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.