Should I tell my kids about all the drugs I used to do?

I've been honest with them about everything, but I'm not sure about this.


Cary Tennis
September 21, 2007 2:17PM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

I'm a happily married father of two great kids, my son at 12 and my daughter at 10. They are healthy, well-adjusted, happy kids growing up in a bedroom community outside New York City, where my wife was raised in a mostly sheltered environment. I was a city kid who did all the good and bad things teenagers did in the '60s and '70s, including underage drinking and drugging. We are trying to raise our children with the emphasis on love, caring, trust and honesty, and we receive a lot of comments from other parents on how good they are to others. We are very lucky, proud parents.

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Since the day my son was born, I've been worrying about how I'm going to react when he finally asks, "Dad, did you do drugs when you were my age?" Now, I didn't just smoke pot -- I tried lots of pills, acid, THC, etc., and, along with most of the young-adult population during the '80s, a lot of cocaine. And I drank to get drunk many times, doing stupid things like driving high and hooking up with strangers for unprotected sex. By some miracle, I got through this phase without any catastrophes or diseases, and gave all of that up more than 20 years ago.

But do I tell my kids about it?

We are very honest with them, and answer all of their questions as far as we can without scaring them. This has meant telling them about the facts of life earlier than anyone else in our town, with the provision that they let others learn for themselves by asking their parents. We had a discussion concerning abortion the other night and, without telling them that their mom had the procedure many years earlier, expressed our firm belief in the right of a woman to choose for herself. I'm sure that once they hit 16 or 17, their mom will tell them about her experience, to help them understand that these situations happen to everyone.

But I am worried that a description of my wild youth might encourage my son, and possibly my daughter, to try pot or other drugs. There's a lot of it around our area, as there is everywhere. And although I consider pot a pretty harmless diversion, I know that it can often be a steppingstone to other, more dangerous drugs. It was for me and for a lot of my friends -- some of whom weren't as lucky as I was.

My older sister, who has gone through this with her now college-age kids, adopted the policy of denying her own use when her kids asked about it in high school. And she was a bigger druggie than me! In discussing this with other parents in town, I've come to realize that there's a lot of "Don't tell" philosophy going around -- the idea is to wait until they are adults before telling them the truth. I don't want to sound holier than thou, but my wife and I have always been honest with our kids, and make a point to emphasize telling the truth all of the time.

So, do I lie now and tell later? Or do I tell the truth, and risk opening Pandora's box? My kids are smart and reasonable most of the time, but they are also risk takers, and like all children occasionally fall under the influence of their peers. Can you shed any light on the situation? Have you encountered this dilemma before?

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Scared of What the Truth Might Bring

Dear Scared,

Suppose you tell your kids that you did lots of cocaine when you were young.

What are your kids supposed to do with that information? Are they supposed to imitate their dad? Or are they supposed to differentiate themselves from their dad? How will they know? Your telling them how to interpret it would not carry sufficient force; the image of their dad doing coke is too freighted an image.

Here you are, the most important, influential man in their lives, the man they hope to emulate, and you did drugs. So if they want to be like you, shouldn't they do drugs too? How can they conclude that doing drugs is not a good idea? Just because you say it is not a good idea? But look how you turned out! You turned out fine! To conclude that doing drugs is not a good idea, they would have to conclude that you are not a good man. Since you are a good man and you did drugs, what other conclusion can they reach?

That assumes they're thinking about it logically. We're not really sure if they're going to do that or not. They might just collage it with all the other emotionally charged images populating the quasi-dream world of childhood: that time they saw you in the shower with Mommy, that time you kicked the dog, yelled at the grocery clerk, that time you and Mommy had a fight and you didn't come back until really late ... you know, all the usual brain video that doesn't make much sense but seems to motivate us in powerful ways.

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Following that model -- the archetypal mishmash/great unconscious model of information processing -- you're putting the image of cocaine into the part of their brains where all the Dad-related images are stored, and you're putting the image of Dad into the part of their brains where all the cocaine-related images are stored. Like their rooms, those parts of their brains are not all that orderly.

So it would all get shaken up in that fast-developing multiplex of a brain and the message might be something like this: My dad did coke. My dad did coke in Jersey. My dad did coke with strippers and hookers in Jersey. My dad bought coke from the mob. My dad was in the mob and snorted coke in Jersey with strippers and hookers. My dad was Tony Soprano.

Not that they would believe this literally. I'm just saying that if you tell them you did coke, you cannot reliably know what conclusions they will reach.

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So, basically, you need a simple approach to talking about your past, one that does not fill their heads with strange, lurid images but does not require you to lie or deceive them either. Ideally, this approach would be educational; it would help them learn how to make decisions and deal with mistakes.

So my preference would be to refuse to answer specific questions about your own personal history, and instead shift the subject to decision making and owning up to mistakes. About your own life, you would say that like anybody you made mistakes as a kid, and what you learned from your mistakes is that when we make a mistake, we have to fix it. We have to be honest about it. We have to talk it over with somebody we trust. We figure out what went wrong and how we would do things differently if it came up again.

But how can you refuse to tell them about your drug use and yet still maintain honesty? You tell the truth. The truth is that you are an adult and you have a private life and not everything you have done in your life is available to inspection. You just tell them that: Not everything you have done in every detail is available for inspection. Some things are private.

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To which they might reply, well, why do we have to tell you things, then, if you don't have to tell us things? To which you would reply, well, I am an adult, and I am here to protect you, and you have to trust me, and if you tell me something that is private, I will make sure it stays private; I will put it with all my private stuff. And together then we will help you figure out what is private and what is not. Meanwhile, you have to trust me and tell me when you make mistakes or are uncomfortable or scared.

This all sounds lovely. But face it. You are about to become the parent of teenagers. As they mature, you are going to lose control and they are going to gain control. This is good and inevitable but takes some adjustment on your part.

Not only that, but a certain percentage of people are going to respond to drugs and alcohol in an addictive way. We can't know in advance who will respond in what way. It is probably true, however, that the longer you can keep a child away from a drug, the less damage it will do, once he does try it, even if he is predisposed to addiction. Young, developing brains are more vulnerable to harm from drug use than fully mature brains. And if the attraction of drugs has powerful competition from other attractions, such as sports, social events, arts, academics, vacations, relationships, jobs, dreams of greatness, love of learning, peak experiences of various kinds, then to that extent experimentation and addiction will be delayed or attenuated. And if you teach your kids the tools for good decision making and communication, and one of them does experiment and recognize that he or she has an addictive response, he or she may be better disposed to seek help earlier rather than later.

You cannot know what their mistakes will be, or what their decisions will be about. Maybe their big problems will not be about drugs at all, but about sex, or power, or sports, or relationships, or creativity, or career choice. The process of truth telling remains the same. So I would concentrate on the process. The process is based on love and honesty and respect. In your letter to me, you say that you have tried to build those qualities into your interactions with your kids. So I would just keep doing that.

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And then you work together to fix the problem.

It all sounds very "Leave It to Beaver," doesn't it?

I know it can't be that easy.

But try to keep it simple. Focus on the process and the problem solving.

And don't tell them about your drug use until you're in your 70s.

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That way, at least you have something to look forward to.


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