Just Don't Say No, Not Us

Susan, a Los Angeles homemaker and the mother of a 16-year-old son, believes it's never too soon to start lying to your kids about drugs. She began when he was 6 and, all fired up by an elementary-school program, asked if Mommy had done any of those terrible things. "I didn't hesitate to say no," she says, belying a history of marijuana use from the age of 12, LSD at 15 and a two-year addiction to amphetamines. She lied when he asked again five years later, although her husband, with considerably less to hide, confessed. That made her feel even worse. "I lied to him and now he thinks it's so terrific that I never tried drugs," she says. She beats down the impulse to tell the truth. "I think he would feel incredibly betrayed," she reasons.

Susan, and most of the 78 million adult Americans who have used drugs, will never run for president. But they have found that doesn't exempt them from difficult questions about their behavior when, like a certain candidate, they were young and irresponsible. "If you throw a stick into a crowd of people in their 40s, you'll hit at least five who've had to swallow hard and deal with this question," says Bruce Bomier, 52, author of "Marijuana and the Responsible Parent." "We need to confront George W.'s dilemma in our own homes."

It is a dilemma because for most parents, the answers represent a choice of competing hypocrisies. Telling the truth involves admitting you've done things yourself that you won't permit your child to do. But many parents feel uncomfortable lying to their children--especially in the context of asking a child to tell the truth about his habits. And there's the practical danger that a college friend will come to dinner and start reminiscing about the time you went to hear Iron Butterfly. "The worst thing is to lie to your kid and have them find out later," says Dr. Pedro Jose Greer, 43, of Miami. (Although he would make an exception about the other question middle-aged parents often face: "I'm a Cuban father. If my daughter asked if I had sex before I was married, I'd tell her I don't even have sex now.")

The best course, experts say, takes into account the child's age and maturity. You don't really have to answer a 6-year-old, says Dr. Steven Berkowitz, a child psychiatrist at Yale. "What they really want to hear is, 'We are going to take care of you, you don't have to worry about it'." With adolescents, "it's useful to say, 'Yeah, I did it.' Then you can say, 'Let's talk about why I was lucky and what happens when you're not'.'' But the focus of any discussion should be on the child's needs for guidance. As a parent, this is not the occasion to work out your own feelings, and since you're not running for office, your "candor" is not the issue. "You can say, 'I'm simply not prepared to discuss this. It's my personal business from the past'," advises Ariel White-Kovach, executive director of youth services at the Hazelden Foundation.

Some had no choice--like Glenn Loury, 51, the well-known educator who had hopes of being named undersecretary of Education in 1987 but withdrew out of fear that his drug use would come to light. It did, that same year, when he was arrested for possession of cocaine--a charge later dropped after he completed treatment. His children, now 10 and 7, were told about it, because, he reasoned, they would find out eventually anyway. And while "Susan's" son may admire her for saying no, Loury hopes his sons have an even stronger example to guide them: a father who almost blew his career, and even his life, over drugs. You couldn't make up a better answer than that.

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