Ask the Skeptic Mom: Drugs = bad

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This is the first of a few posts I’m trying on parenting in a rational way, informed by science. It’s free of old wives tales, what your Mom used to tell you, and all the nonsense you find in online Mommy forums and supermarket women’s magazines. Things are complicated. The answer is not always easy and there is not one answer for everyone. But if Jenny McCarthy, an actress, can dish out advice just because she has been endowed with the holy “mommy instinct”, I can tell you about some of the things that worked for me with my kids. Maybe they are right for you too.

So, for whatever it’s worth (and I’m no expert), here goes.

Don’t do drugs. They are bad.

Mr. Mackey - Drugs Are BadA friend on Facebook was relating a conversation he had with his 4-year old daughter. As thoughtful parents will do, you should start talking to your kids about drugs as soon as they can understand.

He decided to start of simple and direct. He told her, “Drugs are very bad…you should never try them.”

What followed (in an adorable fashion) was the child confusing the past tense verb “drug” (to carry around) with the noun “drug”. It was too cute but it illustrated something about talking to kids. In making a point to a four year old, you have to think like a four year old. ¬†How can we talk to toddlers and preschool kids about serious topics like drugs?

Here is my tactic.

Use their vocabulary. If you have to introduce a new word or concept, be super careful. Take advantage of everyday opportunities to discuss this stuff.

Remembering back, my way of talking to kids about drugs at first was helping them understand about medicine they had to take. “This stuff will help your body fix itself.” If they ask, “how?” then you can go on and maybe describe germs as “tiny nasty bits so small you can’t see them, that get in your mouth or up your nose and make your body feel bad.” I never offered more than they could handle in one sitting. But I always made sure they felt comfortable asking questions and I never EVER said, “Not now…when you are older.”

In the coming years, I had to explain other drugs – ¬†caffeine, vaccinations, alcohol, cigarettes, marijuana and all those substances we frequently call “bad drugs”. I used moments from TV (lots of commercials push drugs) or perhaps some event that came up in the day. I even allowed them to taste wine and described what it was made from.

In the case of drugs (of all sorts), the best thing you can do is be a good example and be responsible in your own use.

It’s not correct to say all drugs are bad. That can lead to some confusion later on. Drugs can be good and necessary. But the concept you are REALLY trying to get across is that what you take into your body can have consequences (bad or good things can happen) so you need to really THINK about it first. You are teaching critical thinking that can then be applied beyond just the question of taking drugs.

It’s not fair to say don’t ever do drugs, have sex or do something spontaneous. They will do those things. We can only hope we prepared them to deal with those situations.

We can’t protect our kids from drugs, accidents, unwanted pregnancy, trouble with the law, etc. But we can educate them about how to think about these things, consider what the outcome will be of any choices we make and then send them on their way to live their own lives.

So, in summary:

  • Use age appropriate language and descriptions but don’t overgeneralize that can lead to confusion;
  • Encourage them to ask questions if they don’t understand, but don’t go on and on;
  • Be open to all discussions when they need to talk;
  • Use opportunities to talk about these things whenever you can.

The same methods can be applied to talking about many other sensitive subjects.

Got any tips? Am I on the wrong track here? Drop me a comment.

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6 thoughts on “Ask the Skeptic Mom: Drugs = bad

  1. Ian Thorpe

    Good job. I just want to point out that it’s especially valuable to let them taste wine and beer because it removes the mystique of the so-called “forbidden fruit” from it.

  2. kathy with a k

    Sharon- I think this is a fantastic idea and will be very much appreciated by the skeptical moms subset. I’ve often thought a “rational mom” column would benefit many of those mommy websites, magazines, etc. It’s something I’ve wanted to contribute to as well. One subject I briefly covered was baby amber necklaces that supposedly aid in teething pain. Have you seen those? They are pretty popular here in Durango, CO.
    Thank you for everything you do!

  3. This makes me think of Bill Hicks: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vX1CvW38cHA

    I think educating children about drugs is incredibly important. But educating them about the facts is far more important than trying to communicate bad vs good. Drugs are complicated things, and like anything in life they have risks (to varying degrees), and they can be abused. I think it is far more important to communicate this in the end. Because otherwise you create a false perception which their own future experiences will contradict which may cause them to doubt everything else said about drugs.

  4. Love this. Something similar to this is the subject of tomorrow’s “The Practical Skeptic”: One thing my parents always did, which I try to emulate, is suggest that we learn about things together. While we never had the drug conversation, anytime my brother or I asked a question, no matter how difficult, they said, “Ooh, let’s find out,” helped us find age-appropriate reading materials, and read it with us. My brother and I both try to emulate this with our kids.

  5. ReasJack

    One of the things parents have an irrational fear of is realism. There are several reasons for this. One is the idea that a kid won’t be able to emotionally handle it (sex and death are big topics for this one). Another is the idea that if you don’t wash out the ambiguity the kid will have trouble taking you seriously (big one for drugs).

    The truth is kids are very good realists. They’re at the peak of their learning capacity and relative to us they handle more novelty and ambiguity in a day than we would be comfortable with at our age.

    One of the things I incorporated into my drug education spiel (both for my kids and also for my Scouts) was this:
    Look, you will get to a point in your life when you find that many of your peers are doing some of these things, some of them quite a lot. You might expect to see bad things happening to them all the time because of this. The truth is the bad things aren’t going to happen to most of them. A lot of people get away with doing these things without harm. It’s not inevitable. It’s a risk.

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