I first smoked marijuana 31 years ago, in 1979. It was the summer after eighth grade. I was 14 years old.
Fast forward to 2010. My first child, Max, is the same age now.
The 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health shows that following years of gradual declines, illicit drug use among people 12 and older grew in 2009. Surprisingly -– to me — marijuana drove the increase.
I shouldn’t be shocked, since young people’s attitudes towards pot have been softening, and the movement to legalize marijuana for medicinal and recreational use is gaining steam and visibility.
Although I’m neutral about marijuana’s legality, I’m puzzled about what rules to apply when it comes to my kids smoking pot especially since parental monitoring of alcohol, cigarette and drug use has been shown to lower usage among teenagers. I’m also puzzled because the current consensus among drug and alcohol experts is that parents should focus on delaying kids’ experimentation as long as possible based on the logic that marijuana often leads to harder drugs like cocaine and prescription pills; and also because more developed teenage brains will hypothetically be able to make safer decisions.
Max and his two younger siblings know I smoked pot and drank alcohol as a teenager. Although I haven’t shared the gory details, I’m open about the fact that in high school I experimented. A lot. In fact, I experimented enough so that when I turned 18 and went to college I was done drinking and using drugs — for good.
My hope for my children (call it a prayer) is that they learn as quickly and painlessly as possible how harmful both alcohol and drugs can be. I want them to know what I know and what I learned by taking difficult, at times dangerous, risks. However, I have a sinking feeling they will never gain my wisdom about substance abuse without making some painful mistakes of their own.
I’m not talking “marijuana leads to heroin addiction” scare tactics. I’m talking mundane, everyday destruction: the kind where you have sex before you’re ready to, when you don’t want to, with people you don’t like, because the drugs you’ve taken make you feel so good or the alcohol you’ve ingested makes it harder to articulate the word “no;” the kind when you can’t remember driving home even though your parents’ car is in the driveway; the kind where you and your best friend wander your neighborhood clutching two beer bottles, at midnight, in your underwear.
The results I see from the “delay at all costs” strategy are that many well-intentioned parents ship overly sheltered kids off to the unrestricted freedom of college and life on their own without having developed good judgment by making their own decisions – and therefore their own mistakes. I believe that my children can only experiment “safely” while still under my roof. I want to be the person they face if they ever, heaven forbid, drive under any influence. I want to use that first hangover as a teachable moment.
Surely, watching your kids absorb harsh lessons is one of the least enjoyable rites of parenting. But when does constructive involvement become destructive hovering? When does permissiveness turn into neglect?
As an adult who smoked pot three decades ago, I feel I’m dancing on hot coals as I try to pass on my hard-earned insights while also accepting that my kids may need to make their own mistakes. My hope is that honesty, facts, and a cool head — plus a measure of heartfelt prayer — will guide us through.
Leslie Morgan Steiner is the author of the memoir, Crazy Love, and the anthology Mommy Wars. She is a regular contributor to Tell Me More and was recently featured on the program in a discussion about the rise of marijuana use among teenagers.