Talking To Your Child About Drugs

Recently a friend called to ask me what I thought who has taken drugs years ago should say to their kids if they asked about it. I hadn’t given it much thought as my 9-year-old son hasn’t asked yet, and right now is happily negative about drugs. He believes what he’s told at school and even on TV–that drug taking is creepy and for losers, not the kind of thing a budding pro hockey star would do.

So I thought for a second. The only thing I knew I wouldn’t tell him is that I had “experimented” with drugs. for I was not wearing a lab coat. Then I added that you can’t control your children’s future decisions, that all you can do is raise them well and accept that they’ll make up their own minds, yadda yadda.

But I detected a kind of defeat in my answer, an offhand resignation that is, when you’re talking about the future of your child, inappropriate. (Interesting how we say “inappropriate” these days when what we mean is “wrong.”)

So I thought about it some more. I knew I didn’t want to lie to my son, didn’t want to be a hypocrite and pretend I was innocent in this area when I wasn’t. So I called two wise friends and asked what they thought. They, like me, had smoked marijuana on and off in college and. like me, had stopped. We all just grew out of it.

“You should lie,” said the first, firmly. “If you tell them you took drugs, you’re giving them implicit permission. You’re still here and fine. so they can smoke pot and be fine too.”

“Don’t lie,” said the second. “Tell them you tried it and didn’t like it.” Mmmmm–a semi-lie. And one that suggests that liking it is the criteria by which to judge. My friend said this is what she’d told her daughter, an independent sort. who had rolled her eyes.

What caught my attention about my friends’ advice was not that they disagreed but that they had such different tones. The first friend was unalterably opposed to drug use and tailored her strategy to preventing it. The second friend was more temporizing, more accepting of the inevitability of independent choices.

She sounded more like me. And I didn’t like the way we sounded. Then I got some data that stopped me cold.

Drug use has doubled over the past four years among kids ages 12 to 17. The reason is debated, but a recent study from Columbia University’s National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse suggests it may not be so mysterious.

The study showed that teenagers who know their parents once used marijuana and whose parents directly or implicitly communicate that marijuana is relatively harmless are at greater risk of using drugs. What’s more, 46 percent of parents expect their children will try drugs; 40 percent believe there is little they can do about it. Whereas teenagers far less likely to use drugs are those whose parents teach them unambiguously–that it is wrong. Joseph A. Califano, the antidrug crusader who heads the center, said that children of baby boomers are being let down–by parents who cannot or will not teach with conviction that pot and other drugs are dangerous.

This may sound stupid, but it hadn’t quite occurred to me that my attitudes would shape-profoundly–my son’s actions. I wasn’t aware of how accepting I was that kids make their own mistakes, how I assumed that if I had smoked marijuana for a short time with no ill effect, then so could he.

But maybe he couldn’t. Maybe he’d find it a gateway to other things. And anyway–it’s wrong. Once, we viewed drug taking as a victimless crime, a personal choice. But who after living through the past 30 years in America could think that now?

One psychologist had good advice, I thought, for parents whose kids put them on the spot. Make it clear that drug taking is one area where you expect them to do what you say and not what you did. Make clear the dangers–remind them that even experimentation is dangerous, stupid, and bad. What will I tell my son’? I’ll tell him that I did it, that I liked it for awhile and then I didn’t, and that I was wrong to do it.

So this is where I finally come down: Don’t be a fatalist, don’t cede authority. Realize that what you think colors what your children think. Ambivalence is just another way not to decide, not to take responsibility. It’s also a kind of pathetic way of trying to be cool-which is sort of a low ambition for a person in one’s forties. yes? We ought to get over that one.

I guess what I’m saying to myself and other boomers is this: Get over it. You did it; it was wrong.=Be an adult and say so. It’s one thing to be ambivalent about your own choices. It’s another to be ambivalent about your child’s.

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