It was never our plan to talk with our daughter about cannabis when she was seven. We figured we’d wait a few years, until she was ten or eleven. I’d taught fifth graders and I’d taught first; I knew the former to be deeply interested in issues of social justice, rights, and power. They’d mastered the basic skills and were ready to spread their critical thinking wings; it’s, in fact, a prime time to sow the seeds that will inspire agents of change who challenge the status quo.
First graders, on the other hand, are much more concrete, literal, black-and-white thinkers. Our daughter is no exception. Regarding theory of mind, it isn’t until age six or seven that children develop the cognitive ability to understand that there are perspectives other than their own; they’ve lived a me-centric existence for all this time and are only starting to get why they feel stirrings of empathy inside their little hearts. They are children who need many explanations about the concept of fairness and many examples of why fair doesn’t mean we all get the same thing. I am not suggesting that they are selfish ogres; on the contrary, I’ve lead many discussions in which first graders grappled with hard topics such as bias and privilege, bullying and upstanding, and equal rights. But they tend to be attached to their particular points of view, because, you know, they’re six.
So we thought it was best to delay this particular dialogue. We’d done a decent job of keeping our cannabis use a secret from our child for seven years. Certainly we could go three more.
When we started Weekend Review Kit, we had to reassess this plan. Should we be proactive and initiate a conversation, or should we wait until she starts to ask questions? We were playing it by ear, reading her cues as best we could but not diving into a discussion that she wasn’t ready for. She knew about WRK, that we were writers and we’d created a website; she’d been a part of conversations about a variety of transitions and had pretty much rolled with them, trusting that if we were all in this together, everything was going to be just fine. We asked her permission to include photos and anecdotes involving her on the site; a true performer, she was eager for the exposure.
But then it occurred to us how strange it was that she wasn’t asking questions. Ours is an insatiably curious and incessantly talkative girl with very little filter, especially when it comes to seeking out information. She’s bolder than I will ever be, and she’ll ask any question that pops into her head. Why hadn’t she inquired deeper about the purpose of WRK? We worried that she’d gotten the sense that it was something she couldn’t ask about, like when children start to notice sexuality but aren’t comfortable approaching the topic with adults. And that, of course, was the opposite of what we wanted.
So we went straight to YouTube, and we found the video of Hank Green interviewing the president. We’d hoped Obama would address federal cannabis prohibition during the State of the Union address, and, while he didn’t, he did talk about the issue two days later when Green prodded him by asserting his own opinion that cannabis should be legal. We watched the video together, using it to help frame our conversation and pausing to offer clarification and insight.
Here’s how “the talk” played out for us, based on the direction her questions took us:
What is he talking about when he says marijuana?
When people say the word marijuana, they mean a plant that is considered a drug. Some people call it cannabis, or pot, or weed. It has lots of names, and people use it in lots of different ways, including as medicine and to relax and have a good time. Sometimes people smoke its flowers, sometimes they make it into an oil, sometimes they bake it in foods.
So, what’s a drug?
When we say drugs, we can mean a lot of things. Drugs are substances that change your body (including your mind) in some way. We generally don’t consider foods drugs but they would count under this definition. It’s worth mentioning that if we did consider foods drugs, sugar might be illegal based on its potential harmful effects!
Sometimes when people say drugs, they mean medicine, something that will help you feel better, heal, or recover when you’re sick.
Another way people use the word drugs is to mean a substance that changes your brain function, including your mood or the way you see and understand things. A lot of the time, these kinds of drugs can be medicine too.
And some drugs are illegal?
We’ve decided as a society that some drugs are harmful and some aren’t. And different drugs have different rules based on how harmful we think they are. So we can look at examples of how laws work for a few substances:
Caffeine – coffee, tea, soda, and some other foods contain a chemical called caffeine, and caffeine is a drug. Based on what we know, caffeine doesn’t seem to be too harmful, so it’s legal to buy and drink beverages that contain caffeine. Some people say you shouldn’t give it to kids, but it’s not illegal – anyone can drink coffee, tea, or soda.
Nicotine – nicotine is a drug found in tobacco, which is what cigarettes are made of. Like coffee, nicotine is a stimulant, which means it makes you feel sped up. In large doses, nicotine can be very harmful, and it is very addictive, which means that it’s hard to stop using it once you start. In our society, we’ve decided that people over the age of 18 can buy and use nicotine products, but that children and teens cannot.
