As part of the Too Good for Drugs program at her school, Emerald was asked to interview somebody who smokes. She had a sheet with six pre-written questions to ask her interviewee. We only know a couple of people who smoke, my brother being one of them; he’s smoked since he was in college. So he was the natural choice. Emerald called him over the weekend and he was happy to help her.
The questions were things like:
“How long have you smoked?”
“Why did you start?”
“Would you like to quit?”
“Have you tried to quit?”
“How many times?”
“Do you think it’s a good idea for kids my age to start smoking?”
All pretty straight forward, and the simple, short answers did not surprise her much.
But it didn’t end there. My brother thought about his answers and thought that maybe he should give her more information, so he sent me an e-mail expanding on his response about quitting. He wrote that the most difficult part about quitting is not the physical addiction — you get over that in a few days, he said. The worst part is the emotional attachment. A smoker smokes while doing other things: drinking coffee, driving, sitting at the table after dinner, etc. and he/she begins to associate smoking with those activities. When he quits smoking, he still does those other things, but now must fight the desire to smoke while doing them. My brother said that this is what has gotten him every time (sometimes he’s even been successful for months, only to relapse).
This wasn’t much of a surprise to me. I have edited articles about smoking and other addictions and I know that people who are trying to kick any addiction are often advised to revamp their entire routines. Find new friends. Find other places to go for entertainment, to stay away from the places they usually light up or take drugs.
It wasn’t new to me, but I had never thought to mention it to Emerald and I’m sure she’d never thought of it that way. She knows that smoking is bad for her health and I don’t think she has any desire to start, at least not yet. But telling a 10-year-old that in 20, 30, 40 . . . years you may have these health effects of smoking may mean about as much at the time as telling me at the age of 17 (right before I began college) that if I didn’t have several teeth pulled and braces put on, that all of my teeth would fall out when I reach 35 (yes, I was actually told that). To a kid that young, anything that will happen more years in the future than he/she is old may be hard to take too seriously, especially if/when the peer pressure starts.
In contrast, the idea that something she does only a few times could have such a tight grasp on her, physically and emotionally, that she couldn’t stop when she wanted to really seemed to make more of an impact. It’s pretty scary to think that once you start something you may never be able to stop (or at least will battle it for a long time). But that’s how it goes with smoking (and drugs). It grips you and it holds onto you not only physically (which I think she may have already known), but through your routines (which I’m sure she didn’t know).
We have also talked about how the smell of smoke sticks to your clothes and hair and just how nasty that is. She has experienced it before while hugging her uncle hello. She also knows that we don’t allow anyone to smoke in our house, because of the health effects, but also because we don’t like the smell of the smoke.
That’s when it occurred to me that when we teach our children about things with long-term consequences, we should think about the shorter-term effects (even if they aren’t as severe) and include those prominently in the discussion, because if my children are any indication, those are the ones that are likely to stick in their heads the most when they make their choice to do the activity or not. Going back to the example of my teeth, if the dentist had told me that if we didn’t do the dental work he recommended, my teeth would all go crooked in a few weeks (assuming that were true, of course), I would’ve insisted we do it (after all I was about to start a new phase of my life in a few weeks). As it was, I didn’t believe him and thought even if he were correct, I would take my chances. We were talking 18 years from then, which to a 17-year-old is a lifetime.
There’s a marketing campaign that has been going on for years now telling parents that the most effective way to keep our children from . . . is to tell them we don’t want them to. I agree. Communication between parents and children is the best way to steer them toward good choices. It also helps to tell them why. And when we list the reasons, it makes sense to include both short-term and long-term effects, maybe even specifically geared toward our particular child (and his/her age and interests). With smoking, there are enough of both kinds of effects to make a kid think hard and make a decision not to give it a try — even before he/she is offered a cigarette by a friend. And just maybe, the images in his/her head will be strong enough to resist the pressure.
What I’m saying is probably nothing new, but I hadn’t thought of it in these terms before. Parenting is a journey and a learning experience and in some ways, I’m just getting started.
[And to follow up on my teeth: I am now 45 years old and my teeth have not fallen out yet, nor are they loose. :)]
What have you told your children about why they shouldn’t smoke (or any other “bad habits”)?