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What should you tell your kids about drugs? A mother’s letter to her son

I’ve recently been clearing my desk out at UNSW (I’m just about to resign after 21 years!) and it has been an interesting process sorting through the resources, papers and media articles on ‘all things drugs’ I have collected over that time. Something that grabbed my attention was a letter that received widespread media attention when it was published way back in the late 90s.

Written by Dr Marsha Rosenbaum, a well known US drug researcher, it was addressed to her 14 year old son and outlined her advice on drugs as he was about to enter his college years. First published in the San Francisco Chronicle on September 7, 1998, it wasn’t long before it was picked up by other media outlets across the US and then around the world. You can certainly see why it was so controversial in the US, in a country where the term ‘just say no’ was first coined, Dr Rosenbaum’s words of advice challenged almost all of the messages that had previously been recommended by government agencies. Even here, there was some debate around whether her approach was appropriate. Here are some extracts from the letter:

Dear Johnny

This fall you will be entering high school, and like most American teenagers, you’ll have to navigate drugs. As most parents, I would prefer that you not use drugs. However, I realize that despite my wishes, you might experiment.

I will not use scare tactics to deter you. Instead, having spent the past 25 years researching drug use, abuse and policy, I will tell you a little about what I have learned, hoping this will let you to make wise choices. My only concern is your health and safety.

Some people will tell you that drugs feel good, and that’s why they use them. But drugs are not always fun. Cocaine and methamphetamine speed up your heart; LSD can make you feel disoriented; alcohol intoxication impairs driving; cigarette smoking leads to addiction and sometimes lung cancer; and people sometimes die suddenly from taking heroin. Marijuana does not often lead to physical dependence or overdose, but it does alter the way people think, behave and react.
Despite my advice to abstain, you may one day choose to experiment. I will say again that this is not a good idea, but if you do, I urge you to learn as much as you can, and use common sense. There are many excellent books and references, including the Internet, that give you credible information about drugs. You can, of course, always talk to me. If I don’t know the answers to your questions, I will try to help you find them.

If you are offered drugs, be cautious. Watch how people behave, but understand that everyone responds differently — even to the same substance. If you do decide to experiment, be sure you are surrounded by people you can count upon. Plan your transportation and under no circumstances drive or get into a car with anyone else who has been using alcohol or other drugs. Call us or any of our close friends any time, day or night, and we will pick you up — no questions asked and no consequences.

Love, Mom 

When I first read the letter 16 years ago I was impressed with what this mother had written and I believe it still holds up today. It clearly states that she doesn’t want her son to use drugs, but at the same time acknowledges that no matter what she does, he may choose to do so. Unfortunately, that is not how some read it, instead seeing her as advocating teaching young people how to use drugs safely (which I certainly don’t think she is doing) … Here is an example of one person’s reading of her advice:

Ms. Rosenbaum myopically proposes that we teach children
responsible use of drugs; and that we call on parents to have coherent
conversations with their children, like her “Dear Johnny” letter, which will
convince them to be responsible when they are using drugs or alcohol – evidence
enough that she lives on a different planet. Kids experimenting with drugs and alcohol don’t tend to be
responsible. What do you tell them? Just smoke a little bit of pot and don’t
get high? Don’t drink and use pot at the same time? Don’t drink or do drugs and
drive? If someone offers you heroin, meth or cocaine, a drug that will give you
a new high, just say thanks, “I’ll lumber along with pot?”

What I didn’t know (and I’m not too sure how I missed it!) was that in 2006 Marsha’s son (Johnny, now a college graduate) wrote a letter in response to his mother’s advice. Here is a short extract …

You didn’t impose rigid rules that were bound to be broken,
and you didn’t bombard me with transparent scare tactics. Instead you
encouraged me to think critically and carefully about drug use. When I
inquired, you armed me with truthful, scientifically based information from
which I could make my own decisions. This was excellent practice for adulthood,
and we built a loving relationship based on trust and truth.

You can find the full versions of both letters at the following link.

There will always be great debate about what parents should and shouldn’t say to their children about alcohol and other drugs. What is said depends on so many things, but really when it really comes down to it all any parent wants is for their child to stay safe – no matter what your stance, it is imperative that they understand that. After clearly stating that you don’t want them to use drugs and how disappointed you would be should they ever decide to go against your wishes, Dr Rosenbaum’s final paragraph is one that every parent should also consider using: 

Johnny, as your father and I have always told you about a range of
activities (including sex), think about the consequences of your actions
before you act. Drugs are no different. Be skeptical and most of all,
be safe.

Looking for information or support services on alcohol or drugs?

If you or a friend or family member needs assistance in this area, Alcohol and Drug Information Services (ADIS) are available in every state and territory. Each of these are each staffed by trained professionals who can help with your query and provide confidential advice or refer you to an appropriate service in your area.

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