good luck.

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answers from Dallas on

We decided to give him oppurtunities to give into this. Fire is intriguing, and many adults, me included love to sit around a fire, part of it is manipulating the the fire. When my son started his facination with lighter we got a fire pit and let him go at it with us there. He was in scouts for a while that is one of their main focus is fires making. They say it is a survival skill, but I think more than that it teaches a safe enoviroment to enjoy fire making. Humans have long been intrigued with fire.

We set up rules, that we would provide him with what he needed, and he would leave the lighter play alone. We are much more into working the situation and uss them to teach than punishment. We dole that out on occasion, but most times if he is pushing boundaries it is really just him trying to explore the world.

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answers from Boston on

I guess I would ask why is it that you have a problem with your son having a lighter? There might definitely be a curiosity thing going on with him, but he is afraid he will get into trouble and that is why he is hiding it...I remember being curious (at a much younger age) and *gasp* playing with matches. I didn't want to burn down any buildings, I was just curious.

He is at an age now that he is starting to feel like he wants to be seen as an adult, and would you normally have a problem with a grown man having a lighter, or even starting a fire in a fireplace, or firepit? My husband carries a lighter around in his flight suit so he can burn the ends of ropes and strings.

Maybe rather than getting upset and punishing him, you could use this as a learning lesson. Teach your son how to handle fire properly. Try teaching him how to light the grill. Teach him how to build a proper fire, and definitely talk about fire prevention. Wouldn't you feel bad if in 10-15 years he wants to take his son camping, but is embarrassed that he doesn't know how to start a fire because he was not only not allowed to handle lighters and matches, but was actually punished for it? And how comfortable do you think he is going to be in college or early 20's admitting to his buddies or a girl that he wasn't trusted with fire until he was an adult and had to figure it out on his own?

See where responsible introduction to it takes you, and if he purposely behaves irresponsibly or dangerously, then handle that situation as is appropriate at the time.


answers from Norfolk on

Our son (13 yrs) has never been fascinated by lighters.
He was/is a major fire truck enthusiast since before he could walk and for 5 or 6 years we went to every firehouse open house (and quite a few Sunday pancake breakfasts at the firehouse) and heard enough fire safety discussions that he could repeat them by heart.
When there were some houses that were donated to the fire dept so that they could be used for training, we'd go watch from a safe distance to see them get the house burning so they could put the fire out again - they'd let it burn to nothing at the end then hose it down and watch till the site was cold.
Fire has it's uses but it can be very destructive if it gets out of control and he knows that.
We have a few lighters to start the grill or candles, and some matches, but he's never had a desire to keep them in his room.
We keep that stuff on the fireplace mantle.
He's fire tender in the back yard when we have a bon fire (and insists the grass around the area is hosed down before we light a fire).
He hasn't been as interested since he was about 10, but he still might volunteer at the fire station when he's 16.
So, for your son, it wouldn't hurt for him to have a chat with someone at the fire station so they can show him what playing with fire (or flammable substances) can lead to.
A chat with the EMT's regarding burn victims might be good for him, too.
And if he find lighters/matches in the future he can put them on the kitchen counter and keep them out of his room.
I don't like to think of a learning opportunity to be a punishment but some knowledge in this area might do him a lot of good right now.



answers from Burlington on

I think he might hide it better next time. When we were kids we liked to burn stuff, anything...just to see what would happen. We were lucky that nothing serious ever happened. We never smoked anything and had no interest. I would ask him what he thinks an appropriate punishment would be and see if he can come up with something appropriate. Hopefully he is not looking to start fires as a fire bug, and perhaps he could learn more by having more time and supervision at the fire pit. He needs to know how dangerous fire can be. Is he interested in firefighting at all? Some departments have junior members and youth members. Very hands off at that age, but they can learn and see the positives and see the devastating affects of fire as well. I hope he is just curious, and you can find a way for him to 'learn/experiment" safely at home.

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