Dare to be Straight with Kids
I remember the DARE program mostly from the shirt. In elementary school, shirts you got as a gift were too large, but in a blink of an eye and forever after, they were so small it seemed impossible you were ever that size. Especially after you give birth and look back at your old pants and realize that Shakira was right: hips, in fact, don't lie.
The DARE program, stemming from Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign and America's War on Drugs, was everywhere when I was a kid — not just at school, but on bumper stickers, commercials and even in booths at the mall. The program had me believing that I would be swatting away nefarious and trenchcoated drug dealers that would routinely hang out at the back fences of all the schools I'd attend. This scenario never materialized, and instead, I started to wonder more about what else might be adult hyperbole.
The American Psychological Association did a study in 1999 that showed that after 10 years since the program's implementation, 1,002 individuals in their early 20s who participated in DARE in sixth grade had no measurable positive outcomes regarding drug use, attitudes towards drugs or self-esteem. But those individuals likely had other experiences not shepherded by the vague threat of the police who taught DARE, and those experiences were likely outside the guidance of their parents, but came through exposure from their peers.
When my friends started to get high during lunch, going for a drive and coming back red-eyed, they never thought to invite me. My best friend, however, relied on me having a Bath & Body Works spray bottle to hose her down when she slunk back into class.
One of the only parties I went to — when I wasn't playing video games and watching anime, which explains a lot about never getting offered drugs — started with the host showing me the door in the floor where we'd all drop down if the cops came.
Well, then. What good, wholesome fun we'd be having.
I spent the evening shifting around springs poking through an old couch with my friend who was coming down off something that she wasn't even lucid enough to tell me about. It didn't seem like it felt good.
To a large extent, I was an overly worried and "good" kid, but I attribute plenty to having my "Talk about Birds and Bees" take a slight diversion into drugs. My parents were clear that people did things, like sex, because it felt good. And drugs felt good. My dad, in the military then, talked about smoking pot in his teens with his brother while they lounged on the hood of a truck in Nebraska.
"When I get out, I'll smoke again," he said, as both my parents eased their nerves during the tense conversation with regular chain-smoking.
What I wish they had told me about was how there are other reasons for altering your mind — like for numbing or calming yourself, as they did with cigarettes. I wish they had told me about how hard drugs hung out in tandem with alcohol, with unhealthy romantic fixations and even with an attempt to enhance who you thought you could be.
Adults tended not to be straight with kids about the full expression of what drugs did for people and also weren't honest about how the world worked. You can preach abstinence but explain that there might come a time when a pipe, a bag or a bottle is passed in the intimacy of peers, and help your kids navigate that moment in all its layers.
Kids need honesty and more credit than they're usually given. And, as we aged, more was kept at arm's length by the older generations from the younger, couched with the tidy reasoning that things were done as they always had been, or we'd understand when we were older. Sometimes the latter was true, but both were a measure of avoidance. It lingers into how we relate to our elders, whether their truths were lies, ignorance in disguise, or if the world was more complicated than just saying no to fears misunderstood.
Cassie McClure is a writer, millennial, and unapologetic fan of the Oxford comma. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.