As a mother, I get some of my best material from headlines. Every Hollywood princess in rehab, every celebrity death by overdose, and every pregnant teen from Bristol Palin to Jamie Lynn Spears provides more fodder for my favorite maternal lecture on how easy it is to mess up your life.
But I had a hard time extracting simple lessons from the photo of Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps at a party with a bong.
On the one hand, eight people were arrested after the investigation into the party Phelps attended. OK, that’s good ammunition for my “Marijuana is illegal, and you can get in trouble for it” talk.
Phelps’ photo in a newspaper proves another point I’m fond of making to anyone born after 1985: “Some day, every single person your age will regret those party pictures on MySpace and Facebook.”
Other parts of the story are trickier. The Kellogg cereal company dropped Phelps, but other sponsors kept him. And while USA Swimming suspended him for three months, his eight gold medals are forever.
So what’s the takeaway? I asked Marsha Rosenbaum, a sociologist and expert on teens and drug use who wrote a widely distributed booklet called “Safety First … a reality-based approach to teens and drugs.”
Rosenbaum said the most important thing to keep in mind when talking to kids about drugs is that “abstinence is really the best choice, but honesty is critical.”
She added that while “we’d rather they abstain, obviously a lot of them don’t.” (The 2007 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that 75 percent of high school students have tried alcohol and 38 percent have used marijuana.)
Rosenbaum said it’s “no longer possible to offer the scare tactics that we’ve used for the last 20 years. You can’t credibly say, ‘If you smoke pot on Saturday, by the following weekend you’ll be a heroin addict.’ ”
But we can give facts. Most people who try marijuana (even President Barack Obama) experiment a bit and then quit, but many of us also know someone whose life has been damaged by drugs.
Rosenbaum said that 9 percent of people who smoke marijuana “can’t stop, they can’t function. They find that it gets in the way of a productive life.”
Parents should be especially concerned about drug use in middle school, she said: “The kids who end up with problems start very early.”
What if kids point out that Phelps’ partying had no impact on his swimming?
Rosenbaum said this is where parents need to talk about drugs in terms of “the amount that’s used and the context in which they’re used. … Presumably he didn’t smoke it while training.”
Emphasizing context is “tricky,” she said, because “you don’t want to be perceived as condoning it.” That’s why parents should also say: “I don’t think you should smoke pot, and there are a lot of good reasons not to.”
Rosenbaum said one other issue – unrelated to Phelps – is whether parents should divulge their own drug use.
Some parents believe it’s better to conceal their experiences, but Rosenbaum disagrees.
“If you did smoke pot, it makes you somewhat of an expert,” she said. “The kids can’t dismiss you and say, ‘You don’t know what I mean.’ In the end, it’s all about being honest and credible.”