Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Lies we tell our kids, part V

So, ya know, there's drugs. And if you're a parent with a fairly liberal take on drug use, it occurs to you often while they're little that you're going to have to have those discussions with them at some point. And this is a complex, tricky issue on a number of levels:
  1. You know that the normal parenting lines ("all drugs are bad!") aren't going to work for you, not only because you don't wish to lie to your kids, as is the cultural norm, but also because you have a commitment to non-coercive communication and to letting your kids know that you take them seriously and respect their ability to understand things.
  2. On the other hand, you recognize that addictions can be very serious, and kids tend to have both poor judgment and an unrealistic view of their own understanding of the world and powers to successfully navigate tricky things like drug use and sexual relationships.
  3. Taking an extreme stance such as complete prohibition of drug use and/or sexual activity tends to give the prohibited activity a glamor and allure all it's own.
  4. On the other hand, too casual of a stance can lead a kid to not take it seriously enough, so it seems like there's a fairly narrow path to navigate in which you don't want to err in either direction.
  5. Complicating things further is the fact that, in our current anti-all-drugs-except-those-hocked-by-the-right-pharmaceutical-corporation cultural climate, being too casual with your kids about the fact that you have in the past and maybe still do smoke a little pot from time to time can lead to things like losing custody of your kids over a casual remark made at school by a kid who was taught not to freak the fuck out about each and every instance of drug use.
Yesterday there was an article in New York Times about how to answer your kids' questions about your drug use. For the most part, I thought the recommendations were good. The fact that we seem to be moving away from immediate hysterics and defensive lying whenever the topic of drug use is raised with kids is encouraging. And it's not as if kids don't pick up on that stuff. If you get really defensive and evasive and resort to reciting the same old tired PSA script every time your kid brings up a topic, they're going to know they're onto something. And it will make them both more intrigued by the topic and less likely to trust you where that topic is concerned. And in my mind, having my kids not trust me is a worst-case scenario.

But I wonder why the article assumes that you wouldn't be discussing this with your kid unless they asked you point-blank about your drug use? I assume they think a good parent would be discussing drug use in general with their kids, so why wouldn't you include your own experience in this discussion? I'm not sure how to discuss things like this without referencing my own experience. I'm also not sure why I would expect my kid to trust me if I was deliberately refusing to discuss my experience while expounding on the topic as if I was some kind of expert.

So I think about my own experience, and which factors influenced me the most. Of course, my parents took a hard-line abstinence approach all the way down the line: sex, drugs, alcohol, you name it. Just don't do it. And so they just seemed irrelevant to me when it came to these issues. What did influence me?

Well, first there's the fact that I'm lucky to have the opposite of an addictive personality. Also, I think I was always good about factoring in consequences and looking at the long-term, even as a teen. So I would try things, but in small quantities, and only in circumstances where I felt safe. I wouldn't get drunk off my ass at a frat party or do ecstasy at a rave where I didn't know most of the people and all my friends were already drunk or high. The possibilities were just too scary to me. This might have something to do with the fear of being in a bad situation - one that you can neither control nor escape from - that develops out of a childhood experience of sexual abuse. At least in my case. So my early abuse situation led me to be a fairly sensible teen. Go figure.

But also, I lived in Seattle, where high quality pot (BC bud, y'all) was cheap and plentiful, so things like meth just didn't seem that interesting to us. I clearly remember my chemistry teacher telling us one day that certain drugs (acid, ecstasy, meth) caused permanent structural and chemical changes in your brain the first time you tried them. Someone asked about pot. He hedged for a second, not wanting to look like he was encouraging us to use pot, no doubt, and then said that the research he had seen showed that pot doesn't cause these changes, but takes about 6 months to completely flush out of your system and for your brain functioning to return to normal if you've been using it regularly. I'm not sure how accurate this info is, since I'm sure lots of research has been done since. But if you look at how addicting meth is, for instance, compared to pot, it seems like there has to be some truth in this. And as a teen this really struck me, and profoundly influenced the way I approached drugs. Don't get me wrong - I would drink and smoke pot around my friends, and did it often. But there were certain drugs I just wasn't all that interested in because of this knowledge.

A few years ago I was teaching at the alternative school, and I would frequently get into discussions about this stuff with students. Most of the kids there come from broken homes and messed up situations that often involve addiction and abuse, and they seek out stable adults who will have frank discussions with them about these topics that are so relevant to their lives. I remember having a lunchtime discussion with a couple of the girls about why I couldn't understand why some of the girls wanted to get pregnant. In this discussion I ended up finally articulating what had motivated a lot of my behavior as a teen.

