Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush has managed to avoid a direct answer to reporters' questions about whether he has used illegal drugs. But the public doesn't know whether he's been able to duck interrogators who could be just as dogged: his children.
Many of the baby-boomer parents of the 1990s were the partiers of the 1970s. Add the unprecedented share of parents who once used drugs to the debate about Bush, and more parents are finding themselves being asked, "Did you or didn't you?"
Uh-oh. The moment of truth.
Or should it be the moment of untruth? If a parent who smoked marijuana admits it, surely the child will see that as a license to try it, right? Or could this be the ultimate teachable moment, that Holy Grail of parenting, where giving the correct answer will help a child come to the right conclusion?
Well, it's not so simple, as teenagers tell it. In interviews, some said that if their parents had been honest with them early on about their drug experimentation--and the physical and mental damage it caused--the teens would have been far more restrained in their own use.
But hearing this, Katy Silverwood, a Columbia 17-year-old who has gotten herself back together after some hard times with drugs, laughed. "C'mon, what our parents said never meant jack to us. I will never use drugs again. Now I know what a stupid idiot I was--not because of anything my parents told me, but because I tried it for myself," she said.
Clearly there's no guarantee that a parent denying, or admitting, drug use will turn a child into a stoner or a straight-edge. Nevertheless, there is evidence that the children of parents who evade the subject of drugs altogether are more likely to use them themselves. That's why therapists and substance abuse experts strongly urge parents to turn the "Did you or didn't you" question--whether or not it's answered honestly--into a conversation.
And most, but not all, urge parents, if asked, to tell the truth. But don't volunteer the information, they say, and by all means don't get specific.
Parents agree, according to a survey released last month by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, which found that of the 60 percent of adults who have tried marijuana and who have teenage children, 82 percent said they would tell their child, if asked.
When Bush was asked last month how a parent should respond to such a question, he said, "I think baby boomers ought to say, 'I've learned from mistakes I may or may not have made, and I'd like to share some wisdom.' "
That "may or may not" probably wouldn't go very far with a canny teenager. Anything sounding like "None of your business" may as well be an "Oh, yes, I did," said Christine Enkiri, 16, of Riverdale. "You would definitely say no if you didn't do it," Christine said.
Joseph A. Califano Jr., president of the addiction and substance abuse center and secretary of health, education and welfare in the late 1970s, urges parents to be honest. "If their kids ask," Califano said, "they should tell them. They should tell them the truth."
At the same time, said Babette Wise, a social worker who directs Georgetown University's Alcohol and Drug Clinic, "I don't think it's necessary for parents to go into specific detail about what their experiences were any more than they would about their sexual experience. . . . If there's a direct question, say as little as possible and certainly don't glorify it." And for parents who still use drugs, their children's questions should be a wake-up call that they need help.
Most of the parents interviewed for this story said they would be honest with their children--to a degree.
"I think it's important to be candid," said Zaid Jawdat, 50, a Washington lawyer with 7- and 10-year-old daughters. "If they ever ask, 'Well, did you?' I would have to say 'Yes, when I was younger, and it did nothing for me.' "
Jenifer Weiss, a 47-year-old kindergarten teacher from Brentwood, got to talking about the subject recently with her daughter, Hannah Lane, 16, because Lane was concerned about some friends who were using drugs. Lane asked her mom what she had done, and then came the story.
When Weiss was 16, she got in a car and drove to Woodstock. Along the way, she picked up a hitchhiker, who gave her a joint as a thank-you token. She told Hannah she smoked it, and then the talk moved from the experience to the lessons:
It was different then; we didn't know what we know now about the dangers.
It is seductive, it lets your senses take over and do things you wouldn't otherwise.
It's absolutely not worth the risk.
I don't recommend it at all.
Weiss didn't go into detail; she didn't tell her daughter what she did or didn't do after Woodstock. But she never thought about denying the truth.
"I think honesty is the best policy," she said, "because it builds trust."
Hannah said that it makes a difference hearing from her mother that she's against drugs. But while knowing Mom has smoked marijuana "doesn't make it better for you, doesn't make it okay, it makes it easier to justify. It makes it so that if I've done it, she can't get mad at me about it."
That's a tricky rock-and-hard-place for parents of teenagers, who are famously sensitive to hypocrisy. And there's a good chance a child will take that admission and reason, "Well, they turned out okay."
But experts insist that no matter what, parents should not let their children use that information against them. They should emphasize that people know a lot more about the effects of drugs than they did back then, when much of the concern about the dangers of marijuana centered on the herbicide used to kill the plant rather than the plant itself. Research has shown that marijuana harms short-term memory, the ability to concentrate, fine-motor skills and sexual development in boys; that marijuana is a "gateway" to more severe drug use; and that it is far more potent than it used to be.
Jacqueline Wallen, a professor of family studies at the University of Maryland and a psychotherapist who works with parents of kids with drug problems, said that she knows first-hand how in children's eyes, parents' minor flaws "turn into these huge fissures, Grand Canyons." To counter that, she suggests this response: "So what if I was an idiot when I was your age? That's why we have parents."
But Wallen is one of the few experts interviewed who suggested parents need not let it get to that point at all--that sometimes, it's okay for parents to lie. "I think the first line of defense is to obfuscate or minimize," she said. "You do not have to account to your child; you do not have to explain your life to your child."
Others say that approach can backfire. Steve Dnistrian, executive vice president at Partnership for a Drug-Free America, said: "If you do choose to lie, if at any time your child picks up on the fact that you have not been truthful, your credibility has been blown. We recommend parents not take that gamble."
What to Say to Your Kids About Drugs
The Partnership for a Drug-Free America suggests that the following sample conversation might be used when your 12-year-old comes home from school and says, matter-of-factly, "I learned about drugs today. The teacher said that lots of people your age used to do drugs. Did you?" The conversation opens many lines of discussion -- which the group says is more than half the battle in helping kids resist drugs -- even prior to your answering the original question.
You might say: Well, I'm not sure what your teacher meant to say, but I can tell you what I know about those times. Would you like me to? (The parent offers a choice here, because some kids might prefer to keep their knowledge general and not specific to their parent. Others will forge on.)
You: Well, many people my age, who were young adults back then, tried marijuana. But we didn't know as much about it as we do now. It was the same with cigarettes. We didn't think smoking was very harmful either. So do you still want to know if I smoked marijuana? Think about your answer. How will you feel if I say yes?
Child: I'll have to think about it. Well, yes and no. Yes, because you always say it's important to be honest. No, because I'm not sure what I'll think about you. If you say no, you'll just be a regular parent. If you say yes, I don't know, that would be kind of weird.
You: You're exactly right. That's why I wanted you to think about it. But remember, whatever you decide is okay, and whatever my answer is, we can talk more about it.
Child: Are you just trying not to tell me?
You: No, I'm trying to be thoughtful about how I answer you so I'll know more about what you think about my drug usage.
Child: So you did?
You: Yes, I tried it. A couple of times because friends of mine were doing it. And then I stopped because I decided it just wasn't a good thing to do.
Child: Well if you tried them, what's the big deal?
You: Well, whether or not I used is not the main issue here. The main issue is you. I definitely do not want you to use alcohol, marijuana or any other illegal drugs. I'm not going to give you a lecture about how bad they are for you because you've probably come to learn a lot about them in class. But, I want you to think about this: you don't need them. You have too much going for you. Drugs don't really help anything. They don't solve problems. They won't make you popular. They won't help you grow up. And they surely won't help you build a strong body and mind. In fact, just the opposite can happen.