One of the most important jobs of being a parent is to keep our kids safe. Two crucial and possibly difficult conversations parents will have with their children are about sex and drugs.
So what's the best way to address these topics with children?
The New York Times Magazine had an article last weekend about a new approach to sex education. The course, run by Julie Metzger, uses openness and humor to make "The Talk" less dreadful for parents and children alike. The one-day programs are made up of parents and their children. The idea is that sex education should not only a health class in school, but also a conversation between parent and child.
While many sex education classes focus on abstinence-only instruction, these courses are about creating a safe place to have an open conversation. Here is how the Times describes it: "The first hour of each class amounts to an informative stand-up routine... the second hour is devoted to answering the girls' questions."
There are no bad questions. Young people can ask anything they want and Ms. Metzer will answer them honestly. "Do you always get a baby from having sex?" "Does having sex hurt?According to the Times, this strategy of open and honest conversations is what young people want and they work.
In a 2012 survey by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 87 percent of teenagers said "open, honest" conversations with their parents could help them put off sex and avoid pregnancy.
Students who take part in comprehensive sex-ed programs delay having sex for the first time, have less sex and fewer partners and rely more on contraception than their peers. (Conversely, abstinence-only instruction has not succeeded in extending virginity.)
The same principles and goals of sex education should be how we handle drug education. The same way sex education advocates acknowledge that not all teens will be abstinent and need to learn how to protect themselves, we need to acknowledge that not all teens will abstain from drug use and they also need to be provided honest drug education that will keep them safe.
That's why the Drug Policy Alliance developed the "Safety First" program to provide parents and teachers will a fallback strategy for teens who say "sometimes" or "maybe."
While some schools provide honest sex education that acknowledges the reality that some teens will have sex, the nation's drug education programs treat abstinence as the sole measure of success. This simplistic and unrealistic "education" does not acknowledge the reality that 75 percent of teens will try alcohol and 50 percent will try marijuana before they graduate. Instead of giving our teens honest information about drugs, we have police go into schools and give them reefer madness.
Too many abstinence-only programs try to scare young people from trying drugs by highlighting phony horror stories like, "if you use marijuana you may turn into a heroin addict." This leads to many teens to ignore all the drug information relayed to them by people in authority. Once credibility is lost, it's harder for kids to hear the messages that they truly need to hear.
While it may be hard for parents to hear, large percentages of teens will have sex and will try drugs before they graduate. It is time for us to recognize that we need honest sex and drug education.
We need to drop "Just Say NO" and replace it with "Just Say Know." Our teens need to know that the bottom line is that we love them and we want them to be safe.
Tony Newman is the director of media relations for the Drug Policy Alliance.
This piece first appeared on the Drug Policy Alliance Blog:http://www.drugpolicy.org/