This post was originally published on October 24, 2014.
Adults don’t give kids a ton of credit. We talk to them as if they’re hard of hearing or else ignore them altogether. It’s even worse when we talk to children about so-called “adult” matters, such as alcohol or drugs.
Take “Good Teens Turned Drug Addicts.” That’s the title of an article in Choices, a health and life skills magazine made for teens by Scholastic, the world’s largest producer and distributor of educational materials for schools. The purpose of the article is to warn kids of how “once-straight-laced teens” have accidentally gotten addicted to prescription medication, which ultimately led them to use illegal drugs like heroin. To illustrate their point that you don’t have to be a derelict to become one, the article tells the cautionary tale of a girl named Brittany, a “bright 16-year-old with good grades and braces” who was prescribed Percocet by her orthodontist after having her wisdom teeth removed, and who subsequently turned from a “happy South Florida honors student into a desperate addict.”
From Brittany’s story, we learn less about drug use and its effects than we learn what it means to be “good.” First off, good kids have names like Brittany. Beyond this, we might presume that good kids do well academically. They’re active in their school. Most of all, it’s implied, they’re happy. It makes me want to scream at these well-meaning adults, “Yo, ease up!” Even kids that meet these descriptions have trouble seeing themselves this way. And the truth is, most kids I’ve met don’t meet these descriptions.
When I was a kid, I struggled with labels like good and bad. It took becoming a schoolteacher to soften to my own experience and realize that kids are just people, really—albeit littler ones. All human beings—even and perhaps especially little ones—have complicated feelings. Kids, as much as adults, live complicated lives.
Maybe adults presume a childish innocence on kids because we hope to protect them. But in my experience, it does nothing to protect kids by denying the truth of their experience. At the public school where I worked, I met young people with real problems—parents in jail, violence in the home, housing issues, hunger, neglect. While much of this was a consequence of poverty, kids of all socioeconomic backgrounds experience similar issues that adults do. Child abuse and neglect occurs at every socioeconomic level, crossing social and ethnic lines, and there are psychological effects as a result of these experiences. Kids act out and that includes experimenting with alcohol or drugs. I met little ones that were total assholes, most of the time through no fault of their own. As far as personalities go, kids can be as unlikable and poorly adjusted as the rest of us. Just because a kid doesn’t do well in school or isn’t happy doesn’t mean that child is “bad.” I appreciate Scholastic’s intention, but to describe some kids as having addictions that “start[ed]off innocently” implies the opposite is also true.
When we talk to kids about serious adult issues, I think we ought to trust their intelligence. When we write stories for kids but as with everyone else, we ought to honor their complexity by offering them realistic characters and not caricatures. We should give them authentic narratives, not stories obviously laden with our prejudices, judgment and, most of all, fear.
I wonder if when we see a kid who obviously has issues, we try deny what’s obvious because we fear it’s our fault. We feel guilty. And as a reaction to this guilt, perhaps subconsciously, we want to blame the kid. To me, that’s all that stories like “Good Teens Turned Drug Addicts” attest to—the adult struggle over who’s at fault for drug addiction. Which makes me think: how come we aren’t we talking more about why Brittany was prescribed that Percocet? Well, that would be a different story.
Bottom line: we don’t want to send a message that there are good kids like Brittany—who is most certainly a made-up character—and then there’s everybody else. How do we talk to kids about drugs? Not like this. In fact, maybe instead of talking at kids, we ought to listen.