Welcome to “Survivor,” in which author Catherine Newman tries to answer your questions about adolescents and why they’re like that — and how to love them despite everything.
Have a question for Newman? Send it to her here.
My friend lives in a state where marijuana is legal (I don’t). She told me recently that she plans to smoke pot with her kid, who’s 16. She thinks he should experience it for the first time in a safe setting, and she knows he’s going to try it either way, and anyway it’s legal now. My own kid is 15, and I would never smoke pot with him while he was still a minor. I told her I thought she was bananas. Would you drink with your kid just because alcohol is legal? It’s still not legal for him. “But you’d let him have a sip of your wine,” she said. “Maybe even a small glass.” Which is a fair point, I guess. I don’t know what to think. Who’s right?
One of my all-time favorite Barack Obama parenting moments was him announcing, on Today, “What we’ve said to the girls is, ‘If you guys ever decided you're going to get a tattoo, then mommy and me will get the exact same tattoo in the same place. And we'll go on YouTube and show it off as a family tattoo.’ And our thinking is that might dissuade them from thinking that somehow that's a good way to rebel.” Likewise, I can think of no better way to dissuade your kids from smoking ever than by offering to make it a shared experience. “If you guys ever decide to drop acid, then we’ll all drop acid together. It’ll be a family trip!”
That said, I’m not actually in favor of offering to get high with your underage kids, but not because it’s illegal. And just so you know where I’m coming from, I’m in favor of legalizing marijuana. I think that parents might do better to help their kids learn moderation as an approach, rather than some kind of fantasy abstinence. I think that all of these decisions are specific to particular kids in particular families and must take into account your religious and cultural values, your histories of addiction and the social context within which your child is considering experimentation.
But back to your friend. Getting high together could be absolutely the right thing for her and her kid, but here’s why I wouldn’t do it: Your teenagers need you there to push up against. I mean push up against in two different senses. On the one hand, you’re the safe person they can lean on — the one with the good boundaries and the sobriety who can pick them up or talk them down if their experimenting goes awry. On the other hand, if part of what they’re doing is differentiating from you, then they need you to remain stably, responsibly the parent so that as the kid, they can stray. And, as my own 17-year-old son put it, “If you make it so that pot doesn’t count as rebellion, maybe they’re going to have to up the ante. You know, do harder drugs.” This seems like an excellent (if troubling) point.
The other thing both my kids felt was that your friend, ironically enough, seems to be practicing a weird form of helicopter parenting — a desire to control every aspect of her child’s experience. Neither of them thought it sounded healthy. “Smoking pot isn’t like learning to ride a bike,” my son said. “It’s not really your experience to horn in on as the parent.” (That said, a friend of his has parents who do smoke pot and offer it to her all the time, and she’s so weirded out by them that she has never ever smoked — so the Obamas are kind of onto something.)
If you want to make sure that your kids are experimenting safely, there are other ways to do it. Be trustworthy. Give them articles to read about pot and the teenage brain to add a little scientific backbone to your lectures about moderation. Talk openly, but not hyperbolically, about your misgivings. Get to know their friends. Fall all over yourself with gratitude if they confide in you — rather than leaping with teeth and claws at the content of the confession.
Full disclosure: my husband thinks I’m a snob for being all “I’d never smoke pot with my kids” even though I will happily pour them a half-glass of Chianti at a dinner party. He thinks the distinction is largely one of social class and stigma with potentially racist implications, and that it might be hypocritical to approve of one thing and not the other. (Fuller disclosure: His mother was an alcoholic.) But I still think it’s different. At least in our family, we drink alcohol as part of a larger social ritual: to sip at a glass of wine that we enjoy, that tastes wonderful with our meal, that yes, maybe puts a little buzz on us, but does not mean that we are immediately, all of us together, totally hammered. But I still think of smoking pot as a way to get high — nothing more, nothing less.
As our son put it, “Having a glass of wine with Grandma and Grandpa seems not at all weird. But then the thought that we’d all be smoking a joint feels totally insane.” Indeed.
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