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How to talk to your kids about smoking: the Jewish perspective

May 9, 2009 | by Dr. Meir Wikler

How parents can prevent their children from smoking.

If you do not smoke cigarettes, you probably understand the gravity of the health problems that they cause. And if you do smoke, you experience all of the complications which result from this addiction. Consequently, whether you smoke or not, you would like to prevent your children from getting hooked on cigarettes. The burning question is "How?"

No matter where you live or what you do, you will not be able to completely insulate your children from cigarettes. Even if they never go to movies or watch television, they will still see people smoking on the street, in parks or in their cars.

Not only can you not shield your children from seeing other people smoke, but you will not be able to prevent your children from having access to cigarettes. One child will be offered a cigarette by a friend. Another child will see them on sale in a convenience store. And still another child will find one on the floor or the ground.

In order to prevent your child from smoking, you must understand why children start smoking, what will not help them to avoid cigarettes, and what you can do to protect them from this life threatening addiction.

Why Children Smoke

(1) Smoking is "adult" behavior. All children aspire to have the status, privilege and power which are associated with being grown up. And nothing makes a child appear older (in his eyes or those of his peers) more than smoking.

(2) Smoking is "cool." While the media has shifted somewhat, the entertainment industry still glorifies smoking. Many celebrities and pop stars smoke, which transfers an aura of sophistication to the ugly habit of smoking.

(3) Cigarettes are "forbidden fruit." As King Solomon observed, even water tastes sweeter if it is stolen (Proverbs 9:17). Simply by putting cigarettes off limits, parents make them more attractive to children. As a result, cigarettes become a convenient venue for acting out any rebellious or oppositional feelings towards parents.

(4) Children are curious creatures. They love to experiment. New experiences are tempting simply because they have never been tried. What is it really like to smoke, is a question many children want to answer for themselves, even as young as ten years old.

(5) Smoking can provide an equal opportunity group activity. By lighting up, a child can instantly gain full membership status among his peers who have already been initiated. This sense of belonging and acceptance can represent a powerful force of peer pressure which is difficult to resist.

What Will Not Help

Desperately scrambling to protect their children from smoking, parents often attempt various strategies which not only are ineffective but sometimes even make matters worse. Such as:

  • Screening friends. If your child has befriended a classmate whom you feel may be a bad influence, you will not be very successful in your attempts to separate them from each other. There is some reason they like each other's company. Nothing you can do will change that. Forbidding your child from socializing with that classmate will grant forbidden fruit status to that child which will almost guarantee a closer relationship. You chose to send your child to that school. Now you must let him choose his friends.
  • Health hazard lectures. Giving children gory details about the medical consequences of cigarettes will prove ineffective as a deterrent to smoking. Most children believe all illnesses come to others. They see themselves as immune. "Others may become addicted," they reason to themselves, "but I won't."
  • Threats of punishment. "If I ever catch you smoking a cigarette, I'll …!" is one of the most frequently used methods parents employ in their campaign to prevent their children from smoking. It is also one of the least effective. It can succeed in teaching the child how to be deceptive about smoking but it rarely, if ever, prevents it.

What Parents Can Do

There are a number of steps that parents can take which may not guarantee that children never touch a cigarette, but which can reduce the risk that children will become addicted to smoking.

(1) If you are a smoker, quit. And if you cannot quit, keep trying. As noted above, your lectures about the evils of smoking will be completely dismissed by your children who are convinced that, if necessary, they will stop before becoming addicted to smoking. Your children assume others do not quit because they really do not want to quit. They, on the other hand, will want to quit if they become addicted. Therefore, they erroneously think, cigarettes pose no real threat to them.

If, instead of hearing you moralize about the negative consequences of smoking, they observe you going through the torture of trying to quit, your children will learn up close why they should not start smoking. Even if you keep failing and relapse, your children will see how truly difficult it is to quit even when you want to do so. What you cannot teach didactically, you will be able to demonstrate by your own personal misery.

(2) Talk about smoking, often. Lecturing is condescending. It implies you are the authority above and your child is the inferior below. Lectures only motivate children to try to prove their parents wrong. A discussion, on the other hand, is more respectful and egalitarian. It is an exchange of ideas which rarely provokes rebellion.

The discussion should begin with questions designed to elicit your child's thoughts and feelings. Your ideas and opinions should only be included, gently, at the end, almost as an afterthought.

Some good gambits are: "Do any of your friends smoke?" "What do you think about those guys your age who smoke?" "What would you say to a friend who offered you a cigarette?" "Why do you think so many people are trying to quit smoking and how do you imagine they got started in the first place?"

(3) Build self-esteem. Children are more vulnerable to the allure of instant status enhancement through smoking if they do not feel good about themselves. When children feel unloved, inadequate or unaccepted at home, they are much more likely to seek out the artificial self-esteem boost of smoking. While it may seem unrelated, one of the best things parents can do to prevent their children from smoking is to give them adequate approval, praise and acknowledgement for their achievements, successes and efforts.

(4) Maintain warm, loving relationships. Smoking is a convenient and passive method of rebellion against parents. It is also easy to hide. Perhaps the best method to prevent rebellious behavior of any kind is to maintain a close, affectionate parent/child relationship. If children feel loved and cared for, if they feel respected and appreciated, if their feelings are validated, and if they feel that the limits set for them are fair and reasonable, then they will have no reason to look for opportunities to rebel against parental authority by smoking.

Many children, especially boys, will take at least one puff of a cigarette at some time point in their lives. The vast majority of those children will cough, put out the cigarette and conclude that anyone who smokes is stupid. A minority will ignore the displeasure and continue to smoke until they are addicted.

If you maintain a healthy, loving relationship with your child and talk openly, freely and often about cigarettes, you will increase the chances that he or she will join the ranks of the former category and not the latter.

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