Can cupcakes lead to the hard stuff?
They never came out and said so, but in a roundabout way, without mentioning "crack" or marijuana or even alcohol, that is what Colleen Hall and Kathleen Melcher were getting at in their presentation to a handful of 4- and 5-year-olds at the Women's Transitional Living Center in Fullerton last week.
Called Babes, or Beginning Alcohol and Addictions Basic Education Studies, the program Melcher and Hall presented is sponsored by the National Council on Alcoholism and other Dependencies and is being evaluated for possible use by the Women's Center--a temporary shelter for battered women and their children--as well as several Orange County school districts.
What distinguishes Babes and a handful of other new substance abuse prevention plans available to educators is the fact that it targets children as young as kindergarten age--a ripe age for learning responsible attitudes, some child specialists feel.
That's where the cupcakes come in.
You see: "When Buttons and Bows McKitty came home from school one day, the most wonderful smell was coming from the kitchen . . . . Mom had made some of the cupcakes the two of them loved so much," Melcher said, reading from Lesson 2 of the seven-lesson Babes guide.
The girl and three boys seated on the floor leaned forward to look at a picture of cupcakes in the guide.
" 'Oh Goody,' said Bows. 'Let's eat one right away,' " Melcher continued, gesturing with one of the two puppets on her hands.
" 'Wait, maybe we shouldn't,' " the Buttons puppet warned. A note from Mother McKitty clearly stated that the cupcakes were an after dinner treat.
The children seemed to sense what was coming. Already that day they had learned about the word decision.
And Myth Mary--a squirrel puppet--arrived right on cue.
"What's the matter?" Myth Mary asked. "Are you scared? . . . You want me to be your friend don't you?"
There it was--the moral predicament.
In essence, the dilemma kindergartners face in deciding whether to sample forbidden cupcakes is the dilemma adolescents face in deciding whether to accept a joint and the dilemma adults face in deciding whether to roll off the wagon into alcoholism or drug abuse, Hall said.
"The idea of Babes is to give children a lifetime of protection from substance abuse," said Hall, who, as director of youth services for the Orange County chapter of the National Council on Alcoholism is recommending the Babes program to area schools and service clubs.
Most elementary schools in Orange County touch on drug and alcohol problems within their standard health curriculum. Numerous special prevention programs aimed at drug abuse are also in use, including DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), which is taught by police officers; Operation Aware, sponsored by Rotary clubs, and the Lions Club's Project Quest.
But these plans usually focus on educating students in fourth, fifth or sixth grades, educators in different districts said.
Babes literature, however, quotes a UCLA School of Public Health study, which concluded that "attitudes about the use of alcohol and other drugs, smoking, violence and overeating are well formed before most children start the first grade."
With that sort of information in mind, school districts have been looking into special substance abuse education programs for kindergartners or even preschoolers.
Programs Being Evaluated
For example, Jane McCloud, coordinator of health services for the Orange Unified School District, will be evaluating five programs for possible use in her district.
One of those, already in wide use nationally, is called "Here's Looking at You Two" (or "Here's Looking at You 2000" in its latest form). For the full curriculum and materials package--complete with a 16-millimeter film, puppets, books, game boards, message posters and other props--a school pays $8,175.
One of the lessons used at the kindergarten or first-grade level is called: "Why Is Mickey Moose Crying?"
The lesson, which features a moose character, "helps kids understand what drug abuse is, what alcoholism is and how it affects the alcoholic," explained Don Fitzmahan, a representative of the Seattle-based company that created the program. "In second grade they'll learn how it affects the family."
Another lesson for kindergarten or first-graders is called "What Is a Drug?"
"Kids learn how to differentiate between things that are not drugs and things that are," he said.
In kindergarten the students learn about drugs such as aspirin, Fitzmahan said. They are given information about nicotine in second grade, alcohol in third and marijuana a year later. The idea, Fitzmahan said, is to educate students about a substance a few years before they are likely to encounter pressure to abuse it.
McCloud said that from what she has seen, most of the programs she will be evaluating emphasize decision-making, self-image and "refusal or social resistance skills"--the 'Just-say-no!' approach touted by First Lady Nancy Reagan.
