SSDPer Reflects on the Harms of Dishonest Drug Education for Youth

SSDPer Reflects on the Harms of Dishonest Drug Education for Youth

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Hayley Moran of University of Tennessee SSDP

Written by Hayley Moran, University of Tennessee SSDP

When I was in fifth grade, I won the D.A.R.E. essay contest and read my essay in front of the entire school. Now, I don’t actually have a copy of this essay (which I’m actually quite thankful for) but I can imagine that 5th grade me said something along the lines of, “Drugs are bad. Drugs kill people. Smoking marijuana kills your brain. And I like my brain.” With the exception of liking my brain, most of the things that I thought as I declared my own war with drugs as a 10-year-old were wrong.

The way we educate our young children about drugs is in dire need of addressing. First, children deserve honesty. Drug education today is much like sex education. They are taught that both are bad and that they are worthless for partaking, with both parties knowing that the reality in both cases is that most youth will be exposed to sex and drugs with absolutely no real information on how to stay safe. We have learned with replacing abstinence-only education with a comprehensive education that teen pregnancy rates are lower, more teens use condoms, and teens actually DELAY sexual activity. It is perfectly reasonable to assume that comprehensive drug education would yield similar results.

As a Master’s student in Child & Family Studies, my involvement in SSDP revolves around strengthening families, informing family policy, and family education. After perusing through resources for both parents and children about drugs, I was baffled by the misinformation or lack of information on talking to your children about drugs. For example, on the D.A.R.E. website under “How to talk to your kids about drugs” this is the statement they gave:

Tell your children that you love them and you want them to be happy and healthy. Say that you do not find alcohol and other illegal drug use acceptable. Many parents fail to state this simple fact. Explain that drug use hurts people. It can cause AIDS, impaired coordination, slowed growth, and emotional harm such as feelings of isolation or paranoia. It is also important to discuss the legal issues associated with drug and alcohol use because a conviction for a drug offense can lead to prison, loss of a job or college loan. Talk about positive, drug-free alternatives and explore them together. Some possibilities may include sports, reading, movies, bike rides, hikes, camping, and games.”

The first problem with this statement is that they are generalizing all drugs in one group. When you say to your child “drugs give you AIDS” the child is going to assume that all drugs cause AIDS. Instead, a parent should be VERY specific about the drug they are identifying and WHY they don’t want their child to use such drug. In regards to cannabis, it can be confusing to middle school aged children when parents say marijuana is dangerous and illegal when they know that it can help cancer patients and is actually legal in some states. Therefore, parents should address these issues in an age appropriate fashion.

Another problem is that D.A.R.E does not provide any information on how to talk to your child depending on age. I am disappointed that the most well-known anti-drug organization for students only provides one statement for parents as a resource. There is obviously a large difference in talking to a 5th grader and talking to a high schooler. The best way is to start an open dialogue early on in your child’s life, and add to that existing conversation as the child ages and drugs become more relevant.  

For example, the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids (which is the BEST parent resource I’ve found) gives this scenario and advice for parents:

Scenario: Your child is just starting middle school and you know that eventually, he will be offered drugs and alcohol.

What to Say: There are a lot of changes ahead of you in middle school. I know we talked about drinking and drugs when you were younger, but now is when they’re probably going to be an issue. I’m guessing you’ll, at least, hear about kids who are experimenting, if not find yourself some place where kids are doing stuff that is risky. I just want you to remember that I’m here for you and the best thing you can do is just talk to me about the stuff you hear or see. Don’t think there’s anything I can’t handle or that you can’t talk about with me, okay?

The main goal for parents, educators, and policymakers is for children to be safe. By providing a comprehensive drug education in both the school setting and home, children and young teens will not only be more equipped with knowledge on drugs, but will know how to keep themselves and others safe if negative outcomes arise. By not educating our children and youth, we are putting them at risk. It is our job as SSDP members to pro
mote quality comprehensive education and decrease that risk.