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?