For years, local teenagers have gathered in the field behind my house for their nocturnal activities, which include shooting off firecrackers and howling at the moon. And apparently, some others as well - one of my nine-year-old's friends recently showed him a place known as "J-street," which is littered with all kinds of remnants, including long pointy things that they found "weird smelling."
Obviously, it was time for the drug talk. Although my son seems grossed out now by the idea of smoking marijuana or anything else, we all know how formerly icky-sounding activities develop a whole new appeal once adolescence dawns.
But what to say, what to say? Putting my therapist hat on, I decided to let his agenda drive the conversation. Talk less, listen more, I said to myself. Focus on tone, not content. Calm, unemotional, factual, calm, unemotional, factual, calm...
So my son asked what that pointy, weird-smelling thing was. Probably a cigar hollowed out and stuffed with marijuana, I told him (I've heard from some folks in-the-know that this is the latest fad). Yuck, he said, as I had predicted he would. Why would people want to do that, he asked.
I think many parents do a Nancy Reagan here and start talking about peer pressure and Just Say No strategies. Depending on your child, this may be perfectly appropriate. For some kids, peer pressure does indeed strongly influence drug use. Oddly enough, however, I'm not too worried about my son and peer pressure, as he cares very little (sometimes startlingly so) about what others think (my social butterfly daughter, I'm afraid, will present altogether different challenges).
Instead, I decided to be super-honest: I told him that many people find that drugs and alcohol make them feel really good. After all, I said, if drug use wasn't enjoyable, why would anyone do it? For instance, take a teenager wracked with social anxiety, add a bit of alcohol or weed, and suddenly the party seems fun after all.
Taken out of context, this may sound like I'm encouraging my nine-year-old to use drugs. But what I'm doing is inoculating him against their very real allure. Since I'm acknowledging the fun parts upfront, it lessens the impact when and if he experiences them firsthand. If all I do is rage about the horrors of drug use, the first time he gets a nice buzz, he'll be thinking, "Boy, Mom was wrooooongg. Not gonna listen to her again!"
If I send a Don't You Dare Even Think About It message, my son will sprint straight toward the forbidden fruit. Although that pattern is typical of adolescents in general, it will likely be especially so for my son, who, although only nine, feels that he is already an adult.But I did introduce him to the many downsides of drug use (calm, I reminded myself, calllmmm). Sometimes, I said, people want to stop because it's messing up their lives, but they just can't. I drew parallels with nail biting and thumb sucking - not to minimize addiction, but what else can a nine-year-old relate to?
Next came some scary stories. I described a few local incidents of drug and alcohol use gone horribly wrong, including the case of an inebriated teenager who crashed his car and died on the front lawn of my son's school about three years ago. Again, although the content was sad and upsetting, I aimed for a relatively unemotional tone. I don't want him to associate talking with me about drugs or other sensitive topics with my getting upset or tearful or angry - otherwise, he will be much less likely to confide in me should he choose to dabble. Depending on your child, scary stories can be appropriate, as long as these do not constitute your entire bag of tricks. (I can tell you that I was never tempted to try cocaine after the sudden death of Maryland basketball player Len Bias in 1986).
Finally, I point out, the fact remains that drug and alcohol use are illegal for teenagers. In fact, J-street has been eerily quiet for the past few weeks. One evening last month, fed-up neighbors called police, who caught the teens, cuffed them, and took them away.
My son, as I half-suspected he would, asked why drugs like marijuana and cocaine are totally illegal, while alcohol and tobacco are legal for adults.
Good question! I shoot him some praise as I scramble for the right words. Great question, I add. Uh-oh.
Here's where my plan went slightly awry; despite my good intentions regarding letting him do the talking, I gave a speech, and a long one at that. It took a lot of words, I found, to tell my son that he must respect the law, but at the same time convey that I disagree with the criminalization of drug use and abuse. Doing otherwise would feel hypocritical.
I started with some twentieth-century American history. I told him about Prohibition and its failure, then how the public moved toward conceptualizing drug use as a morality issue rather than a public health concern. All of this set the stage for our nation's 40-year-old War on Drugs, sending dreadful ripple effects across the continent. This epic battle between Good and Evil became an unmitigated failure – and the bad guys won. (Check out what's going on in Ciudad Juarez these days).
This is the part I really want my son to get: the bad guys, I emphasize, are not the drugs themselves, or the people who use them. The bad guys are the ones lusting for the money and power that only the illegal drug market, with its staggering profit potential, can provide. Sociopaths, of course, will exploit whatever is handy and vulnerable - if it weren't drug profits it would be something else. But the War on Drugs has just made it so darn easy for them.
So I obviously blathered on and on during our little drug talk. But I think he got the most important point I wanted to make: using drugs will help line the pockets of some very, very bad people. This argument may just be the one that deters him from drug use, more than anything else I can dream up.
My advice: talk to your kids early and often about drugs. No matter what approach you take, watch your tone and emotionality. And importantly, since you know your children best, pick an angle that will resonate with them.