Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Speaking Truth to the Man...or Woman

When I took Jack to our friendly neighborhood Kroger Marketplace last weekend, we pulled into a parking spot next to a family--father, mother, daughter--unloading a cart into their trunk. Both the mother and father were smoking.

Let's digress. I grew up in North Carolina, where tobacco is king. I went to high school with a great-granddaughter of RJ Reynolds. I attended Duke University, part of the proverbial Tobacco Road and built with tobacco money.

Cigarettes were everywhere, and I never liked them. The smell of tobacco smoke irritated my sinuses and made me feel sick. My grandfather smoked, and I remember my cousins, sister, and I hiding his cigarettes and begging him to quit. He didn't.

In 1977, while a friend and I waited in line (for three hours) to see the first Star Wars movie at Park Road Theater in Charlotte, a man behind us lit up. The breeze blew his smoke directly toward us, so we launched into a loud discussion about how bad cigarettes were, including a rather vivid and gruesome description of a pair of preserved smoke-damaged lungs we'd seen at an anti-smoking assembly at school. He put out his cigarette and didn't light up again. We felt victorious, powerful.

In fact, we were immature, mouthy tweens who would have been better served by politely and directly asking the man to put out his cigarette.

Ten years later, I caught an emergency flight from Washington DC to Charlotte, where my grandfather lay dying in a hospital bed. He'd been suffering from congestive heart failure, but early that morning, he'd had what was probably a heart attack. Lab results came back from fluid drained off his lungs. He had lung cancer. The doctor told him he could be kept alive in intensive care or die that day.

What a choice to make on a sunny August morning.

I made it to the hospital in time and was with him when he died. A person can develop a rather intense hatred of that which kills a loved one. All of us resented that cigarettes took Papa too soon, a man who had cheated death so many times as a barnstorming pilot, as a B-24 pilot flying the Hump in WWII, and a cargo pilot during the Berlin Airlift.

But that mouthy tween was in her twenties and no longer spouted off about cigarettes, despite her rage at them. To my knowledge, only my cousin Kathy had the courage to walk up to strangers and tell them about Papa and ask them to quit smoking. The rest of us admired Kathy but felt hobbled by adult societal pressure not to make trouble. After all, no one likes to be told what to do. We're in America, for heaven's sake, where people are perfectly free to do as they wish as long as it's legal without being harrassed for it.

Many years have passed and my anger at tobacco has shifted. The sight of people smoking just makes me sad now because I know that they are addicted, trapped in a habit that is really, really hard to break and may one day kill them. I also know that we all develop bad habits that might one day kill us, from eating too much red meat to driving too fast to living like couch potatoes.

For Jack, however, the story of his great grandfather's death from smoking is fresh and a lesson I hope he will not forget if he experiences peer pressure to smoke.  He noticed the cigarette smokers in the parking lot at Kroger right away. As we got out of the car, the mom and daughter started to push their cart to the return, and I offered to take it. They thanked me, and then Jack piped up, loud and clear.

"You shouldn't be smoking," he said to the mom. "It's bad for you and can kill you!"

The mom laughed nervously and turned away with a vague sort of "okaaayyy." She'd just been called out by a nine-year-old in front of her daughter, and I suppose Jack is lucky she didn't turn nasty on him.

My response was to tell Jack that he shouldn't tell grown-ups that smoking is bad for them.

"Why not?" he asked, all reason and logic. "It's true!"

"Yes, I know, honey. But people don't like others to tell them what to do. It can make them mad."

Inside, however, a part of me--the part that stood by my grandfather's hospital bed and watched him die--was saying, "Way to go, Jack! Speak the truth to that woman in front of you! Maybe this time she'll listen!"

And that's how parenthood takes us to some rather morally ambiguous places.

When have you found yourself teaching your children to be well-behaved and quiet rather than courageous and truthful? When should we shut up and when should we stand up, and how do we teach the difference to our children?


  1. Oh this hits home! My sister smokes. She knows it is bad and has tried multiple times to stop - and she has reduced her intake. But every time she comes to visit she is lectured by my 9-almost-10 yo.

    I vacillate between letting her go at my sister and trying to get her to be polite. Thankfully my sister takes it in the way it was meant. I honestly have no idea if she's ever approached a stranger, but I wouldn't be surprised!

    I guess is time for a discussion about wording. So if she does decide to tell someone, she isn't saying "not to" or "shouldn't" but more "did you know..."

  2. Here in Ontario, it's practically illegal to smoke (not in bars, workplaces or your own car if there is someone under 16 in it) so when I see someone doing it, it always surprises me. I forget that there are still people out there who made the choice to start. I think that there is always a balance between telling the truth and being polite and I think that you can achieve both. And that parents have to help kids learn that balance, knowing that we won't always get it right. Thanks for writing - I love your style and your choice of topics - always something to ponder!

  3. I can't stand smoking - the smell is bad enough not to mention, as you so wonderfully stated, what it is doing to the person's lungs and body.

