How should you feel about yourself if your child becomes a drug addict? Should you be ashamed that you did a poor job as a parent? Someone recently asked philosopher Leonard Peikoff a similar question, to which he brilliantly replied “you’re not training an animal.”
What he meant by this statement is very simple and straightforward – men have free will, and minds – and although you may do the best possible job raising your child they will ultimately choose their own path in life. If you did what you thought was proper as a parent in your best judgment at the time, then please throw away the guilt – the child’s choices are his own. But to truly do this you have to accept the premise that human beings have free will, and frankly, I don’t think a lot of people believe that anymore.
The nature versus nurture argument is so pervasive in our society, we hear it constantly. We learn new science about a gene and we say that it looks like nature is more responsible for our behavior, but then we learn of a new psychological or sociological study and we start to think that nurture (environmental influences) is more responsible for our behavior. What we ignore when we’re caught up in this false dichotomy is that free will is a cause of behavior too.
Haven’t you ever broken off from the pack and done your own thing? How could you do that if your behavior was only determined by social influences and environment (nurture)? Did you know that people regularly overcome the most basic of biological drives for sex and nourishment? People go on hunger strikes – successfully. They also take vows of celibacy – successfully. How could they do these things if behavior was determined biologically (nature)?
The truth is that regardless of our genes or our environment we have a brain designed for rational thought – and rather than just reacting to environmental influences and biological drives we have the free will necessary to choose to slow it all down and think about what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, what we value, what we should pursue, and how we should go about pursuing it.
We are men, not animals. Your child is a man, not an animal. I’m not trying to say that parenting doesn’t matter, it matters greatly. Nature and nurture are certainly huge influences. Both positive rewards and negative consequences hold sway over our decisions, but each individual has to choose to recognize the potential outcomes of their behavior for themselves, each individual has to choose to turn on their mind and think. No one can force someone to think. So if you feel you’ve done a decent job as a parent, don’t feel guilty when your child doesn’t choose to wake up – you can’t force that upon them. They are not an animal to be whipped into submission, nor would such a strategy be helpful, because the whipping might work in the short term, but in the long term they are not learning to use their minds and make better decisions (see, the drug war).
If you are a parent of a substance abuser and you feel it’s important for you to keep trying to parent, please also don’t feel guilty when people label you an enabler. You don’t have to completely cut ties with your child (although it isn’t always inappropriate to do so). You can maintain a relationship and continue to try to help them, just make sure you’re doing it in a smart way. When you speak with your child about substance abuse try to make it a dialog where you ask them questions which spark thoughts. Remind them of their talents, and show them that they can be happier and more successful when they stop abusing substances. Most of all, support them in doing anything productive. Your child is operating on the premise that the feeling they get from drugs is better than the feelings they can get from living a productive life. They may be completely aware of the possible negative consequences of their behavior, yet since they see no better alternative, then they are willing to risk these consequences. This is why I say to support them in any productive endeavors – encourage them to chase their dreams and let them know you believe they are capable of achieving those dreams.
But even with all of this said, beware that there are no magic words, there is only an individual’s free choice to think. You never know when someone will choose to start thinking clearly, but when they do, the positive changes will happen rapidly.
P.S. Be willing to accept moderate use as an outcome. It is a myth that total abstinence is necessary, most people who end their substance abuse problems move on to a pattern of moderate use.