In his tiny hut in a town in Indonesia, Ardi Rizal has become somewhat of a tourist attraction. People watch him and snap pictures, excited to get a glimpse of a two-year-old who has taken up a rather adult habit; his obese toddler body sits aboard a red toy truck as he smokes cigarettes, one after the other.
When a video of cigarette-addicted Ardi surfaced on YouTube over a week ago, it sparked horrified reactions all over the globe. Health officials are criticizing Indonesia’s tobacco problem (they’re one of the few countries that allow widespread cigarette advertising) while parent-bloggers curse Ardi’s parents for their inability to control their child. To say the least, Ardi’s bad baby habit has us all…well, fuming.
But with an endless wave of reactions on every front, it seems the real caution inherent in Ardi’s tale has been covered in ash. Responses of horror and condemnation are warranted, but what is this chubby Indonesian toddler really teaching us?
It’s not surprising to learn that little Ardi’s father is a heavy smoker. After all, the kid had to pick up a cigarette somewhere. How, then, is the world so aghast at this baby's adoption of a bad habit when he was exposed to it every single day? Could it be that the world believes that, because our babies can't walk or speak, they are somehow blind to our actions?
The public is enamored by videos of Ardi’s smoking because he is a baby acting like an adult. But in Ardi’s defense, he couldn’t be acting more like a baby! After all, what is a baby if not a little vulnerable sponge, soaking up our every mood, word and – more obviously – action?
When our six-month-old copies something we do, we gawk. Clapping hands. Waving goodbye. Watching and learning is primary; parents are their only model of what it means to be a human. They’re developing brains are never going to be as reliant on our actions as they are in their infant and toddler years. We may not see it right away, but they eventually become what they have watched and heard ever since they were born. There’s no hiding. Like father, like son.
And yet, when our young assume so-called “adult habits,” we are astonished. “Did he just say the F-word?!” cry foul-mouthed parents. Or what about the popular video of the toddler dancing to Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” in a diaper? It may seem cute now, but when she turns four and starts dressing skimpy and actually mimicking the inappropriate dance moves, she’ll be on YouTube again. We’ll all be horrified – and somehow surprised.
Perhaps Ardi’s father thought he would stop smoking when his son was “old enough” to be impressionable. Perhaps he doesn’t realize – just like the rest of us often don’t – that “old enough” is actually a very young age.
Every parent needs to realize that our every action – both good deeds and bad habits – get collected by our young…by our very young. And it’s normal. This is what babies do. They don’t become susceptible overnight, but over time. There is not going to be a magical day in which your child alerts you by saying “Mom, Dad, I’m watching now!” So even though our newborns seem like out-of-touch blobs, they’re going to start picking up our shtick sooner than we think. We need to ditch our bad habits and realize that our responsibility to be positive role models starts before they can say, “Mama.” Sure, it’s easier said than done. That’s why if you’re child is still in utero - or even but a thought in G-d’s mind - there’s never been a better time to change.
Although smoking Ardi is an extreme example, he nevertheless makes the point. Through the national exposure his puffing has earned, perhaps the adult world will learn something about the impressions we make on our young. Thank you, little addicted Ardi. While you sit in Indonesia chain smoking, the world is getting a harsh lesson in parenting. Perhaps in that way, your blackening lungs won’t be entirely in vain.