To me, the most valuable thing a teen/young adult has is options. Quite honestly, as a teen/very young adult it's highly unlikely that you really know yet what you want your life to look like. You may not have discovered all your talents and passions and shortcomings yet, so trying to force yourself into some niche at this point in time can be disastrous. And behaviors that lead to pregnancy and addiction curtail the choices available to you and send your life on a trajectory that you'll probably dislike and regret years from now. So the best thing you can do for yourself is leave your options open, and give yourself time to explore and discover who you are and what you want.

When I imagine my kids as teens, I think about how I want them to explore the world and enjoy themselves, but also to take themselves seriously enough to leave their options open. I don't want them to be scared of sex and alcohol and drugs, but I do want them to be cautious and factor in the consequences of their actions. And I think this will be the motivating force behind my discussions of drug use (and sexual relationships) with them. I want them to feel relaxed about it and free to discuss the issues with me as they come up, and I'll use little opportunities along the way to bring up the issues in an age-appropriate manner. But I want to be the one they turn to for info and advice. And I want them to see the seriousness of the choices they make, but without being afraid of the world or of new experiences.

It's kind of a big task I've set for myself. Is it doable? I hope so.

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four


  1. Carolyn7/13/2010

    "Quite honestly, as a teen/very young adult it's highly unlikely that you really know yet what you want your life to look like."

    I feel like this is so true, but we put more pressure on kids than ever before to choose a college and a career path so early. It's incredibly misleading, since most people don't even end up doing what they went to college for, and it puts a lot of pressure on kids to decide things that they're not really ready for.

  2. Anonymous7/13/2010

    I think the way a person discusses this with thier kids should be tailored to the possibility that the kid could turn out to have addictive tendencies too. Both my husband and I become addicted easily, and my dad and grandfather were both alcoholics. This means there's a good chance our kids will have addictive tendencies, and it makes me inclined to be more cautious in discussions with my boys.

  3. happyfeminist7/13/2010

    @ Carolyn
    This is so true. I volunteered at a high school for a few months and I couldn't believe how early they started working on test prep and visiting campuses.

  4. cheesecakelover7/13/2010

    Very well said. I think it's hard to see the value of giving yourself choices and exit options when you're young. This probably goes along with the poor judgement point, but it really is hard to envision yourself as an older adult and have a sense of where you might want to be doing what.

  5. Shanigan7/13/2010

    I remember sitting in an advisors office staring at her in disbelief that I was supposed to know what I wanted to major in at the age of 18. I still wonder how you can choose when you have no idea what it's really like to work the job that a major will lead to.

  6. "I want them to feel relaxed about it and free to discuss the issues with me as they come up, and I'll use little opportunities along the way to bring up the issues in an age-appropriate manner. But I want to be the one they turn to for info and advice. And I want them to see the seriousness of the choices they make, but without being afraid of the world or of new experiences."

    This really spoke to me about the sort of mother I want to be someday. Definitely a harder road to take as it's less conventional. But I think it'll be worth the effort.

  7. Anonymous7/14/2010

    This issue of having to caution your kids about talking to police about drug use is problematic for me. I know of a guy who's a great dad who also happens to smoke pot now and then. When his kid was in D.A.R.E. the officer held up a bong and said "if you see anyone use one of these you need to tell us, because they're in terrible danger. This will hurt them very much." So of course the kid told them that his dad had one of those, and his dad lost custody and was restricted to supervised visits. So that basically forces you to lie to your kids about your drug use, doesn't it?

  8. Poinsett-ah7/14/2010

    I would straight up tell my kids that they can't trust the police about this kind of thing.

  9. Poinsett-ah,

    I agree, to some extent. The sad fact is that you really can't trust the police in many cases, and yet at times they are a resource you should use.

    My stepdaughter came home from school after "Officer Friendly" visited with a bunch of papers about how you should call 911 if there was a fire or car accident, or if you were attacked or robbed, etc. And I remember how they pump your head full of messages about how cops are your friends. So I said to her "it's true that we should call them in an emergency, but if the police are ever asking you to talk to them, you should tell them you want Dad or Mom or me or Grandma to be there with you before you'll talk to them, because there are some cops who are not good people, and you should always be careful about who you trust."

    About a week later she asked me "do you mean the cops who beat people up?" because apparently she had seen some police brutality video on the news. I'm not even sure where she was when she saw the video, but she described it to me. I said yes and left it at that. But as she gets older I know we'll have more nuanced discussions about this. I guess I want her to think about cops the way you think about any new person you meet: some are good and some are bad. There are cops you can trust, but you don't know whether or not you're dealing with one of those in the heat of the situation, so you should always be cautious. Because cops aren't like other people in the sense that they can use their power to fuck your life up big time, so caution is always called for. It's a sad message to have to discuss with your kids, but it's better they find out from you than find out the hard way.