December 5, 2004

Tell kids the truth

By: James N. Markels

Parents face a difficult job when it comes to instilling moral values in their children. When I have kids, I won’t want them dabbling in drugs, cigarettes, or unprotected sex. And hopefully, after I talk with them about these subjects, they’ll decide to be perfectly clean and sober, waiting until marriage to have sex like good little angels–or at the very least they’ll observe the sacred Three Year Rule and tell me nothing about their doings until long after they’ve left the roost.

But when the government starts getting involved in these areas, what was once a good message typically gets overtaken by fearmongering and threats. Drugs kill, cigarettes kill, sex kills, blah blah blah. Instead of kids being given accurate information for their own choices, the goal is to scare them into submission. What happens instead, however, is that kids realize the threats are overblown and start ignoring the message, and trouble ensues.

It began with the “Just Say No” campaign against drugs, which was embodied in the efforts of groups like the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.). While getting kids to say no to drug use is, I would say, a good thing, the tactics employed to get them to say it bordered on the hysterical.

For example, D.A.R.E.’s literature says, “Being high on cocaine often results in violence, car crashes, falls, burns, and drowning.” Often? As compared to, say, what people do when they’re drunk? The “just say no” rhetoric tried to make any and all drug use seem akin to playing Russian Roulette. While drug use is dangerous, it’s not quite that dangerous.

Not surprisingly, the General Accounting Office found in 2003 that D.A.R.E.’s tactics had no appreciable effect on curbing drug use amongst kids. The reason behind this is quite obvious: Kids could see for themselves that the rhetoric didn’t match up to reality. If a classmate decided to experiment with drugs, they would quickly learn that drug use didn’t “often” require emergency medical attention afterwards. Even worse, kids would be exposed to peers who used drugs and yet did well in school. “Just say no” refused to account for these things.

Once federal funding started to flow into anti-drug programs, D.A.R.E.’s rhetoric was inevitable. No politician would ever bless a drug message that says, “Don’t do drugs, but if you do, here are some facts you should know for how to protect yourself and make good decisions.” That would be considered far too accepting of drug use. So the message and the information all had to be pegged to “just say no” exclusively, leaving out alternative choices. There could be room for only one choice: NO.

Most recently came reports that federally funded programs teaching abstinence from premarital sex were providing “false, misleading, or distorted information” to children. As usual, the message at the heart of the campaign was a good one: abstaining from sex is the best way to not get pregnant or catch STDs. But because politicians can’t risk appearing to fund a program that in any way accepts the reality of premarital sex, these programs engaged in disinformation to scare kids into celibacy. Condoms were reported as being less reliable than studies have shown, abortions were ascribed an overly high incidence of causing sterility, and it was said mutual masturbation could result in pregnancy.

Well, okay, the last one is technically a possibility, but it would require someone with more sexual knowledge than these abstinence programs are teaching in order to make it happen. And that’s the problem. These programs have been so fixated on cajoling children into a particular choice that they have forgotten to help those kids who make a different choice. What about the 61 percent of high school seniors who have had sex? Should abstinence programs be leaving those kids on their own to learn about safe sex?

An obvious solution is to simply get government out of the nanny business. If it’s political dynamite to teach the whole story about sex and drugs honestly, then these are areas unsuited for a political solution. But in the end, the problem of teaching moral values is about more than who is funding the message. It’s about our limits in being able to raise children.

Parents can talk until they are blue in the face, but in the end our children are going to make their own choices and lead their own lives. They need information to do this, not heckling. Most of all, they need to be trusted to be able to use the information we give them. Tell kids the truth. That way, when the issue of sex or drugs or smoking comes up and parents are nowhere to be seen, our kids will be best equipped to handle themselves. When we try to scare them with distortions and lies, we’re not doing anyone any favors.

James N. Markels is an attorney and a regular columnist for Brainwash.