Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Blaming the Parents

Norman Rockwell created famous Saturday Evening Post covers showing families at dinner in small-town America. I always suspected that few of the teens at THOSE dinners ever smoked, drank, or used drugs.

Now comes Joe Califano, director of CASA, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, with a study that proves it. Teens (ages 12-17) who have dinner with their family five or more times a week are statistically about half as likely to use nicotine, alcohol, marijuana or other drugs as other teens. Source.

That factoid fits with Califano's theme that teen substance abuse is a parent problem. The drift of CASA's work is to put the responsibility on parents to solve the nation's ATOD problem. (ATOD = Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drugs.) If kids don't start using before they're 21, chances are they never will.

But maybe it's not so simple. When CASA's researchers asked both kids and their parents WHY they don't have dinner together more often, only ten per cent of the kids and seven per cent of the parents said it was because they chose not to. Three quarters said their schedules -- mainly, work schedules and commutes -- didn't allow it.

So, picture mom and/or dad working two jobs, or working late shifts, or commuting long hours, all to provide a home for the kids in the current economic climate of declining real wages and growing income inequality. Parents are working harder and longer hours just to keep from losing the roof over their heads, and that doesn't leave a lot of opportunity for Norman Rockwell family dinners. Think of Drey's mom in the movie Half Nelson, working two shifts as security guard, including nights and weekends.

You just don't get a sense of the real world of parenting today when you read CASA's report. A little empathy for working parents wouldn't be out of place for Califano. It seems that it's been a very long time since he was Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare under a Democratic president.

CASA's report might also ask why there is still such a significant proportion of users among teens who do have dinner with their family five or more times per week. CASA's report says 13 per cent of the family eaters have tried cigarettes, 32 per cent have tried alcohol, 12 per cent have tried marijuana, and similar percentages are using those substances currently. Why didn't the "magic wand" of family dinner (Califano's phrase) work with these kids? Would we consider the nation's ATOD problem solved if these were the national numbers?

Astonishingly, CASA's researchers didn't ask whether families consumed alcohol at dinner, or whether parents used nicotine or other drugs inside the family home. Isn't it relevant to ask whether parents are modeling ATOD use for children inside the home?

Making a policy issue of parents who drink, smoke, or use drugs makes sense. Blaming the national drug problem on parents who are working their hearts out to make ends meet in this economy does not.

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