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Thursday, August 30, 2012

When Your Kid Pretends To Be Smoking, I Think It Should Bother You A Little. Or A Lot.

As a single Mom, I don't get a lot of time for television. I will confess to a serious obsession with Lifetime's Dance Moms, which has become a bonding experience with me and my pre-teen daughter. We both have our favorites and root for them wildly (go Nia!).

My daughter has a favorite show on TLC that I just can't share her excitement for, though. She loves "Toddler & Tiaras". I'll catch a snippet every so often as I'm cleaning up or walking by with a load of laundry, but I can't laugh so much at the antics of these kids and their mothers (oh, especially their mothers) the way that she can. I think pageants can probably be fun, if they're done for fun. The problem with these moms is, most of them aren't there for fun. They want to win - through their daughters, of course - and they'll do whatever it takes, whether that's feeding them pixie sticks and Mountain Dew, dressing them like a streetwalker, or letting them pretend to smoke a cigarette on stage.

You heard that right. A mother dressed her child as Sandy from the movie "Grease" and gave her a cigarette as a prop. The judges were aghast and even deducted a few points, but the kid won an award anyway and Mom feels fully vindicated. It's all for show, you know. Anything for the show.

Is it really so wrong to let a kid pretend? Especially if it's only for one performance? We let kids play with squirt guns, don't we? They fire them at each other when they play, and in real life, we'd never let our kid fire a gun at someone else, would we? Is there a double-standard in play?

Yes...and no. One of our greatest jobs as parents is teaching our kids some common sense. Common sense only becomes common sense when you use it a lot, thereby making it a common occurrence. Common sense tells us that we don't point real guns at other people because we can hurt or kill them. It also tells us that a water gun is for fun, and when used against someone else who wants to share that same kind of fun, it's OK.

What makes no sense is a parent trying to glamorize a bad behavior. If you saw your kid using that water gun, pretending to be a thug robbing and murdering someone on the street, you'd have a real problem with that, wouldn't you? So when you hand your kid a cigarette as a prop to use with their costume, how are you communicating that in real life, this is not good behavior?

Would I let my kid hold a cigarette if they were filming a student project about the dangers of smoking? Yes. Would I let her hold one as she stood outside a local mall with her friends, pretending to be an older, smoking-kind-of-kid because it made her feel like she was doing something cool? No.

And my kid would understand exactly why those two things are different because I've raised her to have some common sense about that kind of stuff. The common sense lessons don't always stick, mind you, but I've found that if I keep plugging away, demonstrating common sense and talking about common sense and pointing out to her when others have not used their common sense - and also pointing out the consequences of not doing so - she picks up on it more and more.

My parents were both smokers. My mother smoked three packs a day from the age of 14 until it finally helped to kill her at the age of sixty four. My father started about the same age, and he managed to quit - after a heart attack and a triple bypass made him re-think the whole smoking thing. As a child, I grew up in smoky rooms and cars, greeting relatives all sitting in a great cloud at a table, and cleaning out ashtrays as part of my daily chores. I hated it. And I hated that my parents smoked.

My father gave me a puff of his cigarette once when I was five and asked if I could try. I got immediately sick all over the couch and they laughed and laughed after they cleaned it up. I know that sounds awful in the re-telling, but I can't thank my Dad enough now. That one puff left such a memory, I never had the urge to try again.

I remember long car trips, laying on the floor of the car because that's where the air was cleanest. I remember the doctor asking my Mom if my twelve year old brother was smoking (he wasn't, and like me he never did) because he had "smoker's lungs" and a bad case of pneumonia. My mom cried all the way home from the doctor's office. I remember how my aunt died from the fire she set by falling asleep with a lit cigarette. Most of all, I remember standing over my Mother's grave, holding my 20 month old daughter and being angry because my mother should have had more years to get to know her.

And now my daughter is a pre-teen, navigating the rough world of puberty and middle school, and she knows every one of those stories above, in great, vivid detail. She knows about how I had to listen to a relative try to tell me she loved me through a trach-tube in her neck. She knows that her grandfather has a hideous scar on his leg because they had to rip a vein out of it to repair his heart. She knows that my first visit home from college, I brought all my laundry and had to pay to re-wash it when I got back to my dorm. It all stank so badly that I had to leave it outside in the hall.

I told my daughter once that if I ever caught her with cigarettes, she and I would be having some serious words. She replied:

"I wouldn't smoke, Mom. That's just gross."

And to me, that's just common sense.

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