I have spent my life as a teacher, coach, and educational leader trying to help young men and women grow up free from the negative influences of drugs and alcohol. In this regard, I am not unlike so many teachers and educators across our nation who try every day, year-round, to help kids grow into happy, healthy, constructive adults. My working theory, underscored by research, is that the teenage body organizes itself around its activities, healthy or not, and that the adult body is far less susceptible to intoxicants if it grows up free from them. The goal is to push the age of experimentation as far down the road as possible.
It is not easy work.
Teenagers are naturally curious about intoxicants and drawn to experiment with them: this has always been true. It's not that we don't know that some (few, we hope) will descend into the tunnel of dependence regardless of our best efforts.
Marijuana, alcohol, and other drugs appeal to many kids because they break down barriers in their consciousness. Marijuana, for example, allows them to be absorbed by the moment: a universal human desire. It can give them a sense that the world that they inhabit in their head can actually -- inhale and hold -- be a totally different (and appealing one) in a matter of minutes. It also helps them hide and forget their troubles however temporarily: no small thing for besieged kids.
For some teens, the world of intoxicants is inviting because it gives them a group to belong to. Alienated or rejected by others, feel like you don't belong? Start drugging and drinking and there's a peer group that out there that will, however unhealthily, embrace you.
Our work on the pot front has become more problematic because of the success of the marijuana lobby. The medical marijuana Trojan Horse and the pro-legalization interests have largely succeeded in depicting pot as entirely innocuous. Their greatest claim -- that marijuana does not kill you (this is the highest goal we can aspire to in our lives, "to not to be killed" as we dally with drugs?) -- leads our kids to the conclusion that there is no downside to marijuana. Don't believe me? Go out and ask some teens what they think. Many will reject out of hand the idea that there's anything at all to be concerned about. As a baby boomer who came of age as pot hit the scene full force, and as one who has worked with teens for decades, I have seen both friends and adolescent users slowly turn down their own lights as they fell into regular use. I wonder who among you has not also seen this? But it seems we have lost the ability to have a nuanced discussion with ourselves or our children and those in our care on this topic.
Our kids today see voters and government officials eyeing the profits from the sale of marijuana as a tacit approval of its use for everyone. And yes, there are some good reasons for developing a more enlightened understanding of this issue. Marijuana is a natural herb that may relieve nausea and chronic pain for some. Why not let real doctors relying on real research make that call about who should use it? As well, African-Americans and Hispanics are arrested and convicted at much higher rates than white users hiding behind gated communities: not fair. So decriminalize the use of marijuana if need be. But while we can grant that marijuana could be helpful for some, let's not pretend -- because its sale is profitable and the enforcement around its use virtually impossible -- that it is the harmless elixir currently portrayed by the nascent corporate profiteers and revenue-starved state officials. Marijuana blocks the natural receptor sites in our brains; it also contains a complex array of hundreds of chemicals (60 plus of which are unique to cannabis), the entire long-term effects of which are still unknown. There is much honest science to be undertaken before we can blithely turn pot over to all with a free conscience. Indeed, the current blather about the benefits of pot reminds me of the tobacco lobby -- and the complicit medical community -- who for generations touted its health benefits. Let's do our homework better this time.
My bigger point, and an implicit plea aimed at the adult citizenry of our country: Our kids mimic our behavior. Our values, our activities, and our interests become theirs. It isn't what we say -- it's what we do that matters. If we think that getting drunk or high is one cool key to our passage through life, if this is the implicit statement of our values and aspirations, so it will be theirs. (And is this ever more true for high school seniors than around graduation time?)
We can do better: Let's teach our kids that their own bodies are, in fact, miraculous chemical factories, able to produce--for most of them, at any rate--exactly what they need to succeed and live happily and well. We must show them healthy and natural alternatives to intoxicants.
Here is what I know works: activities where our children can both distinguish themselves individually (and thereby gain the absolutely essential respect of their peers) while also being embraced by a larger peer group. For starters, think music, drama, dance, community service, athletics, wilderness ventures. These are high energy, calculated risk endeavors as opposed to low energy, high risk endeavors characterized by drugs, alcohol, and irresponsible sexual engagement. Our kids need these avenues to find out who they are so that they can extend themselves and succeed and fail in meaningful, supportive settings. We should be increasing the funding for these programs in our schools -- not cutting back on these dollars.
Think also of the beneficent influence of church, synagogue, mosque, or other spiritual institutions to give support, meaning, and empowerment to our children. The significance of this can hardly be overstated because the appeal of, and resulting abuse of drugs and alcohol, is often rooted in -- and results in -- existential despair and spiritual crisis.
Let's also work harder to show our kids the power of a healthy diet, sound sleep, and vigorous exercise for finding happiness. Our insistence upon having our kids sacrifice their sleep at a time when they need it most so they can take just one more course and notch just one better grade for the high school transcript is misguided. Yes, hard work is good; yes, we should teach them to push themselves, but not at the expense of their sleep and broader health. It's no wonder so many of them can't wait to escape through the medicated pot state.
If your spiritual and religious constructs allow it, teach your teens how to meditate and/or practice yoga to free their bodies and minds for higher and broader states of consciousness. Our kids need appealing alternatives to intoxicants. They need to see that happiness and well being can come most powerfully and enduringly through natural means.
The United States is already the largest consumer of illegal drugs in the world. This is no small embarrassment. And for all I know, we may be the largest ingestor of legal drugs as well. Does this have to be the case? We can teach our children to make a powerfully positive difference in this world by freeing their own bodies and minds to be their best -- and then using them in service to others in need to improve the world we live in. A win-win, and a far better alternative to our kids than handing over to them a stoner nation. Let's do better. Our kids need us to show them how. We need a new generation of healthy leaders who can lift us up and help us become the best that we can be. We do not need our next generation to discover that their highest aspiration is the search for the next fix.
Michael Mulligan has been a teacher, coach, and educator for 37 years. He is a graduate of Middlebury College, The Breadloaf School of English at Middlebury, Lincoln College Oxford, and The Harvard Graduate School of Education. He has served for the last 22 years as the Head of School at The Thacher School in Ojai, California.