We’re on vacation in Florida, my three-year-old and I, when she wakes up chipper at 7 a.m. and utters the words no mother is waiting to hear: “Mama, when I get big, I’m gonna have a cigarette!”
Excuse me?! It should be a requirement in prenatal classes to teach you how to suppress laughter when “Serious Topics” come up in undeniably funny ways.
We’d been staying at my grandmother’s condo for about four days at this point, and my grandmother is a heavy smoker. Every time Bubbie Margie goes out to the balcony to smoke, Anna asks me what she’s doing out there and if she can go with her. And while I appreciate her desire for bonding time with her great-grandmother, I’d prefer she not witness the smoking. That said, I could have waited another seven years before having an actual talk with her about the perils of cigarettes.
It’s a tricky thing for me to navigate. I only have a couple of friends who smoke, and the ones who are moms themselves are especially discreet about it. Usually I’ve brushed off Anna’s curiosity by deflecting or saying a friend was just “going outside for a few minutes.” I’m cigarette-sensitive myself, and prefer people don’t smoke near me, so it’s rarely an issue that comes up.
Read more: Smoking questions >
I don’t want to worry her about my grandmother (especially because she remembers visiting her in the hospital when she was very ill, unrelated to her smoking) but I also don’t want to lie to her. I tell her that smoking can make you sick. She announces this to my grandmother with enthusiasm and is confused when my grandmother does not immediate put out her cigarette and quit. I let my grandmother deal with that for that moment.
The next day we’re walking on the boardwalk when I look down into the stroller and my kid is pretending to smoke a pretzel. “Anna, don’t do that,” I tell her. “I’m just pretending, Mom.” The thing is, I remember pretending to smoke pretzels as a child. I remember Popeye cigarettes before they were called “candy sticks”—and, truth be told, I thought it was a requirement that adults smoked cigarettes, like a rite of passage. When I was Anna’s age there was at least one carton of Marlboros and one of Camel Lights in my home at all times. I hated my parents’ (and stepparents’, and grandparents’, and other relatives and all of their friends’) smoking, and I told them as much all the time, despite “playing smoking” myself.
Read more: How to quit smoking… when you’re a parent >
Even trickier: explaining second-hand smoke. My kid understands that you can have a bellyache, throw up, have a fever, sneeze or “get very sick and die.” I’m not sure she understands that these are different scales of illness. She knows that you can eat food that will make you sick, but could she comprehend that smoking cigarettes, or inhaling second-hand smoke, is different than eating too much candy? I’m not sure. I try to explain it simply to her, without worrying her (but worrying her just enough to keep her off the balcony.) I’m surprised at the pull between wanting to just shelter her completely and wanting her to understand the dangers.
When my grandmother asks Anna to get her cigarettes from her purse for her, I have to self-talk myself out of an outburst. She’s almost 90. She’s not going to change. It’s not like she sent Anna to the store to buy her cigarettes (*cough, cough* like my parents most certainly did to me). It will never happen again.
Back in Toronto, I’m drinking tea and she’s eating a cookie inside of a coffee shop with large windows that look onto the sidewalk. “Mama, Mama!” she gets my attention. “Those guys are doing cigarettes!” She points outside to two bearded men outside of the café. “We should tell them they’ll get sick!” I’m still figuring this one out, it seems.
Have you talked to your little kids about smoking? Tweet @therealrealTMZ or comment here with your tips.