Character Education to Deflect Substance Abuse in Kids

Conscious Parenting: Maybe it's the beer...or Why D.A.R.E. Doesn't Work

Posted May 03, 2008

Substance use (and abuse) is endemic to the culture that we have created, and we are not going to extract it from that culture; that would be impossible. This statement is supported by several studies, including one commissioned by the Justice Department, showing that programs like D.A.R.E., and D.A.R.E., in particular, do not work. The primary reason that these programs do not work is that, no matter what sort of preamble children receive, the exposure is not only there, but a constant within the context of their development.

For kids, inappropriate substance use is a symptom of the underlying decision making process. Part of development and individuation for children is learning to make good decisions, often by making mistakes. By addressing the context -- choice points and consequences -- rather than the content -- drinking and drugging -- we can, as parents and teachers, motivate and shape behavior, rather than setting up a ‘good' versus ‘evil' scenario that is driven by fear, as opposed to understanding.

Here's a tale that I repeat often. I have a client who has been sober for 21 years. He used to be the town drunk (small town). Time was that he could walk into any one of the many establishments in town and there would be a beer on the bar before his bum hit the stool. One day, he walked into one of his favorite watering holes and was told by the bartender, "There's no Budweiser, let me make you a Long Island Iced Tea; he agreed. Just as she put the drink on the bar, the bar-back appeared, case on his shoulder, announcing that the ‘beer guy' had finally arrived. No sooner was it that the case hit the floor than there was beer, along with the Iced Tea, sitting in front of my client.

Now, this man, a life-long drinker, who, at 24, had not been sober in more than 12 years, just sat there, looking at the two drinks in front of him. By his account he did not move, his eyes shifting back and forth, for about a half an hour. Then, again by his account, he said out loud to himself, "Maybe it's the beer." He stood up, walked out, and has not had a drink since. He has never been to an AA meeting, a detox, or a rehab, and his time with me was unrelated to his alcoholism, which he still acknowledges.

The point that this story illustrates is that this person did not suddenly recognize the evils of drinking, or the damage it was doing to him physically, socially, and financially. It illustrates that, in that moment, he recognized the symptom (the beer) and, further recognized that symptom to be an obstacle of his own choice and creation. In that moment, the underlying value set that defined his character and who he was as a person won out over his use of alcohol to avoid his life and responsibilities.

By providing the structure of both character and good decision making, parents and teachers can shape the choice not to engage in destructive behavior before the behavior starts. Or, at the very least, provide a structure within which the decision to engage in destructive behavior is short-lived, rather than chronic.

It's not really about the beer; it's about the person holding it.

© 2008 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved

My Psychology Today Therapists ProfileMy WebsiteEmail Me DirectlyTelephone Consultations