Here are two articles on parental honesty in the time of Drug Wars, and my
letter to the editor about same.
Christian Science Monitor
August 27, 1999
Daniel B. Wood , Staff Writer of The CSM
SHOULD PARENTS TELL KIDS ABOUT PAST DRUG USE?
Ralph Dornan was watching the news with his teenage son and daughter last
week when his palms began to sweat.
"We were tuned in to a report on George W. Bush's
refusal to answer questions about alleged drug use in his past," recalls
Mr. Dornan, a Los Angeles stockbroker. "I knew it was just seconds until my
kids looked me in the eye and asked, 'What about you?' " The moment never
came. But Dornan, who used marijuana in the early 1970s and experimented
with cocaine, says he's in a quandary about whether and how to broach the
subject with his kids.
"I'd sort of like to pass on my own experience that drug use was a dead
end," says Dornan (who was concerned enough to not give his real name).
"But I'm worried that if I say I did it, they'll get the message that it's
OK to try it, because I turned out OK."
As the Texas governor stumbles with questions about whether he used drugs
in the past, thousands of Americans who grew up in the countercultural
1960s and early '70s find themselves facing a similar dilemma: whether or
not, and when, to tell their kids about their own experimentation during
more permissive times. Beyond that, how can they convey the personal and
collective consequences without damaging parent-child relationships?
The debate has stepped beyond politics into the family parlor because of
the sheer numbers of baby boomers whose children are now passing
adolescence and entering environments outside the home where drug use is
more prevalent. Governor Bush has said that fellow baby-boomer parents
should warn their children about drugs and alcohol. "We owe children that
responsibility, to share our wisdom," he said.
But his own reluctance to discuss rumors of former drug use - while more
complex than an ordinary parent's because of political vulnerability -
underlines the problem that, for many, the consequences of such a
conversation remain uncertain.
"The drug-use issue has become a major preoccupation for parents whose
children are now coming of age, because such a high percentage used drugs
in their own past," says Michael Josephson, president and founder of the
Josephson Institute for Ethics in Marina Del Rey, Calif. "They are rightly
struggling with how to help their children learn from their experience
without being hypocritical or jeopardizing their relationships."
The motive is correct, say family experts, but the pitfalls are many. While
there is wide disagreement over what strategies to use, most agree the goal
is to find a way to distill constructive lessons from past behavior, and
pass them along in ways that can be most productive without endangering
family rapport. Honesty is paramount, experts say, but so are timing and
age appropriateness. And parents must examine their motives for opening the
subject - or keeping it closed.
"It has become very seductive [for parents] to compulsively get the issue
off their chest by volunteering a long list of their flaws," says Mr.
"That kind of disclosure can be very selfish if we do it to feel better
about ourselves, but then leave a monkey on the back of a child who is not
yet equipped to deal with the revelation," he says.
Times Have Changed
Such tactics may have been encouraged 20 years ago, but research on the
consequences of doing so are now pointing in the other direction.
"Two decades ago, psychologists were advising parents to tell all,
says Trish la Plante, director of counseling and health services at Hamlin
University in St. Paul, Minn. "Family therapists are now looking at the
repercussions and saying it's important not to burden your children with
information they don't need or will make them undermine stable family
Ultimately, parents need to make sure they have come to terms with their
own drug use, decide what it meant to their experience, and how they want
such lessons translated into the behavior of their children.
"You need to make up your mind whether you are saying, 'I experimented with
drugs and therefore it's OK for you to experiment,' or 'I experimented with
drugs and something bad happened, so don't experiment,' " says Ms. la
Most experts seem to be saying that discussions about past drug use should
come up only on a need-to-know basis. The questions of children should also
be evaluated in terms of the emotional and social contexts that led them to
inquire about drugs.
"You really want to be asking them what's happening with them that they
have asked," says Irene Goldenberg, a family psychologist and professor at
the University of California at Los Angeles.
"It should evolve out of the situation in which they are asking the
question as part of their own life-learning process, not as a secret about
their parent to be discovered," she says.
There are lessons for both parent and child to learn, others say. Times
have changed, and so have the drugs. Why were the '60s more permissive and
what has been their legacy? What new drugs are there now, and why are they
There is much more known now about refusal skills that kids can learn to
"just say no" without being branded square, unhip, or uncool.
