Tell Me About It: Daughter smells smoke; mother denies her habit

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You can't sell out your daughter's mother, no, but you are right that your wife has only two choices of integrity: Quit or tell the truth. (iStock image)

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Question: My wife smokes a few cigarettes per day, usually at work. Our daughter has smelled smoke on her and asked if she smokes, but my wife lies and says it came from other people.

Now our daughter has learned about secondhand smoke, and told her mother to make the smokers smoke outside. My wife told her she doesn't want to cause trouble at work.

I told my wife she should either quit or tell our daughter the truth. She said smoking is an integral part of her routine, but knowing the truth would make our daughter too upset. I think our daughter may already suspect the truth, so we might as well be honest with her. Should I tell her myself if this comes up again?

Answer: You can't sell out your daughter's mother, no, but you are right that your wife has only two choices of integrity: Quit or tell the truth.

As her current enabler, please stand up: "I can't bear to have you lie to our daughter like this. It is going to destroy her trust in you - unless, that is, you change the truth by quitting. It is your decision whether to smoke, I get it, but how we talk to our daughter is both of our decision, and I will not keep enabling your lie. I will long enough for you to quit, yes, if you choose that, or long enough for you to find a way to tell her the truth if that's how you would rather handle it - but I will not stay quiet indefinitely."

By the way, your wife is bringing home "thirdhand smoke" on her clothes, and it's harmful (http://1.usa.gov/1oCdBgg).

Question: My father has been an off-and-on secret smoker for the last 15 years. All of us kids knew and eventually confronted him. He tried to cover it up until we showed him proof. It would have been very easy for him to just say, "I'm sorry but I have been smoking." But by not admitting it, that trust in him not to hide things from us, trivial or very important, was lost.

Answer: Since frailties are unavoidable, teaching kids to deal with them is essential, and that starts with owning them. What would you like your kid to do when s/he makes a bad choice or adopts a vice - feel ashamed and hide it from you? Feel defensive and lash out at you for your failings? Feel disappointed in herself and seek support from others to help her do better? Feel comfortable with some naughty things in moderation and as informed choices?

There's no one way to handle the low end of our humanity, but there are healthy and unhealthy ways, and a parent, when busted, would be well-served to already have in mind what lesson is going out to the kids.

Question: I am so grateful for the failings I saw in my father - had I not seen them, I might have spent my life feeling inadequate as a father, unable to live up to his perfect example.

Answer: So important, thanks. You want kids to feel bad about mistakes, but not like bad people for making them.

 


tellme@washpost.com.

Chat with Carolyn Hax online at noon Fridays at www.washingtonpost.com.