I realize that providing anecdotal evidence to combat scientific research is completely lame. I’m going to do it anyways. But I happen to feel like this new study about parents discussing their possible former drug use with their kids is a little questionable. Mostly, it assumes that saying drugs are super bad when you’re in middle school somehow equates to a healthy relationship with vices like drug, alcohol, and tobacco use later in life.
The study surveyed 561 middle school children in Illinois. Their findings were that, “Children were less likely to think drugs were bad if their parents opened up with them about past substance use to teach a lesson.” From that small bit of information, they extrapolated that parents should refrain from sharing their personal past experience with their kids, instead talking about the horrible things that happened to other people who use drugs.
My biggest problem here is that we’re assuming “thinking drugs are bad in middle school” equals “never doing drugs.” We’re assuming that young people are so simple-minded that hearing a nuanced conversation about vices, their risks, and why people still try them is dangerous. We assume that, “Drugs are bad!” is enough to keep tweens and teens from experimenting.
My mother never did drugs. But when I was younger, she admitted to my siblings and I that she had drank alcohol while in high school. I knew that she had made some dangerous choices, like getting into the car with someone who had been drinking. I knew that she smoked. Because I knew that my mom had smoked and drank, I didn’t necessarily think that doing so made you a “bad person.” But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t understand the consequences of those actions.
Even more than that, because my mother had honest conversations with my about her high school partying, I felt comfortable talking to her during my own high school years. Once, when a friend of mine had too much and I became worried about her safety, I was the person who called their parent to ask for help. And I’m thankful that I did.
I was a middle schooler once. I had plenty of friends who signed their, “Don’t do drugs” pledge and then went on to experiment. I had plenty of friends who didn’t know a thing about drugs and got themselves into serious trouble once recreational drug use became more prevalent and accessible, like on a college campus.
There’s more to keeping your kids safe than drilling in the idea that they should never use drugs ever. It’s a little like abstinence-only education. We need to be realistic and address that young people will encounter drugs and alcohol. They’ll have friends who smoke or drink. They’ll be at parties where it’s happening. And we need to explain that if they experiment, they can still be good people. They can still be responsible.
Personally, I’m thankful for my mother’s frank discussion about her partying days. I think I learned from them and I think I was more responsible because of them. It will take a whole lot more than one vague study to change my mind.