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Smoking Toddler: Are We Harming OUR Kids Just as Badly?

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Jennifer Ginsberg: The video of the 2-year-old Indonesian toddler puffing away on a cigarette like a grown man as his parents and other adults stood idly by has taken the blogosphere by storm.

Ardi Riza reportedly has a 40-cigarettes-a-day smoking habit, and his dad doesn't see a problem with it. "He looks healthy to me," his father told a reporter who recently visited his home in the fishing village of Musi Banyuasin, in Indonesia's South Sumatra province.

The boy's mother expressed a bit more concern. "He's totally addicted," she said. "If he doesn't get cigarettes, he gets angry and screams and batters his head against the wall. He tells me he feels dizzy and sick."

This situation is a shocking example of child endangerment and parental ignorance, and it is easy to take a stance of disbelief and condemnation. But it is unfortunate that our culture is quick to point fingers at one horrific display of extreme neglect and addiction, rather than examine the way our own children are subjected to comparable harm every day.

American children are overwhelmingly addicted to refined sugar, fast food, television and video games. While this clearly is not as abhorrent as a toddler smoking a cigarette (let alone 40), it is pervasive nonetheless. On average, kids under age 6 spend a third of their day in front of the TV. Kids and teens 8 to 18 years old spend nearly four hours a day in front of a TV screen, and almost two additional hours on the computer (outside of schoolwork) and playing video games.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that kids under 2 years old not watch any TV, and that kids over 2 watch no more than one to two hours a day of "quality programming." But many American parents ignore this directive as they park their kids in front of the idiot box.

One of the issues with inactive leisure activities -- such as watching television or playing video games -- is that they contribute to the problem of childhood obesity. Physically inactive children are at risk for developing a myriad of physical and emotional problems, including diabetes and high blood pressure -- but all too often, their parents are reticent about taking responsibility for this.

All parents must be held accountable for the health and well-being of their children. Kids are not able to make responsible choices regarding nutrition, exercise and exposure to technology. It is up to the parents to provide them with healthy food and stimulating activity. Unfortunately, many parents fail to set healthy limits for their kids -- and endanger their health in the process.

As a therapist who specializes in addiction, I am aware of other dramatic examples of adults exposing children to addiction (beyond giving them cigarettes). I've had numerous clients speak of childhoods fraught with addiction. Not only did these clients witness their parents drinking and using drugs (which is tremendously damaging in and of itself), but, in many cases, their parents actually provided them with drugs and alcohol at a young age as well.

Parents who are addicts usually make an initial attempt to shield their children from their using, but as their children grow older and wiser, they catch on. As the parent becomes more progressed in his or her addiction, personal boundaries become violated and the environment gets more and more unsafe and distorted. In an addict's mind, teaching a child to roll a joint may seem not only acceptable, but fun and cool. Children are easily manipulated and can be targeted to fulfill the addict's desire. The emotional toll that this exacts can be lifelong and devastating.

When parents get loaded around their children, they are potentially exposing them to a multitude of emotional, physical and sexual abuses. Additionally, an alcoholic or addicted home is a petri dish for violations of all kinds to flourish. Children will go to great lengths to convince themselves that their parents are "good" and "right," even in the face of unimaginable horrors. These misperceptions can have a lasting impact and persist well into adulthood.

While these examples of everyday neglect and abuse may not be as shocking as a toddler smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, they are still prevalent. It is easy to demonize one poor, ignorant family -- when instead, we should be taking this opportunity to examine our own behavior and honestly evaluate the way we expose our own children to addiction every day.


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