So this is based on the fact that my son screams and says fire whenever he sees steam when I'm cooking. So I'm wondering how to help my three year old differentiate between smoke and steam. So basically to him steam from food is fire.

I'm just wondering what is the right way to tell him this is steam from food. I've tried talking to him it's not working. Any ideas on how i can demonstrate anything for him he loves learning I believe he will get it.

  • How would you recognize steam from smoke? You know it is steam because you are cooking.
    – paparazzo
    Jan 8, 2018 at 16:10

5 Answers 5


This is an interesting question. I hope this helps (at least until a better answer comes along!)

I would take him into the bathroom and turn the shower on hot (but don't tell him yet.) As it's warming up, ask him if fire can start in water. If he says yes, step back even further and ask him how fires are put out. (Hopefully he'll say water.)

When he admits that water can't catch fire, show him the steam rising from the hot water, and explain that when water gets warm enough, it actually can free itself from droplets as much smaller droplets, called water vapor/steam. Show him steam coming from the tap, the shower, your hot drinks, etc.

His body actually can give off water vapor, too, even though he's not on fire, but he's warm. Put a spoon in the refrigerator overnight, and have him exhale on it for a few minutes; water should condense on the spoon.

Water can never catch fire. It exists in three states: ice (coldest), water (cold to hot) and gas (water vapor). They are all water. Just as water came from his body, water can escape from hot foods.

If you want to further differentiate steam and smoke, have him blow out a candle and watch the smoke rise. If you hold a spoon over a burning candle (where there's fire, there's smoke), you'll see soot form. Ask him if that looks like water (it doesn't; it's black.) You can then hold a spoon over his hot food, and see what condenses on it. If it's not sooty, it's water/steam.

Good luck; that's the best I can do right now. :)


An important way to differentiate between steam and smoke is their respective smell (or lack thereof). It seems that your child's reaction to steam is mostly out of fear of fire.

When there is smoke, you notice a distinctive and disgusting smell, even in something small like a candle. So two clues are a flame/fire (visual) and smell (olfactory). The smell coming from burning matter.

But it can be misleading, e. g. if you are cooking with gas, there is a flame, but usually steam rises. On the other hand, if you let a meal burn while you are cooking, there may be no visible flames, but smoke is rising.

It is certainly a useful demonstration of how you can combine sensory input to differentiate between two phenomena.

This may also work with the examples provided by anongoodnurse in her excellent answer, e. g. don't just let him blow out a candle but also make him smell at the smoke. And if you do the same with steam, the child may notice the difference. And if you ever let your meal burn, your child will smell the difference.


First and foremost you should praise the child for recognizing that "fire" is dangerous. Explain that "fire" is a danger word that to which you must always respond. However there are two considerations.

First explain the story about the boy who called wolf.

Secondly explain that the word startles you which can cause an accident. (So it is kind of like sneaking up from behind and yelling "Boo!".) So screaming fire must only be done in an emergency.

So now you and your some need to do some science experiments to differentiate steam from smoke.

  • Show how you can see dust particles in a sunbeam. So scattered light is why you can see fog or smoke particles.

  • Smell steam from a teakettle vs smoke from a burning candle. (Be sure and show filling teakettle with water...)

  • Flame of a candle which makes heat, but heat from electric stove without a flame.

  • Steam in bathroom shower. Notice how steam fogs the mirror.

  • You can show him video of a fire on a computer. But no smoke and no heat. So the computer monitor isn't on fire.

  • ...

and don't forget to discuss how you'd evacuate the house in case of a real fire and then call the fire department...

  • Waoh, I found the idea of fog being awesome. Like we can go to the shower let the hot water run and as he sees the vapor I can show him the mirror having the vapor and light a candle. Also the idea of flame from a match box I don't have one but i will buy, or a lighter. I can also look for a book about fire he's already reading his story books to me so I believe this might help. Thanks for the idea.
    – user22314
    Jan 8, 2018 at 22:01

Cooking is a potential fire even with electric heat, you just know it is under control. Explain controlled or productive fire, that's why you aren't afraid of it after all, so it probably is the easiest to teach.

He is almost certainly familiar with cars and trucks, and they use fire to move. Spaceships, airplanes and boats are also popular and fire powered (also the big cloud of a rocket launch is all steam). An advanced three year old might even be able to get that electricity is often made using fire (depending on exactly where you are).

There are dangers to any hot cooking surface, and he should be aware of them, but it may also be time to start involving him in the appropriate use of them too. You can watch a pot boil together, or feel the hot air of an oven while baking, and show him how much cooler the outside is.

If you have access to fire say camping or fireworks or candles you might show him the difference; the effect on eyes and throats, and the smell are quite clear, and generally the color, heat and quantity are noticeably distinct but less reliable.


Three year olds are still learning to use words and differentiate them. Your son is calling the concept of heat as fire. Heat is visible as smoke and steam - so this is ok.

With google images - you can show him what fire (red flames) look like.

Then you have to figure out the difference between smoke and steam. But I think confusing those too is ok for a three year old. They are pretty much the same visually. Your main concern is probably him shouting "fire" and you could settle for "smoke".

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