We’ve been letting a friend smoke on our deck when she comes over and recently my five-year-old has been asking a lot of questions about it. I asked a group of mothers about how they handle this and they were all visibly shocked that I let people smoke in front of my kids. I continued to survey some random moms and was surprised to discover that I seem to be the odd one out. I feel like it’s inhospitable to forbid smoking when you have a guest over and you have a deck. I guess I could ask my two (childless) friends who still smoke to stop, but just the thought of it makes me feel like such a nansy-pansy marm. I also don’t want to do anything to discourage this friend’s visits as she is a great buddy to my son in every other way. But am I setting my kid up for a future of nicotine addiction? – sending smoke signals
Dear smoke signals,
Smoking has all but disappeared from mass culture. Our babies won’t be playing with ashtrays at Applebees, and our kids are not going to see Mr. Incredible blaze up a Parliament. The cigarette was posthumously airbrushed out of Clement Hurd’s hand in his Goodnight Moon illustrator photo. Smoking is basically “over.” So, let’s just stay on message and ask Uncle Bill to step out of sight if he must light up. Fair enough. Right?
But there’s more at stake here: a relationship that might otherwise be a positive influence on his life. An understanding of the frailty and imperfection of human beings. The opportunity for some really good, productive conversations that help your child understand and internalize these things (in a way he might not if you had the same conversation about a stranger on the street).
People aren’t perfect. When we try to create a perfect universe where adults are all role models all the time, are we really doing what’s best for our kids? When they get out beyond the smoke-free deck, what will they think of the people who do smoke? What about other unhealthy behavior? Will you ask your anorexic cousin to finish everything on her plate? Or insist that your couch potato-father-in-law eat sliced bananas instead of a pepperoni pizza stuffed with cinnamon buns from Dominos when he’s watching the game? You see where this is going.
If your kid sees someone smoking, talk about it. Talk about what it is, what it does, and why people do it. Talk about how hard it is to stop. It might be helpful to know that even adults can’t control everything! It’s also a chance to teach tolerance. You can love your friend but hate her smoking habit, and wish she’d quit, but not want to make her feel bad in your home. And it’s a way to let your child feel comfortable talking about something bad, naughty, and yucky, thus possibly paving the way for future discussions about his own choices and problems in the area of “good” versus “bad.”
Of course, you can probably have most of these discussions and still ask your friend not to smoke around your kid. The decision of whether or not to drop an ultimatum at this point is yours to make. Either way, we advise you to continue the dialogue with your kid. We all want to send our children the message that smoking is unhealthy, but who’s to say there’s not more than one way to do that?
And who knows, maybe someday your well-informed son will blurt out just the right words to help your friend kick the habit.
Have a question? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.