How do you tell your kids to stay away from drugs when you used to do them, or -- gasp -- still do? What if you don't think drugs are so very wrong?
Twelve years ago, back when you could put things in the mail without a return address, my old college buddy Jim sent me a package. Opening the plain, brown box, I was surprised at its contents: the small purple bong he and I had put to very good use in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Along with this stained relic he had scribbled a note of explanation: “Getting married and planning to have children, so I guess I won’t be needing this anymore.” I wasn’t sure what unnerved me more: his decision that “growing up” meant giving up something that he enjoyed without incident, or the implied idea that I was stuck in a hazy past while he moved on to an appropriate, adult future.
The second time I experienced In Loco Bongus I thought: This is getting weird (and also: What am I going to do with two bongs?). This time my co-worker walked into my office, closed the door, and sheepishly explained that while he and his glass two-footer had had some great times together, his son was getting older, he had a second on the way, and he didn’t want anyone under 4 feet to stumble across it accidentally. “I don’t want my boy to think it’s OK to be a pothead,” he explained. “Well, that’s not true, I don’t want him to think it’s OK to be a full-blown hazed-out pothead.” Which is why he switched to a much smaller, more easily stashed pipe.
According to the 2002 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, more than a third of Americans over the age of 12 have tried marijuana at some point in their life — that’s 80 million people who actually admit it, and I suspect there are a couple more who don’t. Many of these millions can look at their offspring with a straight face and explain that while they once experimented with drugs during the folly of their youth, now they don’t — and neither should you, little man.
That must be nice for them. I don’t know many of these people.
The people I have spent the last decade working and playing with have inhaled more than a few puffs and taken a variety of trips down Alice’s rabbit hole. Yet some way, somehow they have turned into able and impressive members of the republic. These are people with good jobs, who engage in charitable pursuits and who rarely cut in line at Whole Foods. We’ve taken some of our old vices with us into adulthood without burning down the house or checking into rehab. We’ve done a good job prolonging our adolescence, but now we’re facing adulthood’s ultimate gut check: children. And when it comes to kids, we have a drug problem.
What to tell the children about past — and, in many cases, current — drug use ain’t easy. Should we practice what we preach? Should we lie? Where do you draw the line between being a hypocrite and protecting your kids? Are we worse parents if we get high in front of our kids than if we have a couple of stiff drinks? How do we reconcile our own experiences with drugs — ones that have been overwhelmingly positive — with the very real possibility that our kids could run into trouble with what are in fact potent substances?
Before you write nasty letters to the editor denouncing my friends and me for advocating drug use, let’s be clear: Scores of people have had their lives and the lives of those around them destroyed by drugs. No one I know believes that all drugs are good nor wishes a nation of junkies on anyone. Drugs are not for all people, all drugs are not for all drug users, and no illicit drugs are good for children. Among my close friends, there’s a general feeling that there are “good” drugs and “bad” drugs. The good ones are empathetic and eye-opening (MDMA, marijuana, hallucinogens). The bad ones are ego-driven and destructive (coke, speed, heroin). Both types can destroy you — it’s just that they haven’t in our case. In a topic that doesn’t deal much in grays, this is a nuanced and certainly unpopular point of view. So it’s no surprise, if a bit disappointing, that most of the people I talked to asked to have their names changed.
“I’m not nervous at all about talking to my sons about sex,” says my friend Rob, a 32-year-old writer living in Brooklyn, N.Y., with his wife and two small boys, aged 1 and 5. “But I’m scared shitless to talk to them about drugs.” Rob smokes as much as two to three times a week, but never when his children are awake. He thinks the worst thing for him to have heard when he was a kid would have been that smoking pot is acceptable. “I would have been off to the races,” he says. That’s why Rob is hesitant to be completely honest with his own children about his drug use. “I probably won’t be fully open about my drug use until my sons are in their 20s, post-college maybe. I feel like I have to give him guidance before that, but I’m not going to tell him about the time I dropped two hits of E and two tabs of acid and had my brain melt while I watched the Breeders and the Beastie Boys at Lollapalooza. I can’t say, ‘Make sure you don’t melt your brain like daddy!’”
“My push for parents is always to be open and honest,” says Marsha Rosenbaum, who leads workshops for parents on how to handle drug use among their kids as director of the Safety First project of the Drug Policy Alliance. “Kids have amazing bullshit detectors and are probably going to know that we aren’t telling the truth. To the parents who stopped using drugs, I say tell them your story and tell them the real story.”
Drug story hour’s a tough one, but many of my friends want to tell their children about all of their experiences — the good and the bad and the hazy in betweens — eventually. Knowing whom to tell what when is the hard part. Rob says he knows exactly what he’ll say to his kids when they’re 25; he just has no idea what to tell them when they’re 10.
“My husband and I won’t hide our pot use from our daughter because it’s just such a natural part of our lives,” says Carla, a 35-year-old communications specialist in Oakland, Calif., and mother of an 8-month-old girl. “But while she’s growing up will we tell her Mommy and Daddy loved having sex on coke in a hotel room when she was staying with Grandma? Will we tell a teenage girl that the occasional line of K [Ketamine] is a blast? Absolutely not. The important thing is to explain that drugs are for adults who are old enough to handle them, and that they will have a chance to experiment soon enough in life if that’s what they want to do.”
