“You’re a hypocrite!” my eight-year-old daughter, Sara, would shout, during arguments over how much television she could watch or when she should go to bed. It was the worst epitaph she could deploy, closely followed by “no fair!” In the black and white world of childhood, acting in ways that contradict what one says they believe or feel is as low as you can go.
Hypocrisy is a slippery concept. The idea that an adult goes to bed at 11 p.m. while making their kid do so three hours earlier isn’t hypocritical from the latter’s point of view. But, throw in a dash of “fairness” and the child might believe they have irrefutable evidence of duplicity. Why should they be treated differently than you? Patient insistence that adults have greater freedoms than granted children can erode harsh charges of hypocrisy, but at the potential cost of elevating accusations of unfairness, in the form of ageism.
The slope gets slicker when adults, purportedly protected by their age-informed wisdom, engage in edgier activities. Alcohol-drinking, drug-taking, cell phone-addicted, junk food-eating, pornography-obsessed grownups may be able to forestall such behaviors in their adolescents, but by high school the jig is up. The question becomes not whether, but when, and how to manage entry into a more complicated world of temptations, while managing the resulting risks. Most of us are terrible at helping with this passage, a challenge that’s gotten even rockier with the legalization of marijuana.
My parents’ attitude towards early experimentation was along the lines of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” a philosophy I’d wager most moms and dads continue to employ. Of course, they were the ones who introduced me to the allures of intoxicants. My first experiences with alcohol, growing up in Palo Alto during the 1970s, was downing shot glasses of fruity Manischewitz during Passover seders. Like flavored tobacco, or Sangria, the sugary sweet nectar went down easy, causing a nice buzz that took the edge off the droning of the stale story of Exodus. Drugs were even more charming. Even now I can feel the tug of desire when I recall the periodic spoonful of Codeine cough syrup, doled out by my mother to treat my chronic bronchitis, which led to a delicious narcotic sleep.
Later, as a teenager driving home alone after smoking marijuana at a friend’s house in the Stanford hills, I congratulated myself for being such a marvelous driver while stoned, as I squealed around tight curves on fortunately empty roads. After downing my share of a 99-cent bottle of tequila with new college freshman friends, I vomited repeatedly and everywhere, until finally, and literally, crawling into bed, which I discovered had become a spinning carnival ride, though not in a good way. Over the course of many ensuing “adventures” I never got hurt, nor hurt anyone else – at least physically – though did sometimes experience a penetrating sense of fear or despair. I was fortunate, as were most of my peers, not to drop into addiction or disaster, despite an almost complete lack of informed guidance. Still, a handful of my drug-addled companions overdosed or committed suicide; others were institutionalized for mental illnesses.
Hypocrisy is intimately linked to trust. It’s hard to rely on someone who says something and does the opposite. Insincerities’ ubiquitousness in politics has arguably eroding faith in government even further than the frequently discussed jump in income inequities; its incidence is just more difficult to measure. The cure for hypocrisy is to align our rhetoric and rules with our actual behavior, hard as that may be.
Growing up close to Anchor Brewing Company’s yeasty smell, Sara was drawn to beer by the time she entered middle school. At dinner, I let her take sips of mine. As she enters her junior year of high school, if she wants her own glass I’d give it to her, at least on a non-school night. I’d rather she experienced a modest dose of alcohol at home than in a car with a peer.
It’s easier to take a hardline on drugs, particularly in the wake of a national epidemic of opioid abuse. Weed, which is emerging as today’s version of an afternoon, early-evening, or anytime cocktail, at least at Dolores Park, is harder to approach. Outside medicinal marijuana – which some parents administer to their children to help them sleep, or quell anxiety – there’s little context to engage in the drug in a grounded way. No tradition of family dinners or holidays with the equivalent of a glass of wine, nor friendly bud pubs where everyone knows your name, yet. Unlike alcohol – which can induce nothing, a slight buzz, fall down drunkenness, uncontrollable rage, and lots in between – dope tends to have an on or off effect: either you’re stoned, or you’re not. Though it’s less likely to lead to the violence and accidents caused by liquor, it has unknown impacts on growing minds – which don’t fully mature until the mid-20s – and can result in literally unconscious, or stupidly complacent, behavior, with bad consequences.
In the current context, my wife, Debbie, and I have imposed a “do tell, don’t do” weed policy on Sara. It’s a no more hypocritical approach than setting a distinct bedtime for her, though it poses the challenge that our daughter’s first experience with marijuana will likely be outside our purview, potentially in an unsafe environment. Just like we experienced. At least in that sense it’s fair.
Steven Moss is the author of The Daddy Handbook, available at Arch Art and Drafting Supplies, Christopher’s Books, Recess, and online booksellers.