Editorial: Failing our Teens 6/11/99

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Adam J. Smith, Associate Director, [email protected]

The month of June typically means report cards for American teens, but the tables were turned this week with the release of a nationwide survey in which the kids graded the efforts of their parents' generation on a broad range of topics. The highest grade that the older generation received, only a B-, was given in five categories, including job creation, preventing child abuse and fighting AIDS. The lowest grade awarded, a D+, was earned in four categories: stopping young people from drinking, stopping young people from smoking, stopping young people from using drugs and for their performance in running the government.

It is not surprising, given the natural tendencies of succeeding generations to see the world through different lenses, that the grades were not good. But the kids did give their elders a solid C for "really listening to and understanding young people," which makes the sub-par grades on issues of substance use even more alarming.

To the extent that government concerns itself with reducing young people's use of drugs, our policy has been focused on the DARE program, which sends police officers into schools to warn of the dangers of drug use using a "just say no" philosophy, and harsh punitive laws, which, according to the politicians who write and pass them, "send a message to our children" that drug use is wrong and that society will punish it harshly. Neither of these tactics is working, say our kids.

Teens are individuals, and so we must be careful when we generalize about them, but it is safe to say that for many teenagers, questioning authority and rejecting authoritarian restraint comes as naturally as a burgeoning interest in sex and the desire to borrow the family car. "Just say no" is therefore not only woefully inadequate, but in fact may invite the opposite response from many kids who are struggling to establish an identity of their own.

Kids need information they can trust about the substances they are likely to encounter. Their trust, however, is undermined when the information we give them is skewed by an agenda, no matter how well-meaning. Once it becomes clear to a teenager that we are willing to lie or exaggerate, even "for their own good," they are likely to turn us off, and to seek their information elsewhere.

As a follow-up to the survey, the sponsoring organization, the Uhlich Children's Home, assembled some teens in focus groups. Among the things they learned, according to Uhlich House president Tom Vanden Berk, was that kids thought that they had received useful education regarding AIDS. No moralizing, no preaching, just straight facts intended to help them to protect themselves from harm. They believed it, they remembered it, and presumably, they took it to heart. Drug education on the other hand, well.... a D+ is a D+, right?

This survey shows that our kids have an awful lot to teach us when it comes to our drug policy. Far from "sending a message" to our teens, it seems that our excessive and punitive response to the issue of drugs is failing to address their needs. What kids want, and what we should be giving them, is honest, straightforward information about alcohol, tobacco and other drugs, without the threats or hysteria that mark most of our efforts in these areas, and which tend to make drugs attractive to many kids.

This week, teens across America issued a report card grading their parents' generation on a host of subjects. And despite all of our moralizing and all of our threats and all of our laws, when it comes to preventing youth drug use, we got straight D's. Our kids can't react to our failure by cutting off our allowance, or withholding the car keys or sending us to our rooms until we promise to do better. But you know, if our kids came home with a report card like that, we'd insist that they change their study habits. And soon.

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Issue #94, 6/11/99 Teens Say Drug War a Failure | Clinton Issues Executive Order on Racial Profiling in Law Enforcement | Waters Bill Would End Federal Mandatory Minimum Drug Sentencing | Legalization Hearings in House Subcommittee, June 16 | Hawaii Hemp Advocate Wins Right to Sue Prosecutors for Constitutional Rights Violation | Health Canada Authorizes Patients to Use Medical Marijuana, Announces Plan to Grow Pot for Medical Research | Editorial: Failing our Teens
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