Most of the stuff that parades as drug education in this country is just rubbish with no foundation in evidence.
– Dr. Carl Hart
With legalization of adult-use cannabis in Oregon earlier this month, families in that state and elsewhere are strategizing ways to broach the topic with their children. We at WRK are proponents of open, honest, early dialogue; so when The Oregonian took on the issue, we were hopeful they’d provide helpful information about initiating and navigating this conversation. Instead, they advocated a “wait until they ask me” approach and suggested parents use kids’ questions as a way to get information out of them, rather than as a platform to share the information they’re seeking.
As parents, we like to think we make decisions that are in the best interest of our children, and most of the time this is probably true. We evaluate the evidence we have access to, we assess possible consequences, and we choose the course of action we think will have the most benefit, or the longest-term positive effect on our children. We operate from a place of selflessness and good intentions.
But we are humans, and we have competing priorities, and we make mistakes. Sometimes our parenting path has more to do with reducing friction, making things easier by distilling complex issues into less complicated black-and-white scenarios. Sometimes we’re driven by the image of who we think our child should be, the person we would like her to become, the person who fits our idea of what success looks like.
Certainly drug education is rooted in the former view: parents want to reduce risks because we think this means we’re keeping our children safe. So our drug talk is based on an urge to eliminate danger, to remove hazards from our kids’ paths, and this makes logical and evolutionary sense. Unfortunately, though, because much of the information parents have to go on is simply false, and what is true has been misrepresented and misconstrued for the interest of continuing the drug war, we overemphasize the perils of drug use even when we think we’re just protecting our children.
Just as often, though, the drug education we provide our children is about making conversations easier for us, the adults. Take “just say no,” for example, three words that definitively close the book on the subject. There’s no room for discussion; we give no information about substances, effects, delivery methods, environments, or context. We simplify our interaction in order to make it more comfortable, smoother, and in order to appear more authoritative than we actually are. It’s easier to tell a child not to do something than to take the time to talk about possible outcomes, which helps children develop the critical thinking skills necessary to make decisions on their own. It’s easier to reduce a situation to “right” and “wrong” than to explore the nuances and refrain from judgment. Additionally, many parents are worried that if they disseminate information, children will take it as an invitation to experiment. If they put their foot down with an emphatic “no,” surely their children will understand the severity of the situation.
There’s also something else going on with our flawed drug education: it’s an act of cultural transmission, and, as such, it communicates the dominant cultural paradigm. This is what we’ve decided is socially acceptable; this is what we’ve decided success looks like. This is how we maintain the status quo, and you will fall in line. Our children, their behavior and their choices, reflect on us; their lives are a testament to our values and our parenting. When our anxiety about our own status overshadows what our children really need, the entire parenting enterprise is thrown out of whack.
How many parents have hidden their own consumption from their children when engaging in these conversations? How many have deflected personal questions with stories about “this guy I once knew”? How many people have avoided telling their children they use(d) cannabis because they’d have to admit they turned out okay? How many have even said the words, I did it but you never should? The Oregonian thinks this is a perfectly reasonable way to talk with kids about cannabis, that it’s appropriate to tell them: “I made a mistake and I want you to learn from my mistakes,” as well as, “That’s really private information and it’s part of my personal past and I’m not comfortable talking to you about it right now.”
This is why Dr. Carl Hart’s contributions to the dialogue around drugs and drug use are critical. Dr. Hart is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Columbia and a renowned neuroscientist who writes and speaks extensively on drugs, behavior, and society. His expertise in this area has informed numerous publications, including editorials, textbooks, and a memoir, a TED talk, testimony before Congress, and years of activism. Back in May, Dr. Hart shared his “real drug talk” stance with parents as part of a Drug Policy Alliance “Telephone Town Hall” hosted by DPA’s asha bandele.
His basic proposition is that education should focus on factual information about consequences and outcomes that mitigates risk: the potential effects of the substance they might consume, administration methods, proper dosing, and ways to maintain a safe situation when consuming drugs. Dr. Hart maintains that the most dangerous thing about drugs is their illegality. We’ve been lead to believe that the effects of drugs are wildly unpredictable, but that’s simply not the case. What is unpredictable, especially if you’re black like Dr. Hart, is law enforcement, and that unpredictability and volatility makes him more afraid of police than of drugs.
“The key becomes: do you give them information to help them stay safe and live another day even though it may be about behavior in which you’d like them to not engage in?” This requires a great deal from parents: it requires us to continue to participate actively in our children’s lives even if we don’t approve of what they’re doing, it requires us to check our assumptions and expectations, and it requires us to ignore the judgment of others regarding our choices. Many people aren’t ready for the idea of “real drug talk,” not yet at least, which makes it all the more urgent that more of us take a stand.
This is hard work, the work of speaking truth, building trust, and letting go. There is no script. It’s not a one-time conversation but a continual dialogue. But if you do choose to lean in and initiate these conversations with your children, if you do choose to take an honest approach, your children will be better informed – and ultimately safer – for it, and the adults they become will thank you.
For more information on Dr. Carl Hart and his research, visit drcarlhart.com. You can read an edited transcript of the DPA’s Telephone Townhall with Dr. Hart at Ebony.com: http://www.ebony.com/news-views/dr-carl-hart-on-what-parents-need-to-know-about-drugs-503#.VZ2XezrfbzJ