Last week, a British mother spoke publicly and passionately about the pain caused by her son's cannabis addiction.
Julie Myerson was indirectly promoting her new book, The Lost Child, which deals with her family's struggle. Yet she was also giving voice to feelings and situations faced by many other parents today.
Her story has sparked all manner of debates in the media, many of them about the dangers of cannabis use – particularly skunk, a greatly strengthened form of the drug. Other discussions have revolved around the use of ‘tough love’ in trying to help distressed teens. Any parent who has raised a troubled child knows something of the pain these Ms Myerson and her partner have been through. Parents whose children have grown up without this particular kind of trauma can nonetheless empathise about how difficult it can be to balance parental discipline with trust.
Parenting is arguably one of life's most difficult and guilt-inducing, if potentially rewarding roles. As has often been said, there is no practice run for parenthood and there are no guidebooks for guaranteed success. You can't buy your kids as prefab units in IKEA and simply ‘follow the instructions’ to build healthy young adults. What's more, even when you've done a good job, your child may still face problems that seriously threaten their future. It is sad but true: sometimes, great parents raise troubled kids. (Of course the reverse is also true, though it is probably more the exception than the rule.)
There is, though, another vital point to emerge from this story. We see here evidence of the dangers excessive liberalism poses for families and children. (I'm not using the term in any political sense, but in a moral, ethical and social one.) Liberalism is perhaps the dominant shaper of values in Britain today. To see evidence of this, we need look no further than our newspapers.
In recent days, we’ve read the disturbing story of baby Maisie, a child born to two very young and naive teenagers. Their parents were, it seems, prepared to overlook or even encourage their children’s sexual behaviour. Then, we read of a government brochure advising parents not to instruct their children in morality when teaching them about sex. Doing so, the brochure suggests, might warp a child’s perspective. This notion that parents and other authority figures should avoid even the mere suggestion of moral codes because they it might ‘get it wrong’, is liberalism at its worst. Apparently, to err on the side of neglect is preferable to providing moral guidance.
We’ve also recently learned that there are now fewer married people than single adults or unmarried couples in British society – for the first time in recorded history. The concept of family, it seems, is undergoing a major redefinition, in line with liberal moral codes.
Liberalism as an ethical or moral code has been the philosophy of choice among large sections of the glitterati and literati for decades. Though it is as old as civilisation itself, the idea only came into vogue in modern Western societies after the end of World War 2. The coming of age of my generation, the demographically large and culturally influential Baby Boomers, saw liberalism launched as a society-wide social experiment. Hyper-individualists, in academia, entertainment and the arts, preached that freedom means ‘anything goes’. Sexual and chemical experimentation became not only acceptable; they were positively desirable.
Following in our wake, members of the so-called Generation X, children of the 1980s and early 90s, often found themselves cast adrift on a sea of uncertainty. Their catch cry was ‘whatever’. It’s hardly a cry revolution, more a sign of resignation. It suggests a fatalistic attitude born of feeling overwhelmed by too many open-ended choices. ‘I'm under too much pressure,’ it seems to say. ‘Don't ask me what’s right and wrong. There are too many options. Just do whatever.’ It’s little wonder that many of today’s youth generation, the Millennials, are struggling to find a workable moral code, weighed down, as many are, with alcoholism, promiscuity and teen pregnancy.
It’s interesting to note, however, that while a naively optimistic liberalism largely reigns supreme in Britain, parts of mainland Europe are witnessing a shift away from overtly liberal values. In Holland, for example, a growing crime rate and spiralling sex-and-drugs culture have forced authorities to clamp down, in areas where tolerance of drugs and prostitution has been high for years. In December last year, authorities in Amsterdam announced that they intend to close half of the city's brothels and cannabis cafes, because they’re attracting organised crime, including human trafficking. Dick Houtman, a sociologist at Rotterdam's Erasmus University has said: ‘There is a feeling that our tolerance is the principal cause of many of the problems we experience now.’ He added: ‘The debate is about where liberty and tolerance should end and where order should begin.’
The Dutch situation reveals the danger an excessively liberal code poses for communities and cities. The Myerson story suggests that it can also leave a tragic legacy closer to home, with families and children.
Liberalism preaches that I can do as I please so long as it doesn't ‘hurt anybody’ or break any laws. In saying this, it faces two problems. The first is that the definition of ‘hurting’ people is wide open to negotiation. There is, after all, more than one way to damage a human being. The pain caused by living out liberal ideals, especially in areas like drug experimentation, isn’t exclusively physical. Deep psychological and emotional scars can be much harder to heal. Studies consistently suggest that sustained cannabis use can lead to psychosis, especially when stronger varieties of the drug are involved. The skunk some kids are using now is far stronger than the marijuana university students experimented with thirty or so years ago. It contains twenty-five times the amount of tetrahydrocannabidinol (THC), which is the main psychoactive ingredient.
According to some reports, skunk-smoking is leaving record numbers of British teenagers in need of medical help. Last year, more than 22,000 people were treated for cannabis addiction, most of them under the age of eighteen. That our teenagers need any drug – illicit or otherwise – in substantial quantities, just to help them cope, is not a healthy sign. The scars of an ‘anything goes’ approach are not always visible on the surface.
The second problem for liberalism is that it fails to recognize the nature of generational change. What we refuse to address in people's problem behaviour, we indirectly condone – and in many cases what one generation tolerates, the next will treat as normal. In an age where non-medicinal cannabis is outlawed, we still have adults, including some in responsible positions of leadership, admitting that they’ve experimented with the drug. In some ways, this kind of openness is healthy – provided, that is, it carries with it a sense of regret and accompanying talk about lessons learned. Sadly though, these admissions about past indiscretions – or illegal behaviour – are often made with a nod and a wink, as if having indulged is a measure of a person's ‘cool’ quotient.
What message are we sending to the next generation? If we continue to celebrate liberal attitudes, why should we be shocked if our kids want to take things a step further than we did? Most parents will admit, I think, that kids learn as much or more about codes of propriety from observation as they do from receiving instruction. Over time, they pick up, as if by osmosis, our attitudes to various types of behaviour, including the use of drugs. They are, as we once were, extremely sensitive to having their parents preach one thing while doing another.
Parental discipline is about providing a healthy and protective framework within which children can develop their own identity. It’s about helping them to emerge as fully rounded but self-responsible human beings, who are willing to be held accountable by others for their actions.
There is, of course, an inherent risk when it comes to providing discipline. To a degree, all parental love is ‘tough love’. It's tough for parents, because they know they may lose their child’s affection, even if for just a while. By guiding their children to healthy behaviours through the setting of boundaries, parents open themselves to the possibility of rejection. Discipline is also tough for kids, especially for teenagers. It involves restrictions on behaviour, at a time when everything within them is straining to establish an independent path.
The best parental rules are based on what is safe and healthy for both the individual and the family as a whole. Great parents manage to allow each of their children space to be creative, to explore their particular personality, without allowing them to rule the home or disrupt its cohesion.
Copyright Mal Fletcher 2009.
As a society, it seems we’ve wanted the benefits of conservative social values – not least the strength they bring to relationships, self-awareness and social ethics, if they’re combined with compassion. Yet we’ve also tried to hold onto the individual freedoms promised by liberalism. Sadly, these so-called freedoms come at an awful price. As I think Julie Myerson would attest, it’s a price that neither we, nor our children, nor our communities, should have to pay.