LOS ANGELES — Ralph Dornan was watching the news with his teenage son and daughter last week when his palms began to sweat.
"We were tuned in to a report on [presidential candidate] George W. Bush's refusal to answer questions about alleged drug use in his past," recalls Mr. Dornan, a Los Angeles stockbroker. "I knew it was just seconds until my kids looked me in the eye and asked, 'What about you?' "
The moment never came. But Dornan, who used marijuana in the early 1970s and experimented with cocaine, says he's in a quandary about whether and how to broach the subject with his kids.
"I'd sort of like to pass on my own experience that drug use was a dead end," says Dornan (who was concerned enough to not give his real name). "But I'm worried that if I say I did it, they'll get the message that it's OK to try it, because I turned out OK."
As the Texas governor stumbles with questions about whether he used drugs in the past, thousands of Americans who grew up in the countercultural 1960s and early '70s find themselves facing a similar dilemma: whether or not, and when, to tell their kids about their own experimentation during more permissive times. Beyond that, how can they convey the personal and collective consequences without damaging parent-child relationships?
The debate has stepped beyond politics into the family parlor because of the sheer numbers of baby boomers whose children are now passing adolescence and entering environments outside the home where drug use is more prevalent. Governor Bush has said that fellow baby-boomer parents should warn their children about drugs and alcohol. "We owe children that responsibility, to share our wisdom," he said.
But his own reluctance to discuss rumors of former drug use - while more complex than an ordinary parent's because of political vulnerability - underlines the problem that, for many, the consequences of such a conversation remain uncertain.
"The drug-use issue has become a major preoccupation for parents whose children are now coming of age, because such a high percentage used drugs in their own past," says Michael Josephson, president and founder of the Josephson Institute for Ethics in Marina Del Rey, Calif. "They are rightly struggling with how to help their children learn from their experience without being hypocritical or jeopardizing their relationships."
The motive is correct, say family experts, but the pitfalls are many. While there is wide disagreement over what strategies to use, most agree the goal is to find a way to distill constructive lessons from past behavior, and pass them along in ways that can be most productive without endangering family rapport. Honesty is paramount, experts say, but so are timing and age appropriateness. And parents must examine their motives for opening the subject - or keeping it closed.
"It has become very seductive [for parents] to compulsively get the issue off their chest by volunteering a long list of their flaws," says Mr. Josephson.
"That kind of disclosure can be very selfish if we do it to feel better about ourselves, but then leave a monkey on the back of a child who is not yet equipped to deal with the revelation," he says.
Times have changed
Such tactics may have been encouraged 20 years ago, but research on the consequences of doing so are now pointing in the other direction.
"Two decades ago, psychologists were advising parents to tell all, now," says Trish la Plante, director of counseling and health services at Hamlin University in St. Paul, Minn. "Family therapists are now looking at the repercussions and saying it's important not to burden your children with information they don't need or will make them undermine stable family life."
Ultimately, parents need to make sure they have come to terms with their own drug use, decide what it meant to their experience, and how they want such lessons translated into the behavior of their children.
"You need to make up your mind whether you are saying, 'I experimented with drugs and therefore it's OK for you to experiment,' or 'I experimented with drugs and something bad happened, so don't experiment,' " says Ms. la Plante.
Most experts seem to be saying that discussions about past drug use should come up only on a need-to-know basis. The questions of children should also be evaluated in terms of the emotional and social contexts that led them to inquire about drugs.
"You really want to be asking them what's happening with them that they have asked," says Irene Goldenberg, a family psychologist and professor at the University of California at Los Angeles.
"It should evolve out of the situation in which they are asking the question as part of their own life-learning process, not as a secret about their parent to be discovered," she says.
There are lessons for both parent and child to learn, others say. Times have changed, and so have the drugs. Why were the '60s more permissive and what has been their legacy? What new drugs are there now, and why are they more dangerous?
There is much more known now about refusal skills that kids can learn to "just say no" without being branded square, unhip, or uncool.
Most important, say many experts, is for parents to choose a specific strategy and stick to it without wavering. It is OK to defer the question until the child is older, or to tell a child that questions about the parents' possible own youthful drug use are never going to be answered.
"Don't lie, but that doesn't mean you have to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth," says Victor Strasburger, professor of pediatrics at the University of New Mexico and author of "Getting Your Kids to Say No in the Nineties If You Said Yes in the Sixties."
"If you did 10 years for cocaine pushing, that might not be useful for your child," he says. "But if you experimented with marijuana, you should 'fess up before that old college roomie shows up and starts telling stories."
Whatever the consequences of revelation strategies for parents, they should be separated from those of politicians, others say. "It's not as if those in the public eye have the same opportunity to pick and choose the time when these revelations take place for them and their families," says Josephson.
Take the consequences
Some say the best tactic in both political and family realms is to tell all and let the consequences fall. New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson (R) is being held up as one '90s politician who has disclosed his drug past with positive consequences.
In his first campaign for governor in 1994, he told voters he smoked marijuana in college and shortly thereafter in the 1970s and that he used cocaine three times during the same period.
Last week he told a Washington talk show that voter response has "been a nonevent."
"Parents should take their cue from those politicians who have 'fessed up and be far more open," says Iszruette Hunter, a Los Angeles marketing executive who has told her three college-age children about past use of drugs and other personal details. She says the spotlight on Bush has helped shine a light into the corners of American society that could use some serious introspection.
"The lessons I am seeing from those parents and those politicians who don't come clean about their past are that they live to regret it," she says.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society