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Interview with Donna Shalala

Weekly Reader - Parent Supplement, Interview with Donna Shalala

Q. You've spent three years working with President Bill Clinton on children's issues. What's the one thing you'd like to tell parents and guardians of young children?

A. That's easy: You are by far the most important people in your children's lives.

Q. Why is that message so important?

A. Kids need their mothers and fathers, their guardians and their grandparents now more than ever. The fact is, your children are probably exposed to a lot more than you were at their age: violence on TV, cigarettes at the playground, marijuana use by someone they know.

Serious stuff. But when it comes to your children, no one has more influence than you. And there's help available if you want it; just check out the back page.

Q. So how can parents protect their children?

A. Start with the basics: Love your children and let them know it, have fun with them, listen to them, be firm when necessary, and get to know their friends. And remember, good communication is the best prevention there is.

With summer coming, kids need structured, positive things to do and lots of supervision. They also need balanced diets and regular physical activity both to help them grow and to teach them to take care of their bodies.

Your children appreciate clear messages from you: Tell them and show them you don't want them to smoke, drink or use drugs, or get in fights. Your values are the gold standard.

Q. Shouldn't parents put off these discussions until their kids become older?

A. I don't think so. It's safer to start earlier; silence can send the wrong message.

Take cigarette smoking: The fact is, from an early age, your children have been bombarded with messages that it's cool or glamorous to smoke. As a result, most smokers take up the habit as children. And 31 percent of smokers tried their first cigarette by sixth grade.

That's why President Clinton and I are fighting to make sure that tobacco advertising does not reach your children. We want to put power in your hands, not Joe Camel's, when it comes to teaching kids the facts about tobacco.

Q. And how can parents get the facts about tobacco, drugs, and other issues?

A. Lots of ways. Talk to other parents. Ask your doctor. Call your children's school.

But HHS can provide help as well. On the back of this supplement is a list of federal organizations that can provide you with free and confidential information on almost anything that affects your children.

So contact us. We created these services for you.

Secretary Shalala helps kids make healthful choices.Official HHS Photo by Chris Smith