Allie, a 33-year-old legal aid attorney in Washington, D.C., who has been known to enjoy a large cocktail of substances over the years, is planning a family now and suspects she’ll take a somewhat less tolerant — perhaps hypocritical — approach. “I won’t tell them about my own use until they’re old enough not to be influenced by it, which I think is 16 to 18 depending on the kid, because I won’t tolerate any drug use from them,” she says. “It just seems like they’ll have so many sources in their lives justifying drug use — from friends to hormones to boredom to the Internet — that they will also need to have something on the other side balancing it.”
I myself don’t have kids. I may very well someday, and as I get older I can increasingly understand the temptation to just out and out lie to them about a variety of parts of my life, especially my drug use. I mean, do I really want to tell Larry Jr. that daddy had a mind-altering moment on mushrooms at Joshua Tree when he was 23, but my dear, my dear boy, if I ever find mushrooms in your backpack you’ll be grounded from now until your freshman year in college?
“I would be much more concerned if my kids thought I was a hypocrite than if they thought I was a pothead,” says my friend Alan, a professor of English at Indiana University and soon-to-be father of twins. Alan’s been thinking a lot about what he’s going to tell his children about his daily pot use, a habit he suspects won’t be so compatible with the daily rigors of daddyhood. “I’ll tell them that I smoke, I like it, but that it’s not for everyone,” he says. “I will tell them that I did certain drugs for adventure and exploration, but never to counter self-esteem and an inability to tolerate reality. I will tell them if they decide to try drugs, I hope they tell me and I’ll demand that they be safe.”
Safe is actually less subjective than it may sound. “Just as you can’t use a chain saw or drive until you are a certain age, you shouldn’t use drugs until you are old enough to be able to handle it,” says Mitch Earleywine, a professor at the University of Southern California and author of “Understanding Marijuana: A New Look at the Scientific Evidence.” Earleywine says new studies reveal that cannabis can interfere with the brain’s development before the age of 17. It stands to reason that a compelling case can be made for telling your kids to hold off until after high school graduation, even if you didn’t.
A current Office of National Drug Control Policy anti-drug campaign seeks to help confused adults reconcile their past use with whatever version of “just say no” they’re trying to work out as they raise kids. Called Hypocrite,” it reads: “So you smoke pot. And now your kid’s trying it and you feel like you can’t say anything. Get over it. Smoking pot can affect the brain and lead to other risky behaviors. So you have to set the rules and expect your kid to live drug free no matter how hypocritical it makes you feel.”
“In the focus groups we asked parents to identify some of the barriers that existed in talking to kids about drugs — and their own experience with drugs came up as one of those barriers,” says Jennifer DeVallance, a spokesperson for the ONDCP. “These ads are saying: You need to step up to the plate, regardless of what your experience was.”
Unlike the folks in the government’s focus group, most of my friends don’t think their own past makes them hypocrites, but rather better informed parents. Jill, an interior designer who lives outside of Nashville, Tenn., with her teenage son, says that she’s not so worried about her son’s experimentation because she has so much experience with drugs herself. “If you never did drugs as a teen, or any other time in your life, I suspect all you can think about is your kid behaving like he or she is a character in ‘Reefer Madness’ or that he’s going to become Robert Downey Jr.,” she says. Jill has resigned herself to the fact that her son does drugs, but she is tough with him about his use. “We talked about what some people can handle and others can’t.” She explained to him that in her mind, pot is on par with alcohol: Both get you high, both should be taken in moderation and both can have devastating effects on your life if you overindulge. “Once I knew about his use, I told him what I had done,” she says. “Not everything all at once. I didn’t want my former experiments to encourage him, and it was more information than he needed at one sitting.”
“If you didn’t think your drug use was a big mistake, don’t tell them that it was a big mistake, which is what the government wants you to say,” says Rosenbaum. “Tell them that they were probably attracted to it for the same reasons that you were. And if you quit, tell them why.”
Delia, a 47-year-old physical therapist in Manhattan with a 13-year-old daughter, agrees. “I will tell her drugs were fun and seductive,” she says, “but ultimately they were a mistake.” Knowing that Delia had a pretty wild ride in the late ’60s and ’70s, I ask her if she plans to tell her daughter the whole story. Her answer is an unflinching no. “I can’t ever tell her everything I did, especially that I tried heroin,” she says. “I tried it once and liked it so much that I knew it could destroy me. A survival instinct kicked in, one I don’t know would kick in for her. But I can’t tell her the entire truth of my use because I don’t want to influence her.”
And there’s the riddle: There’s no more influential person in a child’s life than a parent. Therefore, in one way or another, every parent I talked to felt that to a certain degree they had to lie to their kids about drugs. Yet almost in the same breath, few want to mask what for at least a certain period in their life was a very real, important and joyful part of who they were and are as people.
“My goal as a parent,” says Carla, “is to give her the tools to know what she can handle and what’s too much. I don’t want her to say no to drugs, because they can be freakin’ fun. It’s not a popular perspective, but it’s true. Fun is a big part of my life, and drugs are a part of fun.”
“But you know what?” she says with a pregnant pause, “my perspective today could change a lot in 10 years.”
If so, I fear I’ll be getting another bong in the mail.
Larry Smith has written about his and other people's lives for ESPN magazine, the New York Times, Teen People, and other publications. More Larry Smith.
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