- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 18, 2009


Is it back-to-school time for your children? No matter what their ages, if you’re an American parent, you are likely to spend at least a few minutes assessing your child’s risk for drugs, alcohol and tobacco.

Nearly every American child will be offered these substances before they graduate from high school, Joseph A. Califano Jr. says in his new book, “How to Raise a Drug-Free Kid: The Straight Dope for Parents.”

Parents should be especially vigilant at certain times, such as the first six months of middle school, the first six months of high school and the first six months of college,” Mr. Califano says.

These are “transition times,” when research shows that youths are at a higher risk to be introduced to these substances and/or experiment with them, Mr. Califano told me recently.

Thankfully, the most powerful pieces of advice for parents are refreshingly clear and simple:

• Keep lines of communication open with your children.

• Stay connected (without micromanaging), and, especially, keep Dad engaged.

• Set good personal examples; model the behaviors you want to see.

• Set reasonable rules and enforce them without being punitive.

• Know where your children are and who their friends are.

• Eat dinner together regularly. Sharing good food is certainly wonderful, but the “magic” in eating together stems from the undivided attention and “face time” it creates for everyone.

• Cultivate a religious life as a family.

• Stay connected to a larger community.

These recommendations are all “evidence-based” and will reduce the likelihood that children will ever smoke, use illegal drugs or abuse alcohol, said Mr. Califano, a secretary of health, education and welfare in the Carter administration and founder and chairman of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University.

There are some rays of hope.

“The vast majority of teens are not using illegal drugs,” Mr. Califano wrote. National surveys suggest that 38 percent of high school students have tried marijuana and less than 8 percent have tried cocaine, meth or heroin.

It’s important to recognize these signs that American youths are turning away from illegal substances “because I find enormous resignation, pessimism among parents,” Mr. Califano said. “They think it’s inevitable that kids are going to use. And it’s not inevitable. That’s one of the reasons I did this book; I want parents to understand that if they’re engaged with their kids, their kids will not use.”

All authors want their books to sell, and Mr. Califano would like to see this book - his 12th - in “as many hands as possible.”

But he thinks it fills a genuine need of parents.

“There’s no [personal] profit in it; all the royalties go to CASA,” he said. “And when I brought this book to Simon & Schuster, they did a sweep [of books in this genre], and the reason they agreed to publish it, among others, was that all the other books in this field were ‘What do you do when your kids get into drugs or alcohol?’ ”

The theme of this book is “Here’s how you keep your kids out of drugs and alcohol.”

“This is prevention, and this will help parents,” he said. “We think, here at CASA, that this is the most important project we’ve ever undertaken. And it’s certainly the most important book I’ve written in terms of helping people.”

Speaking as a longtime reporter on substance-abuse issues, I saw a lot of sound advice and information in this book, and, as a parent, I highlight Mr. Califano’s final advice.

“Reach out to others for support and never give up,” he writes. “Always leave a light on in the window for your child.”

Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at


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