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Parents are the best teachers about healthy choices

Brian Dirks

As a parent you will likely recall your own sense of excitement on returning to school after summer break. You also may have experienced a touch of anxiety in thinking about whether your new teachers would be soft or strict, whether your stories of summer fun would match up to those of your friends, if your new clothes would cause a splash, a ripple or a thud, and if your new classes would be delightful or dull.

You may also remember the peer pressure facing you to try to fit in with the right crowd or be “cool” or “hip” as these terms have evolved from your own parents’ generation.  Of course none of that has changed, just your perspective.  Back in “your day” you may not have had to face some of the decisions that many youth do today – starting as early as middle school – about alcohol, marijuana or other drugs.

That’s where you can truly make a difference just by talking to your teen on this topic.  Parents are the biggest influence on their kids’ behavior. But if you have trouble starting the conversation or finding the right words, you are not alone. This web site and many others are full of advice on what we can say and do to help kids make healthy choices.

As a society we send kids many messages letting them know that it might just be okay to use marijuana or alcohol.  In Washington, liquor is sold in just about every supermarket, drug store and warehouse-style shopping center, which may make it seem more acceptable and available to those under 21.  Some of the packaging is both colorful and clearly appealing to youth.  

It’s the same with marijuana. It is being sold legally in cookies and candies and can be easily inhaled in vaping devices, all of which are being confiscated regularly in classrooms.  In fact, the Marijuana Impact Report found that 98 percent of drug violations in Seattle Public Schools during the 2013-2014 school year were related to marijuana. Teachers and principals across the state have many stories about how marijuana use and the confiscation of related paraphernalia – especially since marijuana became legal for adults 21 and over in Washington in 2012 – is disrupting the classroom, making it more challenging for teachers to deliver the quality education that parents expect and children deserve.

As parents we can help educate our children and teens that just because something is advertised or available at the grocery store, does not mean it is good for us.  Other ways we can help our children are to:

  • Get the facts about the risks of alcohol and marijuana use to the teen brain, such as impaired learning and memory. 
  • Take advantage of “teachable moments” to talk with your kids, such as when beer ads air during football games.  Ask questions that teach kids to become media savvy and resist unhealthy influences, such as  "do the ads glamorize drinking?" and "what facts about alcohol do beer companies avoid telling you?"
  • Make every effort to learn about their day-to-day lives at school. Skip general questions like “how was school today?” and ask about specifics instead, such as “who did you have lunch with today?” or, “fill me in on your math test.”
  • Encourage them to get involved in safe and healthy activities such as after-school sports and clubs that will help them develop solid life skills while discouraging substance abuse.
  • Let kids know that using alcohol or other drugs can interfere with their goals, such as getting into college or the military. You and your kids can see videos of Washington teens giving their reasons for not using marijuana at Listen2yourselfie.org

Here are more helpful resources:

As you connect with other parents through school or your child’s friends, consider sharing what you know about the power of parents to guide children in making healthy choices as they navigate school and life.

Brian Dirks represents the Lt. Governor’s Office on the Washington Healthy Youth Coalition.  He is also a father and a grandfather.