A Message Too Far?
Smoking is unhealthy. That is a simple fact. I’m not even going to provide a link to back that up because it feels like such an obvious statement that it should go without citation. Going a step further, I think this is a fact we ought to teach children. We should teach them of the harmful effects of smoking on their health. We should not mince words. We should not present the health effects as controversial or as one side of a two-sided coin. The health effects of smoking on the individual are what they are and should be presented as such to children.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t still go too far…
Last spring we brought in several candidates to interview for a teaching position. One candidate was highly talented… she possessed a lifetime of experience and it showed in how she carried herself and designed her lesson. Yet it fell completely flat as she lost the students about halfway through. Why? Well, she was a smoker. This much was evident by the smell of smoke on her skin and clothing. Not the sort of overwhelming odor that dominates a room. But the kind you can definitely pick up on if you are standing in close proximity to her. A few of the students approached her for materials during the activity portion of her lesson and got a whiff of the smoke smell. And that was it.
As I sat in the back observing the lesson and the students, I watched as 3rd grader after 3rd grader leaned into one another to whisper, “Oh my god, she’s a smoker!” or “Dude, did you smell that smoke? That’s terrible!” or “I can’t believe she smokes!” They couldn’t focus on her lesson, so bothered were they by the fact that this woman smoked.
This leads me to think that we’ve gone too far in discouraging children from smoking. Rather than presenting it as an unhealthy practice with long-term, detrimental affects to the human body, we’ve turned it into a moral issue… something that is wrong and bad and stupid… and the people who engage in it are, likewise, wrong and bad and stupid.
Now, I understand that a case can be made for smoking being a moral issue. The detrimental effects are not limited to the smoker. Premature smoking-related death has a very real impact on families. Healthcare costs are often absorbed by society. Second- and third-hand smoke is not a bogeyman, but a real issue.
Which makes smoking roughly equivalent to reckless driving. Should we discourage students from driving recklessly when they do get behind the wheel? Absolutely. Should we demonize such people to the point that children are so distracted by their behaviors that they can’t focus during a 40-minute math lesson? Seems a bit extreme, no?
Guns get a similar treatment. We should absolutely teach children that guns are dangerous weapons, capable of maiming and killing at the pull of a finger. Guns are not toys and are not something to take lightly. But guns are not evil. Nor are gun owners. Our conversation around guns with children, even in the aftermath of tragedies like what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School, should not result in them going home and telling their law-abiding, responsible gun-owning parents how stupid and bad they are. Which happens.
I have my own personal feelings on smoking and guns. They are immaterial to how I ought to teach children about them, especially given how deeply imbedded smoking and guns are in our culture. We should not teach children that people who smoke (or own guns) are bad, immoral, evil people undeserving of respect. Children should not be so preoccupied by the fact that a teacher smokes that they can’t attend during a lesson. When that happens, we’ve gone too far. We’ve demonized people instead of behaviors, which is the exact opposite of what we should be teaching children about how they interact with people who might think or act differently than they.