Most important, say many experts, is for parents to choose a specific
strategy and stick to it without wavering. It is OK to defer the question
until the child is older, or to tell a child that questions about the
parents' possible own youthful drug use are never going to be answered.
"Don't lie, but that doesn't mean you have to tell the whole truth and
nothing but the truth," says Victor Strasburger, professor of pediatrics at
the University of New Mexico and author of "Getting Your Kids to Say No in
the Nineties If You Said Yes in the Sixties."
"If you did 10 years for cocaine pushing, that might not be useful for your
child," he says. "But if you experimented with marijuana, you should
up before that old college roomie shows up and starts telling stories."
Whatever the consequences of revelation strategies for parents, they should
be separated from those of politicians, others say. "It's not as if those
in the public eye have the same opportunity to pick and choose the time
when these revelations take place for them and their families," says
Take the consequences
Some say the best tactic in both political and family realms is to tell all
and let the consequences fall. New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson (R) is being
held up as one '90s politician who has disclosed his drug past with
In his first campaign for governor in 1994, he told voters he smoked
marijuana in college and shortly thereafter in the 1970s and that he used
cocaine three times during the same period.
Last week he told a Washington talk show that voter response has "been a
"Parents should take their cue from those politicians who have 'fessed up
and be far more open," says Iszruette Hunter, a Los Angeles marketing
executive who has told her three college-age children about past use of
drugs and other personal details. She says the spotlight on Bush has helped
shine a light into the corners of American society that could use some
"The lessons I am seeing from those parents and those politicians who don't
come clean about their past are that they live to regret it," she says.
August 29, 1999
Gary Rotstein, Post-Gazette Staff Writer
HOW TO TELL THE KIDS YOU INHALED
Baby-boomer parent Carol Stewart hasn't been too concerned about which
politician used which drugs a quarter-century ago, not when she's been
grilled on her own past in a way that hit closer to home.
Stewart's day of reckoning arrived last year, in a manner that might rattle
many parents who came of age in the 1960s and '70s. The Squirrel Hill mother
of three was in the car with daughter, Talia, then 13, who brought up the
subject of drugs in a none-too-subtle way. "There were two questions: 'What
did you do?' and 'What did Dad do?' " recalled Stewart, 40, who is divorced
from Talia's father.
Those who participated in the drug culture rampant in high schools and
college campuses a generation ago might be just as bewildered as George W.
Bush about how to respond to such inquiries.
Obfuscate with some partial statements that leave confusion in your wake, as
the Republican presidential candidate is accused of doing? Parse words
carefully so as be truthful in fact but annoyingly unclear in potential
interpretation, in Clintonian fashion? Or just outright lie in an attempt to
cover your tracks, as a Nixonian might do? Then again, maybe politicians
aren't the right role models. Stewart handled it the way many child
advocates, family therapists and anti-drug organizations recommend: Be
honest without necessarily itemizing what drugs were involved or how much;
acknowledge the past while explaining that youthful misbehavior is unwise in
"I told her that I got stoned, and I told her that it took me a while to
realize that I didn't like what it did to me," Stewart said. "I told
things that it did to me that I know she wouldn't like -- that I ate
everything in my path, that I had a really hard time speaking, and by the
time I got a sentence out, people were always on to a different subject."
She's hopeful her candor about her own experience will help steer Talia away
from the temptation to experiment with marijuana or other illegal substances
in high school. A number of professionals who deal with drugs or family
counseling believe she handled the inquiry the right way.
"I don't think [your children] need the details, but I think you need to
tell them what some of your experiences were," and highlight either the
negative consequences of the drug use or the potential downside to it that a
person recognizes only when older, said Ken Montrose, clinical director of
the Greenbriar Treatment Center in Washington, Pa.
"You don't want to say, 'Yeah, I tried drugs, but I'm doing great,' "
Montrose cautioned. "You need to talk about what might have happened, the
people who did drugs and something went wrong. ... Ramming your car into the
tree and then laughing about it later with your kids sends the wrong
Undoubtedly, the vast majority of baby boomers who dabbled in drugs never
did permanent harm to themselves (or their cars) despite indulging at an age
when they were far less educated or concerned about risks than they are now.
