By Martha Iachetta
I recently returned to my work in two schools after a blissful and all too brief summer off. At first the logistics of my son’s drop offs, pick-ups, transition adjustments, appointments, and enrichment activities coupled with all the beginnings of my own “back to school” responsibilities had my head spinning and me dropping into bed each night with the kind of thorough exhaustion only a parent can feel. But eight weeks in, the intellectual stimulation has me revved, excited, and pumped up for another year of my version of matching my greatest gifts with one of society’s greatest needs. I work in both a middle and high school as the point person for substance abuse prevention, education, and early intervention. A real conversation starter, let me tell you. But it is work I am proud of, good at, and grateful for as I imagine what adults my own son will turn to when he is older and not always comfortable talking to me.
Part of my excitement about my returning to work has to do with reaching a place in my career where, in addition to my work with youth, I am gaining enough expertise in aspects of my field that I am in a position to teach and train other professionals. I recently taught a full-day course on a concept called “social norms marketing” and, since I consider it one of the coolest things since the invention of sliced bread, I thought you other thinking moms (and dads) might find it equally fascinating. Forgive me as I briefly slip in to educator mode, but this is something we all will need to ponder and confront as our children get older: What values do we want to model and teach our children when it comes to responsible decision making, particularly with regard to using alcohol and other drugs?
I am sure we all care deeply about our children and want to teach them to be thoughtful, responsible, trustworthy, and safe. We want them to have fun with their friends, but what exactly that looks like as they get older has a luxurious fog around it. For those of us whose children are so young that the image of catching them puking up booze or having eyes rimmed marijuana-red is impossible to fathom, it’s easier not to really go there. Don’t get me wrong, many of our children will never cross those lines, but some surely will.
Research shows parents are the #1 influence on their children, even during their peer-focused teen years. It therefore serves us well to give the issue some thought now, before it becomes a pressing concern. Perhaps this essay will help you figure out where to start.
Where do you stand? For some, there may be an assumption that all teenage kids will experiment with alcohol and cigarettes. Some might throw marijuana in the mix as well. Others may feel strongly that they will teach their children to abide by the law and have their fun without using drugs, no matter what other kids may be doing. Some of us may have done quite a bit of “experimenting” ourselves while some others may have partied drug free. When it comes to alcohol and other drug use, I’ve found through experience that it is far from a neutral subject.
Many of us know alcoholics, both active and sober. Some of us grew up in homes where we wished a parent or other family member drank (or smoked or whatevered) less. Some of us have had problems with our own use and either sought help or didn’t. Many of us know people who died because of their own or someone else’s alcohol or drug use—whether it resulted from a vehicle crash, an overdose, a suicide, a fall, or some other preventable tragedy.
Many of us loved our partying days and hope that same innocent fun for our children. Some of us may even be from homes where our parents preferred that our friends came over to drink rather than have us out and about drinking and driving. Some had parents who were clueless as to what was really going on with us and our friends while others had parents who knew all too well and would have grounded us for life if we so much as had alcohol on our breath. And some of us just weren’t into it: We were into sports, studies, extracurriculars, and friends, and we could take or leave the party scene, preferably leave it. Some worried or judged or wished our friends made different choices while some remained miraculously indifferent. While we all have our varied histories, attitudes, and behaviors, we have two things in common: We survived whatever choices we made, and we want to help our children navigate their own choices in safe and responsible ways.
Our children want to be safe and responsible, too. However, developmentally, adolescence is a time of risk taking. How risky those choices are is where we as parents need to take our roles seriously. The healthiest approach is for children to learn as they grow that risk-taking does not need to include alcohol and other drugs. Without demonizing alcohol, pot, or cigarettes, the top three drugs of choice for American youth (closely followed by prescription medicine), it is essential to remember that most people grow up without going down those paths. Most people don’t drink or use drugs at all; if they do try alcohol or other drugs, most do not go beyond experimenting or occasionally consuming small amounts; most take extra precautions to keep themselves safe when and if they do use alcohol and other drugs; and most do not approve of regular and excessive use of any potentially harmful substance. Most would never drink and drive; most would not get in a vehicle with someone who has been using alcohol or other drugs; and most would rather date a non-smoker/non-drinker. While this may not have been true for some of us and some of our friends, it truly is the norm. We can all be grateful that our children are growing up in times where it is cool to be healthy. Yes, peer pressure remains, misperceptions that “everyone is doing it” remain, and there are still people taking huge risks with alcohol and other drugs, but for the most part, people aren’t doing it.
That is the approach I take with what is referred to as “social norms marketing.” Here is a quick and simple version of the topic: “social norms” describe the attitudes and behaviors held by the majority. These norms demonstrate health-positive behaviors and health-positive attitudes about how people believe others should act. However, since our attention tends to be drawn to behaviors that are different, provocative, and conversation worthy—in our own lives, in the news, in movies, whatever—people tend to overestimate the prevalence of problematic behaviors and attitudes and underestimate the true, majority-held, health-positive behaviors and attitudes. Following me so far?
In the case of alcohol and other drug use, young people (and often their parents teachers, and other adults as well) get caught up in that myth that “Everyone is doing it.” By using marketing strategies (posters, media, etc.) to correct social norm misperceptions (to the more accurate norm that NOT everyone is doing it), we highlight the solutions rather the problem. We all know as parents that focusing too much on negative behaviors unintentionally reinforces them. We know that rewarding, emphasizing, and praising positive behaviors is the way to go when we want to encourage a child to learn behaviors we’d like to reinforce. Dispelling the myth that “Everyone is doing it” is a big part of how I choose to do my work with young adults and a big part of what I suggest to parents, teachers, and others who have a huge influence on youth. You would be surprised at how much skepticism I still encounter from those who find this strategy too simple and are reluctant to let go of the scare tactics and lecturing—it seems obvious to me that those strategies do not inspire lasting motivation to change and unintentionally perpetuate the myth that the problem is the norm. You should not deny the problems or withhold accurate information, but neither should you stay in that one place. Move on to the solutions, and move on to reinforcing health.
Without boring you with the specific details of how I conduct my job, I want to make my message very clear. We are the ones our children learn from—the good, the bad, and the ugly. What we model and what we teach are our children’s greatest guides. We need to continue to get to know our children’s friends and their parents. We want to give our parent friends the message that our goal is to help each other keep our children safe in whatever ways we can. Studies show that most parents of children young and old want to be told if another adult sees their child acting in a dangerous or highly irresponsible way. Most parents would make sure an adult is home at a place where children are gathering. Most parents would never condone drinking by underage children in their home. Most parents have rules and curfews and they enforce them.
Studies show that the more students, teachers, parents, and community members are reminded of and communicate the truthful norms of low- to no-risk choices around alcohol and other drugs, the riskiest behaviors (drinking/drugging regularly and/or excessively) actually drop—by double-digit percentages. These encouraging statistics are the result of reverse or positive peer pressure. This approach gives students who don’t drink/drug a voice. It gives students who do drink/drug but only in small amounts and/or infrequently a voice. It tells students who are taking the biggest risks with their lives and the lives of others—think driver’s license—the strong message that what they are doing is both unusual and disapproved of by their peers. It gives parents reminders, encouragement, and permission to do their job as parents. It is what we can hope for ourselves, our friends, and all of our children.
From a young age we need to teach our children well—to identify their feelings, to play fair, to treat others as they wish to be treated, to listen to their bodies, to look out for one another, and to ask an adult for help when they can’t figure something out for themselves. Because it’s true: Everything we ever needed to know we learned in kindergarten. The trick is to not forget it.