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What to expect at this age
Your kindergartner is probably fully aware that cigarettes are dangerous, unappealing to many adults, and banned in most public places. In fact, the appeal of smoking is likely to be very mysterious to him, because most young children don't like the smell. This is the perfect age, however, to help him learn the values and decision-making skills he can use to resist tobacco later on. You're his most important teacher and role model, so emphasize that you think cigarettes are bad for everyone – especially if you're a smoker. "At this age, if you tell them it's bad, they think it's bad," says Paul Coleman, a father, family therapist, and author of How to Say It to Your Kids.
How to talk about it
Focus on health. It's important to praise your child for taking care of his body and overall health. By now he knows not to put into his mouth anything that isn't food – including garden plants, cleaning products, and other potentially poisonous household products. Put cigarettes on the list as well. Even if there are no smokers in your house, he may spot a cigarette butt on the playground someday and decide to put it in his mouth, they way he's seen grownups do. Explain that this would give him germs that could be harmful, and that tobacco is especially dangerous for children because their bodies are still growing and developing. He also needs to know that just breathing in smoke is dangerous.
Make your values clear. If no one in your family smokes, it will be relatively easy to let your child know you disapprove of tobacco. "Gosh, doesn't that smell bad?" you can say when you catch a whiff of smoke. You can point out that smoking is not allowed in restaurants or in stores by drawing attention to signs that show a cigarette with a red line drawn through it (pre-readers love to show off their understanding of such signs).
If you, your partner, or a relative or close friend is a smoker, it will be much more difficult to help your child understand that you never want him to smoke. Keep your comments simple and to the point. "Yes, I do have a cigarette sometimes," you can say. "But I wish I'd never started smoking, because it's really hard to stop. In the meantime, I only smoke outside, when you're not with me. I don't want you to breathe in cigarette smoke, because it's very bad for kids."
Be approachable. Now is the time to establish yourself as a parent who will answer any question – no matter how challenging or upsetting – calmly and thoughtfully. Your kindergartner may not have many questions about cigarettes, but you can set the stage for tomorrow's talks about tobacco and drugs by answering today's questions about where babies come from.
Teach your child how to make good choices. Help your child learn to make good decisions now, while he's still young. He's far from ready to think about whether or not he should smoke, but he can make practical choices in his own daily life: which clothes to wear in the morning (from a selection of weather-appropriate clothing), which shoes to put on when it's raining, what food would make a healthy snack in the afternoon. Don't scold him for making a choice that's not yours – tell him calmly why you'd make a different one, and give in to his preferences whenever possible. Praise him for making good decisions whenever it's appropriate.
Teach your child how to say no. If your kindergartner can learn from an early age to assert his views confidently, he'll be better able to withstand the peer pressure of the preteen and teenage years, when smoking becomes more common. (Seventy percent of all children try cigarettes – 40 percent of them before they get to high school – according to the U.S. Department of Education.) Listen to him when he states his opinions, and when you disagree with him, do so respectfully. Kids who consistently hear, "That's a silly idea, why would anyone think that?" or "Don't you argue with me!" are, as teens, less confident, more rebellious, and less able to heed those inner voices preaching good sense.
Reassure your child that you approve of him. Children are more likely to experiment with tobacco if their self-esteem is low or if they're starved for affection and attention. Build a good foundation early on by telling your kindergartner often how much you love him, and praise him genuinely whenever he deserves it.
What kids ask ... What parents answer
"Why are cigarettes bad for you?" "Any kind of smoking is always bad for you," you can say. "It damages your heart and your lungs, because you're breathing the smoke right into your body. The smoke from cigarettes is also bad for the people around a smoker, because they're breathing air that has cigarette smoke in it. Once a person tries smoking it's hard to stop, so it's best never to start at all."
"Why does Aunt Sarah smoke?" Children are rightly confused when they're told smoking is dangerous but then see a beloved relative or friend smoking. And at this age, they can't understand the complexities of addiction. Tell your child, "Aunt Sarah started smoking when she was young and didn't know any better. Now she does know better, and she wants to stop – but it's really hard for people to stop smoking once they start."
"He's smoking – is he going to die?" Kindergartners are quite literal, and if they know people can die from lung cancer, they may think every smoker they see is about to drop dead tomorrow. You can respond, "Well, he's not dying right this minute, and I don't know when he will die. But cigarettes are so bad for you that they can kill you eventually, even if it takes a long time."
If you are the smoker your child is asking about, the question is naturally harder to answer. You may want to emphasize, "I'm going to try to stop smoking, and if I can do that, my body will be healthier." Then act on that promise – your child will thank you.
"Can I try your cigarette?" Families differ in their approach to this question, with some actually letting their child try a puff as a deterrent. But if you think your child should never touch tobacco, tell him, "No. Cigarette smoke is bad for everyone – even me – and especially for you because your body is still growing."