Alcohol – alcohol is a drug in drinks like wine and beer. It can make you feel intoxicated, or drunk (jolly and kind of silly, or goofy, or, sometimes, out of control), and it slows down your body and brain. Alcohol can be dangerous if used irresponsibly, like drinking too much or driving a car when you’ve been drinking. It is legal for grownups over the age of 21 to buy and use, and it can be very bad for your brain if you use it when you’re younger.
Cannabis – cannabis is a plant that contains chemicals that, like alcohol, can change the way you think and perceive things. People say it makes you feel “high.” Most of the information we have shows that cannabis isn’t as dangerous as either tobacco or alcohol, and that, in fact, it can be a very helpful medicine, but it’s entirely illegal in most places. Some places allow certain people to use it for medicine, but it is federally prohibited, which means that the U.S. government says it’s not okay, even for adults.
Is the government wrong?
We have to trust that, most of the time, we have access to the right information and that the people who make the rules are doing what’s best for our society. But sometimes they make mistakes, by accident and on purpose.
It’s a mistake to think that cannabis is so harmful that it should be illegal. It’s a mistake to think that it’s more harmful that nicotine or alcohol. It’s a mistake to think that cannabis can’t be used as medicine.
We’re lucky to live in a country that allows citizens to try to change the mistakes in our laws. That’s what we hope to do with Weekend Review Kit. We want to show people that cannabis is not harmful and that grownups should be allowed to use it responsibly. It’s not like caffeine – children should never try it because it’s important to let your brain develop without interference – but we believe the rules around cannabis should be closer to the rules around alcohol.
In some places they are. In Denver and in Seattle and now in other places too. And lots of people are working together to change laws for our whole country.
So, we had the talk. With our seven-year-old daughter, sitting together at our breakfast table. The more we shared, the more settled and relaxed our girl seemed. She now knows what Weekend Review Kit is all about and what her parents are all about. She likes having all the information; she likes being able to make sense of what’s happening around her, and I think she’s proud to know that her parents are standing up for something they believe strongly in.
“Do you have more questions?” She didn’t. She smiled. She was ready to go off and play or draw or read.
“But I’ll let you know if I do.”
WRK’s Tips for Talking about Cannabis with Children
Everyone’s conversation will be different, based on the child/ren you have, your family dynamics, how much you share, and how comfortable you are approaching the topic. A few general tips:
- Be well informed, honest, and confident in your stance. This will build trust between you and your children. You want to be able to answer any of their factual questions, and you want to be clear about your family’s values and how they relate to cannabis. If you don’t have an answer, own up to it and talk about ways you might find that information together. Share personal experiences as candidly as is appropriate. Authenticity goes a long way, and children have finely-tuned BS detectors.
- Emphasize that responsible cannabis consumption by adults is safe. Your children need to know that your safety and theirs is a priority and that you wouldn’t do something that would put any of you in danger. Talk about moderation and healthy practices. Encourage them to learn about their developing brains and why they should wait to partake.
- Reassure your children that all of the choices you make are okay for your family, even if they’re not inline with the prevailing cultural paradigm. Be clear that “different things work for different families.” This tends to be a catchall strategy in our house, and it is a surprisingly effective (and truthful) way to handle sensitive topics. Depending on your circumstances, this is also a helpful way to begin a conversation about why cannabis isn’t something we talk about at school.
- Use language that your children understand and that you’ve used around other topics of family conversation. “Mindful’” is a word we say a lot, so it was a helpful way to talk about responsible cannabis use. “Be your best self” is another phrase we like, so we say, “You can use cannabis and still be your best self.” Always identify terms children might not have heard before and try to relate them to something familiar. When children can activate prior knowledge, they have a much easier time assimilating new information.
- The most important thing is to watch, listen, and respond to your child. All children are different, learn differently, and process the world around them differently. You know your child best, and you can read her/his nonverbal cues better than anyone else. Give your child the “just-right” amount of information – enough to ensure understanding and alleviate the anxiety of not knowing but not too much so as to be overwhelming or confusing. Remember, you are your children’s hero, their protector and guide. As long as they know they are loved and safe, and as long as you take the time to listen carefully and explain patiently, this conversation will be one you all remember positively for a long time, and it might even serve to bring you closer as a family.