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Talk to Kids. It Works

"Just Say No" may sound like wishful think-ese. But hear this, parents: It works.

That's the message from a recent survey of teenagers, teachers, and school principals about illegal drug use (including alcohol and tobacco illegally used by the underaged.)

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Joseph Califano Jr. - onetime secretary of health, education and welfare and now president of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse - analyzed the survey, done for his center. Among its findings:

* School kids who don't smoke pot credit their parents' influence. Those who do cite peers' influence. Among 12-to-17-year-olds, those who eat more meals with parents are less likely to smoke, drink, or use pot than those who don't. There is a rough inverse ratio to this link of family meals and drug behavior.

* Middle school and high school teens are savvy about drugs. Teachers, especially principals, are morelikely to be naive or permissive.

Califano reported in a Washington Post column that, for the fourth straight year, 12-to-17-year-olds rate drugs their most important problem. In shocking contrast, half of high school teachers and principals said they think teens can smoke pot every weekend and do fine in school.

Three-quarters of high schoolers say drugs are sold, kept, and used at school. Head in sand, only 18 percent of principals agreed.

Joe Califano is a straightshooter. He's not out to make educators scapegoats. But he sees the youth drug problem as a national scandal getting worse. His center's survey disclosed that teen use of marijuana is up almost 300 poercent since 1992. And, contrary to assertions of pot legalization advocates, that rise ties into increases in the use of cocaine, heroin, and chemical "designer" drugs as well as drinking and smoking.

Maybe "just say no" distills the advice to parents too succinctly. But it's the essence of the best remedy for this national problem. Califano adds that "parental involvement and religious activities are the two most effective" protections for teens.

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"Parents who eat meals with their kids," he writes, "know where they are after school and on weekends and are involved in their school activities." That echoes a study that found a common factor among National Merit Scholars was eating dinner with parents, who obviously influenced their children's life goals and outlook at the table.

As Califano quantified it, "Only 6 percent of kids who eat dinner with their parents six or more times a week smoke." The comparable figure for two meals or fewer: 24 percent smokers. For marijuana use the figures are 12 percent versus 35 percent.

Moral: Parents should not despair. Talk to your children. Don't count on schools to do the job. And don't just talk about the hazard of drugs.

Talk about life goals. Talk about neighbors or community leaders who set admirable examples in some way. Inquire about both admired and worrisome classmates. Discuss headline cases of drug abuse, drunk driving, lying, cheating, scams, and cases of quiet heroism and honesty. Ask about easy subjects and tough ones in school, and seek ways to help conquer fear of the latter. Discuss the difference between heroes in sports, business, entertainment and their marketing puffery counterparts.

Mixed in with "pass the mashed potatoes," such low-key guidance is an effective way to just say no to some behaviors and just say yes to others.

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