People used to smoke (a lot) . . .
I grew up and traveled when international airlines had “Smoking” and “Non-Smoking” sections. At least once, my assigned seat was the row before the smoking section began. If you’re too young to remember that period, imagine how your eyes and nostrils might burn after a trans-Atlantic flight.
I used to smoke . . .
Cigarettes during my 5th grade year (okay, the occasional cigar as an adult, too, particularly on mens’ only, multi-day hikes, where we envisaged ourselves as wannabe-as-tough Bear Gryllses).
My first puffs occurred in the dense and protective cover of Limuru and Tigoni (Kenya) hedges and maize fields. My smoking accomplices (may they never be found out!) and I preferred local Sportsman cigarettes, because they inspired our budding masculinity, their slogan was catchy and cool – “Ni Sawa Hasa!,” and, not least in importance, they were about the cheapest on the market.
I got caught smoking!
One day several Luo friends, my little brother of 3 or 4, and myself were hiding in a large and wild Lantana like bush (the exact name eludes me) situated in an undeveloped expansive area between our house and Lake Victoria. We liked the Lantana like bushes because not only were they secretive and fort-like, similar to corn fields, but you could chew on its minty leaves after smoking, effectively masking our smoking misdeeds.
Foolishly my friends and I decided to light up a single Sportsman. We were sharing it between us when my brother said he wanted to try it. Obviously I said, “no,” to which he smartly (he’s a lawyer now) blackmailed me with, “If you don’t let me I’ll tell dad and mom!”
I suddenly had a brilliant idea. Instead of letting him pull on our cigarette, I lit a match and quickly put it in his mouth. Unfortunately, instead of completely encasing the lit match with his mouth as he should have, effectively snuffing the flame out, and giving him smoke to coolly blow out his mouth and nose like we 5th grade sportsmen were doing, he left his mouth wide open, burning his lip.
He immediately bolted screaming from the bush in the direction of home, and upon arrival did . . . well, you know what! When I arrived home it wasn’t long before my mom informed me that my dad wanted to see me. He was in his wood shop with his protective eye glasses sitting atop his head, and a craftsman pencil wedged between his ear and side of head.
Surprise of surprises! Contrary to my fearful expectations, my dad didn’t verbally or physically launch or lurch at me. Instead he began personally confessing to his own prior smoking habits, and sweetened it by sharing that one or more of my siblings had similarly experimented with smoking. Instead of punishing me, he simply told me that he would not tolerate any more of my hiding and conniving. If I was intent on smoking, so be it, but he insisted I start smoking in public and among friends and family.
Well, wouldn’t you know it! He cured my 5th grade smoking habit! By de-criminalizing my activity, he de-incentivized me from wanting to smoke further.
Years later, and five children of my own, I’m grateful for this early (and wise) parenting lesson. It’s all too tempting as a parent, when your own life stress is near bowing you in half, and your child’s sudden discovered misdeed(s) adds extra strain to life and living, to reactively lash out punitively.
Sometimes that might be necessary and appropriate (the punitive part; not the lashing out). Many more times, however, it seems more productive to take a moment and share your own personal struggles and mistakes, thereby decriminalizing and de-stigmatizing your child’s mistakes.
As with my own smoking experiment, a calm and measured response just might provide your child with a new felt sense of self-worth and a nurturing seedbed for re-engaging life and its challenges, rather than a big, fat branded “L” on the forehead.