5. Avoid drugs and intoxicants.
Take a walk around our town’s high school, and see the evidence: empty bottles of cheap booze, smashed beer cans, the usual suspects hang out by the bridge during school hours, a few steps out of school’s jurisdiction, smoking cigarettes, lighting a joint when police is not around. Once in a while you hear about a Saturday night party where things got too wild, neighbors called law enforcement, some teenagers got arrested. You breathe a sigh of relief that they’re not your kids, an even longer one if they’re not even your kids’ friends. But regardless of the details, you always ask yourself what is really going on in your teen’s life, what is he exposed to, what has he tried already, what’s going to happen next Saturday night?
When it comes to parenting, I find drugs and intoxicants a tricky issue. Am I setting the right personal example to my children? Am I sending them the wrong message?
I enjoy a good beer on occasion; I have an ongoing interest in French brandies; I rarely say no to a well-aged single-malt. Though I haven’t gotten seriously drunk in decades, I drink around my kids since forever, and there have been times, when they saw my reaction to a real thick stout or an exceptionally smooth Armagnac, that I let them have a tiny sip, just to taste what the fuss was about. They always fail to appreciate how such vile cup of burning bitterness elicits such pleasure.
In the strictest manner, I’m using drugs, and to top it off, I’m teaching my children how to use drugs. A regular parent-of-the-year. But let’s face it, coffee is quite a powerful drug, not to mention everything made by Ben & Jerry’s. As I said, it’s a tricky subject. So what’s a humanistic parent to do?
When it comes to drug consumption, I use two main guidelines, both for myself and for my children. The first principle draws the border between legal, and not legal. When I drink alcohol I brake no law. I never let my kids even smell the stuff in public; what they do at home is nobody’s business as far as I’m concerned. Staying within the boundaries of the law is important, not necessarily because the law is always just and enlightened, but because breaking the law tends to get one in all kind of trouble. I don’t really buy it that THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, is more harmful than alcohol or nicotine, but it’s illegal, so I stay away from the stuff, and I expect the dudes to do the same. It’s a simple rule, and it allows me to blame the government and be the good guy.
The second guideline that I fall back on has to do with what’s harmful and what’s safe. Tobacco is legal, but it’s so dangerous that we’ve been drilling the kids since before they were born how disgusting smoking is, and how people who smoke smell yucky. Then there are all kinds of legally dispensed drugs that fall under “medicine.” My rule of thumb is to avoid those when possible. They all come with some risk, so we use herbal medicine instead, but we take an antibiotic or a pain-killer when all else fails. Of course, being a trained herbalist with easy access to natural products helps a lot with that one.
Harmful and dangerous brings us directly to an issue that is at the core of the intoxicant dilemma: Excess.
There’s a big difference between an occasional beer, and downloading a six-pack. A glass of wine with dinner is not the same as a bottle of wine with dinner. There’s nothing wrong with loosening up and relaxing with a drink; some medical research even indicates that it’s a beneficial practice. But when loosening up turns to falling apart, and relaxation to inappropriate behavior, it is simply too much. Some adults should not drink at all, others can take in quite a bit and still keep it together. But:
When it comes to people under the age of 21, drinking alcohol is both illegal AND harmful.
Our livers simply don’t mature until that age, and the danger of acute alcohol toxicity, and chronic liver damage is much higher than with adults. I choose to let my children taste a little alcohol at home, just to take the mystery and fascination away, but it is never more than a baby sip, which their bodies can easily process. Anything more than that is excess. While the laws are different in different countries, and while it is an indisputable irony that young Americans who are deemed mature enough to go to war, kill and be killed, are not legally allowed to order a drink at a restaurant, the medical evidence is clear: Wait till you’re 21 before starting to drink.
The 5th humanistic precept that I’m discussing here comes from the Buddhist tradition. One important goal in Buddhism is cultivating a clear and bright mind. It makes sense that people who spend their days meditating would be against drugs that cloud the mind, or alter its natural function. But is there a moral issue here from the humanistic point of view? The answer is a definite yes. Using drugs in excess, both the legal and the illegal kind, can hurt oneself, and others. It goes against that famous first precept that keeps coming up: Do not harm other beings, or yourself.
The issue of drugs and intoxicants has many more aspects that I did not touch on in this post. It’s a cultural, societal problem, with moral and political implications. Think prohibition. legalizing marijuana. Addiction to narcotic pain-killers. But when it comes to parenting, especially of teenagers, the rules must be clear and unwavering. We should frequently bring up the subject, answer questions the best we can, and when all fails, blame the government.