The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How a hot sauce-themed YouTube show helped me get to know my sons better

Finn drinks milk as Ben prepares for his next hot wing. (Jessica Lahey)

This story was featured in The Optimist newsletter. Sign up here to receive stories of kindness, resilience and the best among us every Wednesday and Sunday.

I got sober nearly eight years ago, after about a decade of very well-camouflaged alcoholism. My husband and two sons may have been unaware of what I was up to when their backs were turned, but without their knowledge or consent, I’d forced them to participate in my lies, obfuscation and evasion. Worse, I’d replicated the part of my childhood I hated most, the parts where my sister and I were not allowed to talk about the alcoholism that took up so much space in our small childhood home, not even as our resentment over its outsize role increased.

I realized early on that to stay sober and keep my sons from repeating my mistakes in their own families, I’d have to banish secrets and shame from our home and establish a new family tradition of open, honest and transparent communication.

When my two boys were little, they told me everything. I knew about their likes and dislikes, dreams and nightmares, triumphs and failures. It was all so easy to access, right there on the surface. As they got older and began to develop their developmentally appropriate spheres of privacy, my husband and I had to get more creative.

For years, the usual parental tricks worked. My husband, Tim, conducted sex talks on the Dartmouth Skiway chairlift with my goggled and helmeted tweens, while I preferred the idle time of long car trips. After 50 miles or so, defenses melted, and conversation could expand to include topics that usually hide in wait behind the small talk. These days, my boys are 22 and 17. They are more likely to take ski lifts and road trips with their friends, so it’s been much more difficult for us to gain access to their private lives.

The one place everyone’s defenses predictably relax is over dinner. Most include a recounting of our “high, low, funny,” the best, worst and most entertaining moments of our day, and a game of Tier auf Tier, in which we take turns stacking colorful wooden animals into precarious towers. I always managed to come up with a unique high from the day, but in truth, my high was always the same: dinner, together, hearing about their best and worst moments, while balancing my penguin atop Ben’s monkey and Finn’s sheep.

According to the Partnership to End Addiction, having dinner together as a family is one of the most important things parents do to protect kids from all kinds of high-risk behaviors, including substance use, and the more dinners per week kids have with family, the less likely they are to drink. Thirty-three percent of kids who eat zero to two dinners a week with family use alcohol, but if kids eat dinner five to seven times a week with family, the prevalence rate drops by half.

Yes, there are plenty of confounding statistical factors at play in these studies: Kids who are more likely to have dinner with their family are also more likely to have an intact family, synced schedules and all the other advantages a stable family life implies. “Dinner” may a symbolic of something more elusive: consistent time together, checking in, looking one another in the eye, and sharing experiences.

Now that Ben goes to college near our home and Finn has a part-time job, family dinners have become less frequent. Dinner often takes place around our kitchen counter rather than at a table, often with a video streaming in the background. Tim and I merit smaller and smaller helpings of our boys’ time and attention. And then, during one of our pizza-on-the-countertop-with-a-side-of-YouTube dinners, I was struck with an idea.

More often than not, the video playing in the background at those chaotic dinners is "Hot Ones,” hosted by Sean Evans. Evans interviews celebrities while they eat a series of 10 chicken (or vegan) wings, each coated in increasingly spicy hot sauces. Something about the escalating spice knocks his guests off balance, revealing their deeper vulnerability and truth along with a lot of tears and snot.

I sent a request to our family text group to secure a date for a VERY SPECIAL LAHEY FAMILY DINNER YOU MUST ATTEND and got to work.

I ordered the full lineup of Hot Ones sauces, and they arrived a few days later, nestled like little truth bombs in padded packaging. Tim and I wrote our 10 questions carefully; we wanted to dig under the surface pleasantries of “How are you doing?” but did not want to overstep and threaten their sense of privacy. On the appointed day, I bought a huge takeout box of unseasoned wings and two bags of grain-based vegan wing replicas, donned latex gloves and glasses, and tossed the wings in the 10 sauces.

