What mom will do about smoking is best left unsaid

September 17, 1995|By SUSAN REIMER

"Do you think someone will offer me drugs this year?"

It was one of those confessional conversations that take place so easily in a rolling car, and it revealed how bewildering middle school looks to a new sixth grader. Joe must have felt as if he were entering the lion's den.

"Maybe," I said, and my heart sank at the truth of this.

"But certainly someone is going to offer you a cigarette before the year is up. Do you know what you are going to do?"

Joe stiffened. "I'll never smoke, Mom. Smoking is stupid."

Good answer. But that is not what other middle-schoolers are saying. According to a University of Michigan study, among 8th-graders smoking increased 30 percent from 1991 to 1994. They were the youngest group in the survey and they showed the biggest jump.

"Yeah, uh-huh, right, whatever," I said, my voice thick with sarcasm. It hit him like a slap.

"Mom, what do you mean?" and he sounded panicky. "Do you think I'll smoke? Why? Why do you think I'll smoke?"

I decided that this was going to be one of those teachable moments I'd heard so much about. I was flying by the seat of my pants, but I quickly turned what might have been one of those lectures to which my children are now deaf into a little devil's advocacy.

"Oh sure, Joe. You're walking home after school with your buddies, and one of them pulls out a pack of cigarettes and offers you one. Or they light up and offer you a puff. And you're going to say no.

"I don't think so."

Joe sputtered his protests, but I kept going. I was determined to create the scenario that will limber his moral muscles before he was called upon to use them.

"Dan is handing out cigarettes and you are going to be the only one who doesn't take a puff. You are going to be the only wimp. The only baby. The one who walks away while his friends howl with laughter."

"Mom, it would never be Dan. Dan's mother would kill him."

"OK, then Jack is handing you . . ."

"Mom, it wouldn't be Jack, either. His mother would kill him."

"OK. OK. It is a new middle-school friend and you don't want him to think you are a nerd, so when he offers you a puff, you take it.

"Saying no sounds easy, but it is the hardest word to get out of your throat at times like that. And you might not be able to say it. You might take a drag on that cigarette.

"But I want you to remember one thing.

"I'll smell it on you.

"I have a nose like a pack of police dogs and I will smell it on your breath, in your hair or in your clothes. I will smell it the minute you walk in the door. Even if you never put that cigarette to your lips, even if you say no and just stand there while everyone else smokes, I will smell it on you.

"And then you will have to deal with me."

The words hung between us in the silence that followed. He had heard the most important lesson of smoking. Not that it will be habit-forming, ruin your lungs and your sports career, cause you to age badly and die younger than you should while coughing up blood.

No. Joe learned that if he smokes, I will know and he will have to deal with me.

He did not ask what I would do. I was counting on that. I did not know what I would say. I am not sure what I will do if I catch him smoking or drinking beer or using drugs or with a girl in his room.

I'm not sure what you can do when your children start doing these things. It seems to me that trouble starts long before it reveals itself, and you might have to rewind a lot of film to fix it.

Joe probably thinks I will kill him if he smokes. Like Dan's mother and like Jack's mother. Kids don't know what they mean when they say this. They don't know what form the killing will take. And that probably is a good thing. Their imaginations are so vivid, their fear so easily triggered, that vague threats like "you will have to deal with me," if said in the right tone of voice, can be a tremendous inhibitor.

For a while, anyway.

But soon I, like Joe, will have to decide what I will do when someone offers him a cigarette.

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