We all want our children to grow up as healthy as possible. Knowing that smoking is one of the most deadly health problems—causing bronchitis, emphysema, heart disease, stroke and lung cancer—parents who are non-smokers and smokers alike usually agree on one thing: we’d prefer that our children choose not to smoke.
Thankfully, public health campaigns against smoking have made a difference, and teens today are smoking less than in previous generations. However, we still have a long way to go. Currently, one in 10 eighth graders and one in four high school seniors smoke cigarettes.
Can parents really make a difference in children’s choices about smoking?
Although children are strongly influenced by their peers, what their parents do and say about smoking has a big impact on their choices. Children with friends who smoke are 10 times more likely to smoke, children with older siblings who smoke are three times more likely to smoke and children with a parent who smokes are twice as likely to smoke. If you choose not to smoke, your child is much less likely to become a smoker. Even if you smoke, talking with your child about how you do not want him to smoke can also reduce his chance of becoming a smoker.
What’s the best age to talk with children about smoking?
Most smokers started the habit when they were children, usually between 12 and 14 and often as early as age 8. From the youngest ages, children become aware of smoking messages they see at home, in the community and in the media. Even preschoolers will pretend they’re smoking with straws, french fries or candy. So it’s crucial to begin talking with children about not smoking when they’re as young as 2 or 3, and to continue through their childhood and teen years.
What can parents do and say to encourage their children not to smoke?
Here are some basic tips for children of all ages:
- Talk with them: Spend time every day talking with each child when you’re relaxed and not distracted by work, errands or chores. Ask questions and listen to her, showing interest in and respect for her experiences, ideas and feelings. Let her ask you questions and answer honestly. Talk about happy topics, but also discuss tough issues such as teasing, lying, smoking, drugs and sex. Be clear about your values and concerns, but try to avoid lecturing.
- Get your children involved in healthy activities: Enroll your child in activities through school, town recreation departments, the YMCA, community centres or religious groups. Activities such as sports, music, art, languages and community service can be fun, build skills, provide opportunities to interact with other children and adults and build healthy self-esteem.
- Be a good role model: Our children learn a lot from what they see us doing. Model healthy practices like not smoking, eating nutritious foods, exercising regularly, helping out in the community and taking time to relax. If you smoke, make a pledge to quit.
Here are some tips for talking with children at different ages:
- Ages 2-8
- When you’re around smoke or you see a cigarette butt, let your child know it’s “stinky” or “yucky.”
- Ask your child what she learned in school about the dangers of smoking, and what she thinks when she sees people smoking.
- State simple rules such as, “We don’t smoke, and we don’t allow smoking in our house or our car.” Explain that breathing in smoke can make you sick, and you want the family to stay healthy.
- Ask your child if he knows any kids who smoke, and why he thinks some teen-agers smoke even when they know it’s dangerous (e.g., to look cool, act older or lose weight).
- Point out magazine ads that show people smoking. Ask your child what she thinks of the messages in the ads. Does smoking really make you healthy and happy? Are the ads telling the truth about smoking, or are they lying to trick you into smoking?
- Point out smoking prevention ads. Ask your child what he thinks of the messages. How do those ads make you feel? Who’s telling the truth about smoking?
- Since “lectures” tend to turn off teen-agers, look for opportunities to talk about smoking when you’re already talking about something else. Teens often find it easier to talk while you’re doing activities together like cooking, driving, shopping, walking the dog or playing sports.
- Ask your teen what she thinks when she sees kids smoking, and what she thinks when she sees adults smoking.
- Have your child imagine what it will be like when he has kids someday. Will he want his kids to smoke? What will he do and say to try to discourage them from smoking? Most teens don’t worry about long-term health risks, such as cancer or heart disease. Instead, discuss the immediate consequences of smoking: yellow teeth, bad breath, smelly clothes, stained fingers and poor performance in sports.
- Have your child calculate the cost of smoking. A pack a day at $4 or $5 would cost more than $1,500 per year. Ask her how many hours she’d have to work to pay for that, and what else she could spend the money on if she didn’t smoke.
- If you have a friend or relative who has a tobacco-related illness, ask to visit them together. This can be an intense experience for everyone, but the ill person will probably appreciate the opportunity to help a teen-ager avoid the mistake of smoking.
- Talk about peer pressure. Ask your child how kids try to get other kids to smoke, drink or do drugs. Has she heard other kids say “No?” How did they say it? Some ways kids refuse are by saying, “It’ll throw off my sports performance,” “It’d send me to hospital with my asthma,” “My grandfather died of lung cancer, and my mum would kill me if I started,” “My boyfriend can’t stand kissing an ashtray,” “No, thanks. Have you seen any good movies lately?” Help her think through and practice what she would say if one of her friends offered her a cigarette.
If you’re a smoker…
Even if you smoke, you can still encourage your child not to.
- Tell your child about your experiences with smoking. Explain how you started smoking and why (e.g., you thought it was cool, you wouldn’t get sick, you could stop any time). Explain what you know now (e.g., people don’t think it’s so cool anymore, it’s giving you a bad cough and it’s really hard to quit). Admit that you made a mistake, and if you could do it over again you would never have started smoking.
- Set limits on your own smoking. Don’t smoke in the house or car, or in front of your children. Don’t leave cigarettes or lighters around the house where your children can get them.
- Quit smoking, for your own sake and your children’s. Make a deal with your children that if you promise to quit smoking, they’ll promise to never start. Get help from your doctor, medications and support groups.
If your child tries smoking… Understand that it’s normal for children to experiment. Just as you’ve done some unhealthy things in your life, your children will also try unhealthy things. Remember that we can learn valuable lessons when we make mistakes. Try not to be judgmental. Keep the lines of communication open, and keep showing your child you love him and are concerned about his health and well-being.
For more information, visit www.smokefree.gov.
Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education
Our parenting advice is given as suggestions only. We recommend you also consult your healthcare provider, and urge you to contact them immediately if your question is urgent or about a medical condition.