Teaching turns into preaching. Talking about morals gives way to moralizing. Hoping to instill self-esteem, parents lapse into self-righteousness.
Trying to help kids learn right from wrong is what parenting is all about. It's also the toughest job in the world. If you've done it well, your teen-ager might make the right decisions about drugs and sex.
There are at least a few books that can help. Don't foist them on kids -- read them yourself. Even if no one else in the family ever reads them, you can get ideas about how to invite discussions about difficult topics. Making children feel comfortable enough to talk to parents about their feelings and fears is the second toughest job in the world.
* "The House That Crack Built," written by Clark Taylor, illustrated by Jan Thompson Dicks (Chronicle Books, $5.95, all ages) is a book that kids will read without being asked to. It is simple enough for a 7-year-old to understand and eloquent enough to upset a 17-year-old.
Using the familiar nursery rhyme as a framework, Taylor has written a poem that builds a line on each successive page. Opposite each verse is a haunting painting by Dicks.
It opens with a view of the house that crack built -- a sprawling compound in the tropics, with swimming pools and tennis courts.
Here is the entire poem, as it appears on the final page:
And these are the tears we cry in our sleep
that fall for the Baby with nothing to eat,
born of the Girl who's killing her brain,
smoking the Crack that numbs the pain,
bought from the Boy feeling the heat,
chased by the Cop working his beat
who battles the Gang, fleet and elite,
that rules the Street of a town in pain
that cries for the Drug known as cocaine,
made from the Plants that people can't eat,
raised by the Farmers who work in the heat
and fear the Soldiers who guard the Man
who lives in the House that crack built.
The afterword written by Michael Pritchard is just as powerful. "There has been a great deal of focus on teaching our children to say no to drugs, yet time has shown that we must give our children more than the right words," he writes. "We must give them lives filled with opportunity. We must give them hope for the future. For where there is no hope, there is no choice."
That's what raising children is all about, whether they live in our homes or in the projects on the other side of town. An added attraction of this book: The publisher's proceeds will be donated to drug education and rehabilitation programs for children.
* "On the Mend: Getting Away From Drugs," by Maxine B. Rosenberg (Bradbury Press, $14.95, ages 9 and up) follows eight children and teens through their personal accounts of addiction and -- for most -- rehabilitation.
It should be easy for most kids to relate to these stories. Although a few of the kids in the book come from abusive, alcoholic homes, most are from middle-class or upper middle-class families that are, on the surface, well-adjusted.
Rosenberg lets the kids do most of the talking, and they talk about getting high to numb the hurt and confusion and anger they feel at home, or with friends, or at school. She has organized the book in chronological order, starting with stories about how the youngsters first began using drugs, following them through the roughest parts of their addictions and then finally to recovery programs.
The flaw with that organization is that it's easy for readers to forget who they're reading about now. Was Cindy the girl whose father got high with her? Is Pat the boy from the wealthy neighborhood? We meet them again and again on a first-name basis, and the threads of their stories become tangled.
* "What do I do now?: Talking about teenage pregnancy," by Susan Kuklin (Putnam, $15.95 hardback, $7.95 paperback, ages 11 and up) is another excellent book by the author of "Fighting Back: What Some People Are Doing About AIDS."
Like Rosenberg, Kuklin has used extensive interviews with young people to write a series of first-person stories about girls -- and many times the boys -- who face an unexpected pregnancy. But Kuklin makes each girl's story a separate chapter, so it's much easier to identify with them as they try to figure out what to do.
Kuklin lets readers get to know these teen-agers, but she never makes value judgments. Some of the young women choose abortion. Others make an adoption plan for their babies. Still others decide to raise the child -- especially if the baby's grandmother offers to help.
Readers get a vivid picture of what each option entails -- from the fear of climbing onto a surgical table at an abortion clinic to the depression that sweeps over a 15-year-old who is overwhelmed with the responsibility of feeding and bathing her newborn.
There are two common themes that run through almost all of the profiles. First, the young women are scared to tell their parents, no matter how close their relationship is. And second, most don't use contraception because they believe that pregnancy is something that happens to other people. That sense of invincibility is proving deadly, as Kuklin's book on AIDS attests.