Do as we say, not as we did

September 17, 1996|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- It is one of those moments when you wish your children were just a touch more repressed, more reticent to ask you questions. You're driving to soccer practice when Sean asks, ''So Dad, did you and mom sleep together before you were married?'' You're leaving the junior high parking lot when Melanie pipes up, ''Mom, did you ever smoke marijuana when you were in college?''

If you are among the baby boomers who did inhale and/or share prenuptial living quarters, you have the following options: (1) You can tell the truth. (2) You can lie. (3) You can take the easy way out and drive directly into an embankment.

In any case, you have just experienced one of the ethical crises of modern parenthood. The commitment to openness, sharing, truth and the boomer way has come up against the anxiety that your little tyke may follow in your footsteps -- and end up walking off a cliff.

Now add to this anxiety the survey of boomer parents and their kids just released by the National Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse. One of the nuggets is that the children whose parents used drugs and who know about it are more likely to use drugs themselves than children whose parents didn't use them or who don't know about it.

This tidbit leads Frank Luntz, who conducted the survey, to ponder out loud: ''The mere acknowledgment by a parent of having used drugs puts the kids into a more at-risk position. . . . That begs a serious moral question which boomer parents will be debating for the next decade: Do you tell them the truth about your own drug use or do you lie?''

Here we go again. Remember back in the late '80s when Rolling Stone did a survey of boomer parents? The conclusion was that they did a lot, regretted little, and wanted their kids to do none of it. Two-thirds had premarital sex. Half used drugs. The only serious regret was from those who drove while drunk. Their lives weren't permanently damaged by sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll. But that didn't diminish worries about their kids.

The parenting motto of the baby-boom generation seems to be: ''Do as I say, not as I did.''

But Joe Califano, the president of the center who commissioned the current survey, thinks parents are saying too little. The numbers exposed a gap between the parents who say they've talked to the kids about drugs and the kids who say so. It's like those cozy talks about sex: ''Son, you know about sex, right? Good. Hey, how about those Red Sox?''

No virtue in lying

Mr. Califano dismisses any virtue in lying. The link between former and future drug users isn't umbilical. There are enough variables on child drug use to keep a researcher funded for decades.

In this survey, for example, kids who had dinner with their families most nights were less likely to do drugs. Whatever this says about demographics, it implies that family involvement is a form of child protection. But knowing and being known, a real relationship, entails mutual trust and honesty.

''It's not what you say, it's how you say it,'' Mr. Califano offers. Indeed the baby boomers' trouble discussing their own lives may be more dangerous, if it keeps them silent. If kids are getting a dangerously fuzzy message, as Mr. Califano believes, the fuzz may be on their parents' tied tongues.

Parents who tried or used drugs not only think their own kids will, but they are less likely to think they can influence their children or their environment. Call it realism or call it defeatism. But they may be less likely to try.

Lloyd Johnston of the University of Michigan, who has researched drug use for some 20 years, says, ''The best thing is to level with kids about your own experience but be prepared to say why you wish them to behave in a different way.''

Those who lived through a time of enormous change have had great difficulty clarifying their values. They've had trouble reconciling their experiences with their parental anxieties. Being a parent gives you a second chance. It forces you to figure it out. Sometimes at leisure. Sometimes under the searching eye of a 12-year-old coming home from soccer.

Want to give them Reason 66 For Avoiding Drugs? They don't want to go through this Q-and-A with their own kids.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 9/17/96

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