"If kids have the tools for making good decisions and can say no, they're going to be better equipped when they're faced with alcohol and drugs" later in life, she said.
That was where the cupcake lesson of the Babes program was leading. Before the story began, the children sang--to the tune of "Frere Jacques"--a song called "I Am Special" from the previous lesson.
Titled "I'm Looking Good and Feeling Fine," that first lesson was meant to teach the children about self-image. Hall did not tell the children this, but when she went back to Maine earlier this year to be trained to present the program, she had heard a lot about the importance of self-image.
As the Babes teaching guide explains, "Self-image is important because it fundamentally influences behavior. It is especially significant as it relates to alcohol use because alcohol is frequently used by individuals to artificially improve self-image."
By the second Babes lesson, Buttons and Bows McKitty had not yet achieved an adequate self-image. Coaxed and cajoled by Myth Mary, the two caved in to the lure of the aromatic cupcakes. Another puppet character called Early Bird tried to warn the kittens with his patented "Honk! Honk!"
". . . But Buttons and Bows and Myth Mary pretended not to hear. They continued eating, cupcake crumbs all over their little faces."
Mother Not Pleased
Needless to say, when Mother McKitty got home, she was not pleased.
At the story's conclusion, the children put the puppets on their own hands and re-enacted the details of the episode, making better decisions along the way.
Each of the seven Babes characters, Hall explained, have set, well-defined personalities and can be used to teach the dynamics of good decision-making in almost any situation.
Beside the two kittens and Myth Mary, the Babes cast includes Donovan Dignity, a wise "non-judgmental" owl, "who corrects Myth Mary's myths and shares a lot of other good information"; Recovering Reggie, a recovering alcoholic dog who "tries to erase the stigma attached to chemical dependency and to pass on the lessons of living he has learned as part of his recovery."
Then there is Rhonda Rabbit, who lives with two alcoholic parents and is an abused child. "Rhonda was created for Babes out of necessity," the program's literature states. "Many children receiving the Babes program live in similar situations with their own chemically dependent parents. They need to know they are not alone. . . ."
The Babes program, was designed under the advice of psychologists and educators. It is currently in use in 245 elementary schools and 90 preschools in the Detroit area, where the program is based, and in 30 states.
Differences of Opinion
Not all child specialists are convinced that teaching children about drug and substance abuse at such an early age is a good idea.
Irene Goldenberg, director of psychological services at the Children's Division of UCLA's Neuropsychiatric Institute, was not familiar with Babes or other programs specifically. But she said she has reservations about the usefulness of any such plan.
"In kindergarten, you need to learn . . . an enormous variety of social, psychological and intellectual tasks. What you don't need is more information about drugs and alcohol," Goldenberg said.
It's not lack of education that makes children take drugs and alcohol nearly as much as it is parents' attitudes and behavior, Goldenberg said. "The idea that you're somehow going to inoculate the children from the parents is naive."
Dr. Justin Call, chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at UCI Medical Center in Orange was not familiar with specific programs, either, but he said: "My own knee-jerk reaction is that (substance abuse education) is a misplaced emphasis at that early age. . . . I think that's asking a child to do a little more than he is able to integrate into his learning at that age."
Pointing out that "conscience is something that grows very slowly in children," Call said that trying to teach kindergartners to make sophisticated judgments may be misguided.
"It's sort of like stealing childhood away from children," he said, adding, "It's a lot easier to push these programs off on very young children than it is to correct larger problems in adult society."
But Colleen Hall argues that childhood has already changed radically. She was shocked, she said, when she taught her first Babes lesson to a kindergarten class and asked if anyone knew what a drug was. One child said, "Yeah, it's white, and my brother puts it in his nose with a straw." Another said, "No, it's green, and you roll it up and smoke it."
Hall does not deny that the family is the most important influence on a child's behavior. But she thinks early intervention programs can help.
The Babes program, she said, has been designed to be used--with minor modifications--throughout elementary school, junior high and high school. There's even a Big Babes program for adults. "It's basically a parenting program."
"We want the character 'tapes' to become part of the child," Hall said.