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In Which My Kids Discover Cigarettes

Note: NOT one of my daughters!

“Mommy, look, I’ve got a smoke blower.” Clio came up to me with a mozzarella cheese stick in her mouth, held between her index and middle fingers like a cigarette.

“You’ve got a what?”

“A smoke blower. Like John.”

John is our next-door neighbor, a very sweet, white-haired Irishman whom we chat with over the garden fence, and who has gotten us out of more than one jam in the six years we’ve lived here. He’s jump-started our car, “rescued” the girls via extension ladder when they inadvertently locked themselves in their room, and has helped us get rid of leftover desserts on several occasions (no small favor).

He adores the girls, and they adore him.

John also smokes. Frequently he sits out on the front step with his brother, who also lives nearby, and they smoke and drink coffee. Other times, he smokes while he putters in his garden. So it was only a matter of time, really, until the girls noticed and wondered: what is that thing in his mouth all the time?

They’ve also recently noticed that a couple of John’s tenants (his house is a two-family) smoke. They sometimes step out onto their front porch to do it, I assume to try to minimize the amount of second-hand smoke their two-year-old daughter is exposed to.

So now, every once in a while, one of the girls will appear with a vaguely cigarette shaped object or foodstuff (can I use that word in the singular?) in their mouths, claiming it’s a cigarette.

And when they do we say, “yuck, gross.” We remind them smoking is very bad for you, and can make you very sick and even die. Which has led, of course, to them asking, “Is John going to die?” Well, yes, but not necessarily because of, that is, er….

It’s led to some other interesting /baffling conversations as well: Once, Elsa reported that girls shouldn’t smoke (or “blow cigarettes” as she puts it) but boys could.

“Why do you say that?” I asked.

“Because when men blow cigarettes it makes them look handsome,” she replied.

I have no idea where she got that idea. Has someone been slipping her old Marlboro Man ads? Has she been watching Mad Men on the sly? While our neighbor John is certainly pleasant looking enough, he’s also 72 years old and missing a tooth or two, so it’s hard to believe that he’s the source of this theory.

Weird.

But, still. As much as it pains me to see my little darlings fascinated by cigarettes, I’m not convinced that it’s necessary for us to actually forbid smoke-blower pretend play. It seems like one of the those things where to make too big a deal out of it could actually be counterproductive.

And at base level, I think it’s fairly harmless — as long as we continually reinforce the fact that smoking isn’t healthy.

My parents were completely anti-smoking when I was growing up, my mom in particular (which was interesting, since her parents and both of her sisters were smokers for many years.) For my entire childhood there was a sign hanging on our refrigerator that said “No smoking. Anyone caught smoking on the premises will be hung by the toenails and pummeled into unconsciousness with an organic carrot.”

BUT, I also remember pretending to smoke as a kid,with rolled up paper, popsicle sticks, etc.. And I remember the absolute thrill of candy cigarettes  — especially the bubble gum ones with powdered sugar in them that made it look like there was actual smoke coming out. And they came in a box that looked like a cigarette box, too! Brilliant!

My mother never let us buy them on her watch. But if they came into our possession by other means (as party favors or at Halloween — can you imagine either happening today!) or if we bought them with our own pocket money, she didn’t confiscate them or anything. She certainly made her disapproval clear. And there was always that sign on the refrigerator, of course. But I always had the sense that my parents knew — and knew that we knew — that there was a difference between pretending and the real thing.

I never smoked an actual cigarette until my senior year of high school (yes, I was pure as the driven snow back then). My brother probably partook much earlier. Both of us went through phases of “social” smoking in our twenties — that is, having a cigarette or two on occasion, while drinking with friends or (in my case) hanging out in cafes in foreign countries, wanting to look badass and mysterious. But neither of us ever became regular smokers.

Given my brother and me as test cases, plus how much more smokeless our society is today than it was when I was a kid, plus the fact that none of our close friends or relatives smoke, I’m not too worried about the girls smoking (beyond the inevitable experimentation) when they’re older.

So, I’m trying to maintain some perspective and not make a big deal of this smoke blower fascination. It seems natural to me. And as long as we keep reinforcing the “ew, gross, bad for you,” message, and as long as the pretend play doesn’t get out of hand (I might balk if, for example, they ask Santa for rolling papers), I’m OK with letting it lie.

Have you encountered this issue with your kids yet (or at all)? What’s your approach?


DOUBLE TIME, my memoir of twin parenting (among other things) is now available for pre-order!

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Disturbing Photo: Wanderungen

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