A 1979 survey found that more than 60 percent of high school seniors at the
time had tried marijuana. Those youths, of course, have become many of
A new poll by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at
Columbia University found that 56 percent of parents with children between
the ages of 12 and 17 acknowledge past marijuana use, and 82 percent of them
would admit it to their children if they asked.
They'd be confiding to a generation of teen-agers who might not be as
pot-crazy as their parents once were, but who seem bound by societal changes
to be exposed to the issue at an earlier age than teens in the '60s and
National surveys showed a sharp increase in the use of marijuana and other
drugs by teens for most of this decade, but in the past year or two, the
numbers have stabilized or declined somewhat. The government's 1998 National
Household Survey on Drug Abuse found about 8 percent of youths aged 12-17
admitted to using marijuana within the past 30 days and 10 percent said they
had used some type of illicit drug recently.
Some therapists discourage a confessional approach by parents, whether about
marijuana or harder drugs, because it might enable kids to deflect attention
from their own issues.
David Wilmes, author of the book, "Parenting for Prevention," and drug
education consultant for the Minneapolis-based Hazelden Foundation, said
many youngsters weren't ready to digest the fact that their parents once
used illegal drugs. On lectures around the country, he tells parents they
should concentrate on giving their children a solid anti-drug message
instead of worrying about being hypocrites if they partied hard themselves.
"We're seeing a generation of parents extremely ambiguous about being able
to have clear limits about marijuana use, alcohol use, cocaine use because
of their own past," Wilmes said. "This is the first time a generation
ever put pressure on parents or politicians to do this incredible candor,
but as parents, we have the right and responsibility to make choices about
what and how much to delve into our past."
Dr. Wesley Sowers, chief clinical officer of the Center for Addiction
Services at St. Francis Medical Center, said that whether a parent says his
past included or didn't include drug use, he'd advise that Mom and Dad stick
to a hard line focused on the child's own behavior.
"I wouldn't call it sidestepping," he said. "It's refocusing on
that are relevant, rather than allowing the parents' personal history to
become the focus of the debate. ... Otherwise, it becomes a bit of a
But just as advocates of admitting past drug use stop short of recommending
full disclosure of every detail, the experts who discourage confessions stop
short of advising anyone to lie. There's a balancing act in which parents
need to both maintain respect as authority figures and keep open a line of
trusting communication, and just how they handle the topic might best be
determined by the child's age and maturity level and the history of the
parent-child relationship. Ginny Markell, a Portland, Ore., mother, nurse,
teacher and president of the National PTA, said she believed that a parent
gains most by answering a teen-ager directly about past experience and
demonstrating how they've handled the same pressures their youngster may be
"That's one of the things we do as parents -- share what we've learned from
life," she said. "If we're expecting that politicians are going to be
honest, children should be able to expect that of a parent."
And that's even if it shocks a kid, as was the case with Stewart's daughter
learning of her mother's past, though it was nothing more sordid than that
of millions of baby boomers.
"She just couldn't match the stereotype of a partier to her mother, since
she's always told me how out of date I am," Stewart said with a chuckle.
don't feel like I have anything to hide. I think being reasonably open is
going to earn me more points."
TO: The Editors:
The real question--the question too painful to be addressed in your
article--is not whether parents should tell their children the truth about
past drug use, but whether parents should tell the truth about past drug-use
The vast majority--well over 90 percent--of the 70 million Americans who
have experimented with drugs had few--if any--negative effects more
significant than a hangover. This experience, of course, goes counter to the
Drug War scare tactics that equate even marijuana use with disease,
addiction, and death.
For parents to tell their children the whole truth about their personal
drug-use consequences would be the equivalent of saying, "The Drug Czar
wears no clothes." This is a truth that those who make their living from
drug prohibition do not want children--or voters or legislators or the
What should children be told about drugs? "Except for medical purposes,
don't put any drugs into your body until your nervous system is fully
developed." This advice can be explained by science and backed by fact.
Incinerating eggs in frying pans and shrieking, "This is your brain on
drugs!" is mindless propaganda that is ineffective on all but the most
intellectually challenged children.
The letter was sent first to one, then the other; printed in neither.