    That is when I wish bodies could talk to us! Can you imagine the tongue lashing we would get for smoking, not working out, eating poorly, not sleeping enough etc. etc.! Think we would most likely change our ways based on the feedback LOL!

    I am not a status quo girl. Never have been, never will be. One of my favorite quotes is "speak the truth even if your voice shakes". Granted there is a "nice way" to speak it and I for one admit to my continued need to improve on my delivery. As the saying goes "it's not the policy it's the implementation". And yet there are times when the truth needs to be boldly declared and sadly, few are willing to do so as there is often a price to be paid for doing so (being avoided, ignored, cast out of social circles, labelled you name it - been there many times). People do not like to hear the truth - it makes them think and have to face themselves, their actions, their perspective etc. something society today runs from...and yet the freedom, growth, actions that can come when we look at our ways far outweighs the initial sting of the words spoken...

    As for teaching my kids...I would have to say, stand up for truth and make sure the package is wrapped in such a way that the recipient is open to receiving it.... off to take some word wrapping courses LOL!

  4. Yes, this hits very close to home for me, too. I remember begging my father to stop smoking and trying not to get in trouble for being disrespectful. He eventually quit.

    My daughter smokes. She quit twice, once for surgery and once when she was pregnant with her first child. Both times, she went back within a year or two. I watched her get chewed out by a nurse practitioner because her daughter developed asthma. "But I never smoke around her or inside the house or car," she said defensively. The nurse asked, "Do you pick her up and hold her to your shoulder, against your clothes and hair which are permeated with smoke?"

    My heart ached for her, for the guilt that was being laid on her. But it didn't make her stop, and her now-teenaged daughter is begging her to stop. If gentle reminders don't work, and guilt trips don't work, what does? Maybe enough random strangers like Jack having the courage to speak up.

  5. My now 13 year old (with autism) is unrepentant about talking to strangers about smoking. He's gotten a little suaver, saying now "Excuse me, please put out your cigarette around me" instead of shrieking and yelling "You're going to get cancer and heart disease!" We live in a small town, and a LOT of people smoke...so that was not a fun stage. He still covers his mouth & nose dramatically whenever he sees someone lighting up.
    It's not permitted to smoke in public places here in NS, including anywhere on school or hospital grounds, so we don't run into this as much as we used to.
    So far, both kids having autism has kind of been a blessing in this area. We've taught them that pointing out differences that might hurt someone's feelings (hair, weight, etc) are something we can talk about privately. Otherwise, it's pretty much all been fair game. And the few times they've sounded wildly inappropriate, I can follow up with "Oh, he has autism, and he's learning social skills." Hard to find a polite comeback to that when they've just told the truth!

  6. I live with an on again off again smoker, my husband. He quit many times, some times for as long as a year, but somehow he always starts up again. It drives me crazy! When I think about him possibly having cancer because of this, I want to scream! It's hard for me to understand, since I was never tempted to smoke. My dad was a heavy smoker and the smell was everywhere. He had a heart attack at 51 years old, which he survived, but at 61 he died of pancreatic cancer. My brother in law, also a smoker, died of the same type of cancer at 48. I'm sure being a smoker for so many years had something to do with it.
    Our daughter told her dad early on that smoking is bad for him. I'm not sure if she ever did that to strangers, probably not. She gets mad at people who make jokes about gay people or use the word "retarded" the wrong way, but I think she mainly gets on her friends about this, not strangers.

    I think it's great, that your son did what he did:)


  7. My daughter, then about 5 or 6 years old, was with me when I was volunteering at a homeless shelter. She sat down to eat with a family that was staying there, it included a couple and a baby. The mom was a smoker. My daughter told her, "You weally shouldn't smoke. It's bad for you and will give your baby eaw infections." The homeless family was gracious in response.

    What I told my daughter and my son and have repeated over the years is that if quitting smoking were easy, everyone would do it to save their health and save money. But smoking is powerfully addictive and almost impossible to give up. The moral being, don't even try it once because you don't know how YOUR body will react to that surge of nicotine. Some of us are far more susceptible to addiction than others. Second, have some compassion toward smokers as well as respect for their choice/situation. While I support all the cultural moves to make smoking less pervasive in our culture (from education to cigarette taxes to banning smoking in many places), I don't support addressing strangers about their habit unless they're smoking in a no smoking area. It's legal. It's their right.

  8. Good for Jack! I've hated cigarettes my whole life, having grown up with a father who smoked (he thankfully quit in his 50s). And now my youngest sister smokes. I often think how devastating it would be if her addiction kills her. I've always wondered how a person dying of lung cancer faces the fact that something they refused to give up ended up killing them.

  9. Hi. I just found your blog through your crafty site. I have a 17 year old Asperger's boy. When he was four we were walking through a carpark on benefit day and there were a group of large males smoking. My son walked straight up to them and asked them if they knew smoking was bad for their health. They looked dumbfounded and i was blown away. There is no where to hide from the truth with an ASD child as we have found out (embarrassingly at times). Keep up the good work.



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