When you have to say yes to 'just say no'

10th June 2005 at 01:00
The nurse from the anti-smoking team is in again this week. We have a full hour of the horrors of smoking, complete with pictures and videos of blackened lungs, jars of "tar" (treacle, in reality), and invitations to join the Smokebusters club in the hope that these children, at least, will not take up the gruesome habit.

Then I add my bit. The class is Year 5, who are still, on the whole, more interested in PlayStation and the like than sneaking off for a quick fag.

So I encourage them to make a decision now: to make their minds up, firmly, that they will not try cigarettes. "It only takes one to hook you," I tell them, "and there will be people - older students, your enemies, even your friends - who will try to persuade you. It will be much easier to say 'no'

if you have decided in your own mind." Then the school nurse wades in again.

"Children," she says, "put your hand up if you feel you have more information about smoking now than you did before the start of this session." They all dutifully raise their hands, apart from the few in the corners who are already plotting how to get hold of some ciggies for a quick try-out. "So," she continues, "you can now make a choice because you have enough information. It's up to you to choose."

I'm dumbfounded. Yes, to smoke or not to smoke is a choice. We face many choices, such as to try to follow the Highway Code so we don't get involved in a traffic accident. We are free to choose to do something harmful, to ourselves or others. And we tell children, often where issues of behaviour are concerned, that they have choices to make, with positive or negative outcomes. So, in a world of complete freedom, they are free to choose.

Yet, as a teacher, I personally don't want to encourage children to think that choosing to smoke is an option. I can't know of any valid reason to smoke, and can think of many convincing arguments against doing so, not least of which is that it is extremely unhealthy. I don't see it as an area for negotiation.

Which got me thinking. What other areas are there where we are careful about what we encourage or discourage children from getting involved in? Is petty crime a choice, as long as they are not caught? Is under-age, unprotected sex acceptable, as long as it does not result in disease or unwanted pregnancy?

Young people can choose to take chances, regardless of the consequences. Or can they? Should we really be giving them the option?

Angie Wolff teaches in the south of England. She writes under a pseudonym

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