What happens across the kitchen table has a far greater influence on whether American adolescents smoke pot or snort cocaine than what happens across the Mexican border. America’s best hope for a drug-free society is in the kitchen, the living room, the classroom and the church pew, not in the prison cell, the police precinct, the White House and the Congress.
These are the loud and clear lessons from five years of sophisticated surveys that The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University has conducted of teens, their parents and the teachers and principals at their middle and high schools.
CASA’s surveys of 12- to 17-year-olds, focus groups of teens and parents, public policy research and demonstration programs across the nation establish two propositions:
A child who gets through age 21 without smoking, using drugs or abusing alcohol is virtually certain never to do so.
Parent power is the most potent and underutilized tool we have to help our children journey through those years.
Few parents appreciate the enormous influence they exercise over the attitudes and actions of their teens about smoking, drinking and using drugs. Teens who have never used marijuana overwhelmingly credit their parents as the determining influence on their decision. This potential for positive parental persuasion makes it especially troubling that so many dads are AWOLthe military acronym for absent without leavein their children’s lives. Their absence greatly increases the risk that their children will smoke, drink and use illegal drugs.
The most recent CASA survey sought to measure the impact of different family structures and relationships on the likelihood of a teen’s substance use. The widespread disengagement of dads came through in these findings:
71 percent of teens have an excellent or very good relationship with Mom; only 58 percent have such a relationship with Dad.
More than twice as many teens find it easier to talk to Mom than to Dad about drugs.
Of teens who never used marijuana, twice as many credit Mom as credit Dad with their decision.
Almost four times as many teens discuss drugs with Mom alone as discuss them with Dad alone.
Teens are three times more likely to rely solely on Mom than solely on Dad when they have important decisions to make.
More teens regard Mom than Dad as the demanding parent in terms of grades, homework and personal behavior.
By and large these relationships hold true whether the teen is a boy or girl. Mom is more likely than Dad to be "extremely disturbed" about their teen’s smoking, drinking or using marijuana, and less likely to be resigned to their teen using an illegal drug in the future. Dad’s disengagement and Pontius Pilate positioning have a stunning impact on the odds that his children will use substances. A child living in a two-parent family, whose relationship with the father is fair or poor, is 68 percent more likely to smoke, drink and use drugs than teens living in the average two-parent family surveyed.
Children in single-parent homes who have an excellent relationship with their mothers are at 62 percent lower risk of substance abuse than children in two-parent families who have a fair or poor relationship with their fathers. Even a child in an average single-parent family is at less risk of using drugs than one in a two-parent family who doesn’t have a good relationship with Dad. And the teen of a father who has more than two drinks a day is at a 71 percent higher risk of using substances than the average teen.
This should be a wake-up call for every father in America. Dads should look in the mirror and ask themselves: How often do I eat meals with my children? Help with their homework? Attend their games and extra-curricular activities? Go to parent meetings at their schools? Join mom in monitoring our teen’s conduct and praising and disciplining them? Take them to religious services?
Busy fatherslawyers, investment bankers, businessmen and doctorswho are tempted to view these questions as naïvely out of touch with the sweet smell of success in contemporary America, might ponder the following: For three consecutive years, CASA’s surveys have found that the more often a family has dinner together, the less likely the teen is to smoke, drink or use drugs. Children in families that have dinner together only once a week are more than twice as likely as those who dine together nightly to smoke, drink and use illegal drugs. Indeed, each night a family has dinner together reduces the risk of substance use by the children.
Parent power is key to getting drugs out of American middle and high schools. Sadly, a drug-free school has become an oxymoron in America. Most teens say that drugs are used, kept and sold at their high schools; almost half of middle-schoolers face the same sorry situation.
It is difficult to overstate the importance of drug-free schools to our children’s development. Teens attending schools where drugs are used, kept and sold are twice as likely to be offered marijuana and three times as likely to try it. They are nearly three times more likely to smoke nicotine cigarettes. They are also much likelier to know teenagers who use acid, cocaine or heroin.
If asbestos is found in a school or if some students are infested with lice, parents raise loud complaints and keep their children from going to classes until the asbestos and lice are removed. But if a school is infested with drugs, parents continue to send their children back day after day. When parents feel as strongly about drug-free schools as they do about asbestos- or lice-free schools, we will have drug-free schools in America.
In New York, Boston, Washington, Los Angeles and other cities, parents spend more than $20,000 a year to send their children to private day or boarding schools. In return for such hefty payments, these affluent moms and dads demand that these schools get their offspring into colleges like Harvard, Yale, Georgetown, Holy Cross, Princeton and Stanford. The schools (often for-profit enterprises) and their well-paid headmasters deliver what parents expect of them. When these parents make it clear that they are as concerned about their children being exposed to illegal drugs, alcohol and nicotine as they are about their children’s College Board test scores, these headmasters will clean the drugs out of their schools.
God is the co-pilot for many kids who fly through the adolescent years drug free. Parents have the greatest influence to get God into the cockpit of adolescence. Teens do not get their religious values out of the air, and they don’t ordinarily go to religious services every Sunday, Saturday or Friday on their own. Parents are the source of these values and activities. Forty-four percent of parents who say their relationship with their children is excellent take their teens to religious services, compared to 27 percent who do not.
In CASA’s 1999 survey, 75 percent of teens in religious schoolspredominately but not solely Roman Catholicsaid their schools are drug free, compared to only 40 percent of those in public schools. This situation is not simply a function of the spiritual life offered by religious schools, important as that is. For many kids, it is a reflection of their parents’ caring involvement in their lives. At parochial schools in inner cities, for example, parents typically must pay tuition of several thousand dollars a year. Where incomes are below $20,000, putting up that kind of money (or paying in kind by personally providing library, maintenance or custodial services to the school) calls for serious sacrifice.
Teens who consider religion an important part of their lives are much less likely to abuse substances. Those who attend religious services at least four times a month are less likely to smoke, drink or use drugs than those who attend such services less than once a month. Fifty-six percent of teens who attend religious services at least four times a month say they will never use an illegal drug in the future, compared with only 15 percent of those who attend such services less than once a month. Teens who attend services less than once a month are more than twice as likely to smoke marijuana as are those who attend such services at least four times a month.
Not surprisingly, the safest teens in terms of risk of substance use are those in loving two-parent families who have a positive relationship with both parents, go to both parents equally when they have important decisions to make, have discussed illegal drugs with both parents, see their mom and dad as equally demanding in terms of grades, homework and personal conduct, and share an active religious life with their parents. In many cases the economic or health situations impose demands on dads that make it difficult to satisfy all the terms of this ideal. Not every teen will be blessed with such wonderful family structure and relationships. But every teen deserves to have a father who strives to achieve them.
Joseph A. Califano Jr., president of The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, was U.S. secretary of health, education and welfare from 1977 to 1979.