My family is on a 6-day trek through the Himalayan foothills. Each day, we see stunning views and abject poverty. These days are jarring.
That is good.
Being jarred helps make my children more receptive to new ideas.
I have an agenda, so I embrace the moment.
Today was a 6-hour hike and I had a long talk with my twin 15-year old boys (fraternal, not identical) about all sorts of issues. We talked about some of the uncomfortable topics for parents and teens, including drugs and pornography.
I struggle with such topics because I want to set our children up for success and I know that both of these products can be harmful. Yet, I also know from talking with so many summer campers over the years that a simple "just say no" is typically ineffective. Teens can feel feels patronized. It also runs the risk of making the behavior seem dangerous and exciting simply because it is forbidden.
It can create a non-effective dynamic where the teen responds with defiance at the moment when thoughtful consideration is needed instead.
With this in mind, I tread lightly.
Regarding drugs, I borrowed some insight from my college roommate. Having been a bad asthmatic, I had avoided drugs because I could not smoke anything and this fact kept me out of the groups that were experimenting. My roommate, however, had great lungs, yet he avoided illegal drugs. When I asked him why, he responded simply,
"I am scared I would like it."
I asked him to elaborate. " I do not see anyone I want to be like taking drugs. Instead, I see people losing motivation and money. It does not seem to turn out well for them. If I do not like the destination, I do not want to get on the road."
I passed this quip onto them. I like this advice for three reasons. First, it does not suggest that drugs are absolutely without any appeal. Many of the anti-drug messages like to suggest that drugs are only horrible, like the "this is your brains on drugs" campaign. This, however, leads to cognitive dissonance in their minds. They think ' if drugs are never appealing, why do people ever do them?' My friend's insight helps answer this question. Drugs can make you feel better in the short run. But before you know it, they will take over and can harm you.
Second, this approach treats the teens like thinking adults and not kids. It is my general belief that when we treat teens like adults, they are more likely to act as such. Similarly, when we treat them like children, they respond by becoming tall, smelly children with bad judgment and defiance.
Finally, his quote has an air of humor and wit that eases the awkwardness. My mom (the Silver Fox) was a master of this technique. During my junior year in high school, I had a serious girlfriend and I liked to have long, uninterrupted talks with her. We kissed some, but it was generally pretty innocent. Nevertheless, one day I decided to lock the door to my room (I moved into a room that had a lock - I am surprised I had one - our kids will not have any.)
The Silver Fox wanted to tell me that this was not OK, but did not want to activate my teenage rebellion reflex. Instead, she shared a clever comment:
"I have heard that familiarity breeds contempt. I do not worry about that. I just worry that familiarity might breed."
I never locked the door again.
On pornography, I chose to talk with them as young adults again. I deemed that arguing that pornography is exploitative would fall on deaf and/or confused ears, so I avoided this more sophisticated argument. Instead, I talked about how their world differs from my teenage years and that the two major dangers of pornography today were not there for me.
The latter points are important because I want them to know that the world of pornography is potentially more harmful for them than it was 25-30 years ago.
I suggested that I grew up in a simpler age. When I was in high school or college, pornography basically meant magazines. They were not all that easy to get.
The Internet is a game changer in this regard. It is readily available and virtually customizable. With this in mind, I shared with them two terrible effects of pornography.
First, I told them that pornography creates unrealistic expectations about relationships; from physical appearance to libido to the specific acts. There is a growing trend of men finding real women less appealing than their virtual counterparts. As a result, they would rather stay home than meet new people. Once a guy in this situation does meet someone, his artificial companion becomes the basis of comparison rather than any real person. This is depressing to me on a multitude of layers. I told my boys that I deeply hope that this never happens to them.
Second, I shared that pornography can become physically addictive. More specifically, the brain releases dopamine when it views it. Some online pornography consumers soon find they are more like users than viewers. I know of marriages that have failed largely because of a compulsion to view pornography.
I ended in a way that might seem a little unusual. I started by saying that I really wanted them to avoid drugs at all costs. As I said before, I worry that they would like it and they would become dependent. If this happened, it would not end well. On porn, I took a different path. I know that some of their college friends will watch porn regularly on their computers. While I want to say simply "stay away", I think parents are limited to the number of times they can seem completely prohibitory. They want to live their own lives and experiment. I belive that you only have one "don't do it!" before they stop listening. I used my prohibition on the drug issue, so on pornography, I said the following:
"I can see why you will want to spend time watching that. Further, I do not want to say that it will never happen. We will be checking in high school to assure that you do not do so at our home [no computers in their rooms], but we will not have control in college. I ask instead 2 simple questions.
• What kind of relationships do you want to have?
• What do you want to accomplish?
When asking these questions, do you think that having unrealistic expectations of women will be helpful? Will you be able to accomplish your goals if you have a time-consuming addiction?"
After the talk, both boys separately thanked me for talking with them in this manner (like "they had brains") and sharing thoughts that were both challenging and a bit embarrassing.
I hope these talks helped them. I think that they did.
Being a parent is a process of planting seeds. I think I planted good ones today.