The dinner was a surprise, but when we called the boys down and they saw what I’d created — 10 wings, each glistening under its own shade of spicy goodness — they smiled in recognition, and our personal episode of Hot Ones was underway.

Ten questions, 10 wings:

1. What could we do differently in our parenting that would make us better parents? (Humble House Ancho & Morita Smokey Tamarind Sauce)

2. Which of your friends has influenced you the most and why? (NYC Hot Sauce Verde)

3. Ben: Please reveal three heretofore unreported pieces of information about your romantic partner. Finn: Describe the person you are potentially interested in dating, whether or not that person likes you back. (Butterfly Bakery Pink Peppercorn Gin)

4. Is there a time when we leaned on our Gift of Failure parenting strategy when we should have helped you more? (Heartbeat Hot Sauce)

5. Where do you want to go most in the whole world? (Queen Majesty Charcoal Ghost)

6. What is your dream job you’d love to have as an adult, if money was no issue and even if it’s not a real job? (Dirty Dick’s Hot Pepper Sauce with a Tropical Twist)

7. What about you reminds you of one or more of your grandparents? (Pepplish Provisions Cranberry Orange Clove)

8. What about you reminds you of one or more of your parents? (Bravado Black Garlic Carolina Reaper)

9. If the house were on fire and you could walk out with only three things, what would they be (people and animals are safe)? (Dawson’s Sichuan Ghost Pepper)

10. If there was one thing you could change about yourself, what would it be? (Puckerbutt Reaper Squeezins)

We finished all the milk in the house around question seven, which is when we switched to vanilla ice cream. Between the jokes and the spice-induced weeping, we learned more about our boys at that dinner than we had in years. They gave their answers willingly and honestly, not necessarily because of the spice, but because we had made an effort to connect on their terms.

When we make a genuine effort to get to know our kids for who they are, we are far more likely to earn their trust and respect. When we have their trust and respect, they are a lot more likely to talk to us about the daily highs, lows and funnies, as well as the more difficult topics, such as substance use and abuse.

Here are some tips for getting kids to open up so we can get the conversation started about substance use and abuse:

Start early. Twenty-nine percent of 12-to 14-year-olds say they have close friends who use substances. That percentage rises to 61 percent by ages 15 to 17. Begin your long-term education in substance use and abuse with general talk about their health and safety, then, as they mature, get into the specifics of substance use beginning with the substances they are most likely to encounter early, such as nicotine and alcohol, and progressing on to the health and legal ramifications of harder drugs as well as the effects of these substances on the brain and mood.

Listen. No, really. It’s that simple. Your willingness to listen can be far more important than the things you say, at least when it comes to showing your support, love and respect for young children and teens. (In some cases, wings help.)

Create opportunities. Discussions about healthy behaviors don’t just happen on their own. Plan for them, seize opportunities for discussion and realize that perfect opportunities hardly ever arise. Use the moments you have, when you have them. Then keep it up. The most effective school- and community-based prevention programs start in elementary school and continue into early adulthood, so your family prevention program should, too. The topic of substance use should be frequently discussed and evolve at an age-appropriate level as your kids grow up.

The more you talk, the easier it gets. Frequency normalizes difficult conversations. We talk about substance use and abuse most weeks in our home, and those discussions have become as easy as talking about good nutrition. (Take wings, for example.)

I have so little time with my kids these days, and it’s getting difficult to lay claim to more. I plan to make the most of the time I have left, though, and fill it with as many dinners, discussions and stacks of colorful wooden animals as I can.

This is an edited excerpt from Jessica Lahey’s new book “The Addiction Inoculation: Raising Healthy Kids in a Culture of Dependence.” Lahey is also the author of “The Gift of Failure.”

Join our discussion group here to talk about parenting and balancing a career. You can sign up here for the On Parenting newsletter.

More reading:

The simple but critical purpose of family meetings: To listen.

What to do when you feel your teen slipping away

Taking back the family dinner: How we created a mealtime renaissance