By Sue Sanders, author of Mom, I'm Not a Kid Anymore: Navigating 25 Inevitable Conversations That Arrive Before You Know It “MOM, DID YOU EVER smoke marijuana?” my 11-year-old daughter, Lizzie, asked as we pulled up in our driveway, gravel crunching under the car’s wheels. Her question wasn’t totally out of the blue—we’d just passed a group of teenagers hanging out on our town’s main street, a smoky cloud hovering over them like a mass Schleprock—but I was still caught off guard. My husband muttered something unintelligible and darted from the car to let the dog out of the house. I sat, frozen with anxiety. Do I answer honestly? Or lie? Spinning possible answers like a roulette wheel in my mind, I opted for truth.
“Yes, I did. A long time ago, in high school.” I unclasped my seat belt and turned around to face her. Lizzie actually gasped. “Why?” she asked. She’s the type of kid who likes rules, the more of them the better.
And why indeed? I’d been curious, of course, but I also wanted, desperately, to escape my social awkwardness, the discomfort of living in a small southern city. That town fit me as well as the jeans I wore back then, so tight and claustrophobic that I had to lie down on my bed, exhale, close my eyes and will myself smaller to zip them up. I guess I also wanted to see what I could get away with. (Quite a lot, it turned out.) Pot was forbidden and illegal—and sure to horrify my straitlaced parents. But mostly it was a social lubricant that greased my rusty social skills: The ritual of rolling a joint and passing it around a room of kids my own age was something I could spend hours doing.
Of course, I wasn’t going to tell Lizzie all this. I wanted to bare my soul but not get naked. I wanted to be candid with her, but I wanted my candor to be rated PG. So I simply told her I’d been curious. I admit, I gave it a little spin. I told her that way back then, marijuana wasn’t as strong as it is now and drug laws were different. I explained that kids can ruin their chances of getting into college or attaining a scholarship if they’re caught with drugs. And Lizzie already takes college, the concept, very seriously. She plans to study writing and cooking. This week, at least. (Not long ago, she wanted to be an elf.)
Shocked, Lizzie rushed into the house and raced over to her dad, shouting, “Did you know Mom smoked marijuana in high school!” He did.
Like so many other parenting challenges, this one thwacked me in the face. I’d been meaning to talk with Lizzie about drugs, I really had, but just never got around to it. Sure, I’d read articles about what you’re supposed to do. Then I’d forget, or get busy folding laundry, or my email would ding. Then again, maybe waiting for the perfect opportunity, the right teachable moment, to present itself is just another way of saying I was wrapped in my cocoon of denial and avoidance. Teachable moments have a way of playing hooky. Later that night, after Lizzie and I had snuggled together and talked a little more about drugs—I’d asked her if she had any more questions, and she did—
I trawled the Internet, searching for parenting advice on various websites. And I discovered I’d apparently done everything wrong. I was supposed to bring up the subject of drugs way back when my sixth-grader was still in preschool, finger painting and sorting colorful plastic toy bears into muffin tins. I should have discussed “good drugs” versus “bad drugs” with her as I gave her a Children’s Tylenol or Motrin for her fever. I briefly berated myself for not reading more parenting books when Lizzie was younger. See, I’m not a big fan of “experts” telling me what to do— a residual and healthy distrust of authority from my adolescence—but I do believe these guides have their place: as kindling. While newly pregnant, I was given a popular book that forewarned me of all the things that could possibly go wrong with the baby I was carrying, arranged in a helpful trimester format of pure terror. I think it was called What You Expect to Go Wrong Will. But in bypassing this publishing industry of fear, had I missed out on the basic steps of parenting? Was I simply Doing It Wrong?
I closed the parenting website and opened Facebook. It was time to lean on my most trusted source of parenting advice—my friends. And so I posted a status update, a query, asking how other parents talked to their kids about drugs. The postings poured in. Most said they favored being honest about their history and discussing the legal and health ramifications. They warned me off any Reefer Madness fervor or hard-line demand of “Don’t ever do it.” Back in high school, I’d been on the receiving end of “Don’t ever do it.” I can personally attest that approach didn’t work. I didn’t “don’t ever do it,” quite a lot.
All of which confirmed what I already knew. It was better to trust my friends—and myself—than “experts” for commonsense parenting advice. Besides, there seems to be a new expert or parenting philosophy every time I flip open the newspaper or log on to my computer. I won’t always discount what they have to say. But as parents, we have to trust our guts too. Because you can’t plan for every question, and the questions come fast.
The other day, while I was having lunch, Lizzie came into the dining room, face furrowed, and asked, “What’s a virgin?” Choking on my seltzer, I asked what she meant. She went into the kitchen, came back with a container and pointed. “It says right here: virgin lemonade.” This article first appeared in Salon.com. An online version remains in the Salon archives. Reprinted with permission.