There’s something terribly wrong with kids these days: a series of major surveys, conducted by the government every two years, suggest that they might just be the most well-behaved generation in recent memory.
Teens are increasingly swearing off alcohol, cigarettes, drugs like synthetic marijuana, and prescription painkillers, according to the latest survey of of more than 50,000 8th, 10th, and 12th graders from the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey. For some illicit substances, such as cocaine and heroin, consumption has dropped to its lowest point since the MTF’s inception in 1975 (fading stigmas around marijuana consumption may be responsible for its relatively consistent popularity amid this decline). The most recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) shows that cigarette smoking is at its lowest level in 24 years—11 percent in 2015, down from 28 percent in 1991. Rates of underage sex, teen pregnancy, HIV, and other sexually transmitted diseases have also declined according to a survey of 16,000 students by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The kids, apparently, are all right.
But why? Conventional wisdom suggests this shouldn’t be the case. This is a generation that’s taking its cues from their Baby Boomer parents, those 76 million Americans born roughly between 1946 and 1964 who are veterans of the sexual and psychedelic revolutions of the 1960s and 70s and launched the modern trends in risky behaviors measured by surveys like the MTF and YRBS. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), Baby Boomers have maintained their hard-partying ways more than any other generation.
Parental attitudes towards addiction matter. Research suggests that children of addicted parents are more likely to develop substance abuse problems themselves—due to both modeling and lax oversight. A recent longitudinal study of adolescents between 1994 and 2008 confirms that parents with permissive attitudes tend to breed self-destructive behaviors in their children; by contrast, the children of authoritative parents (or were even connected to authoritative adults through friends) were “40 percent less likely to drink to the point of drunkenness, 38 percent less likely to binge drink, 39 percent less likely to smoke cigarettes, and 43 percent less likely to use marijuana.”
So why are today’s young people resisting the allure of binge-drinking and illicit drugs that ensnared their Boomer parents? Perhaps it is precisely due to Baby Boomers’ libertine drug experiences that their children are inclined to avoid substance abuse. This may not just be out of disgust with their parental cautionary tales. Thanks to their enthusiastic embrace of coddling- and self-esteem-focused helicopter parenting—Boomer parents may actually be better equipped to preemptively (and subsequently) engage their children in the type of interventions that help inoculate their kids against the risks of substance abuse.
Part of that progress is due to our increased knowledge about just what kind of interventions are effective in deterring drug use. Nancy Reagan’s famous “Just Say No” campaign in the 1980s catalyzed concern around adolescent drug use, but interventions that focused purely on abstinence or punishment (like, say, the armed police officer at the front of a D.A.R.E. session) tended to be ineffective. Programs centered on the threat of discipline — you’re going to get arrested, suspended or labeled a criminal in some other way — tend to alienate young people from seeking help from authority figures by perpetuating the stigma surrounding drug addiction, creating a gulf between young people and their parents. A 2014 examination of “just say no” programs by Scientific American found that the most effective substance abuse regimes focused on positive interactions between instructors and students that worked on developing social skills and behavioral norms. Skill development, including communication, goal setting, and negotiation, are the most important tools young people can learn regarding substance abuse, says Dr. Stephanie Zaza, the director of the CDC’s Division of Adolescent and School Health (DASH) which oversees the YRBS. “When students are confronted with an environment that has a lot of temptations, they need to be able to ask questions, talk things through, and stand up for themselves,” she says.
In other words, the same impulse that inspired Baby Boomers’ enthusiastic rebellion—the desire to push back against the strict traditions and institutions of their parents—led to a shift in parenting styles that incorporated their relatively lax views of alcohol and drug consumption with a less authoritative mode of parenting than they experienced as children themselves. More productive interventions (think “talk to your kids about drugs)” emerged as parenting methods of choice. These were widely embraced among open-minded Boomer parents with first-hand experience in the risky behavior they want to prevent. After all, the Boomers have always been “less moralistic about drug use” and more likely to blame society for their ills than their parents, as sociologist Robert Putnam observed in 2001; drugs are a problem to be addressed, not a behavior to be punished. Hell, Boomer parents are more likely to worry about bullying and depression than drug abuse, according to 2015 data from the Pew Research Center.
This change in approach seems to be paying off: A 2010 longitudinal examination of parenting practices across three generations (Gen X and older Millennial children, their Boomer parents and their “Greatest Generation” grandparents) published in Developmental Psychology found that the harsh discipline and overbearing monitoring Boomers experienced tended to catalyze externalized behavior problems like “poor impulse control and oppositional, aggressive, or delinquent behavior.” When harsh discipline was in turn handed down by Boomers, it also spurred bad behavior among their children. But Boomers, by contrast, also engaged in other forms parental monitoring (observing behavior, frank conversations and the like) that lacked harsh behavioral consequences. These more gentle interventions tended to have a mediating effect between Baby Boomers and their children, a unique relationship absent from Boomers and their own discipline-happy parents.
For Boomers, “parental monitoring” takes the form of openness and trust, a propensity to engage with their children rather than merely discipline or alienate them with the likes of D.A.R.E. or Scared Straight. According UC Berkeley psychologist Diana Baumrind’s landmark 1991 research published in The Journal of Early Adolescence, it’s this balance between being demanding (focused on discipline and control) and being responsive (focused on fostering individuality and self-regulation) that both deters children from substance abuse and engenders them with the important social skills that help them avoid risky behaviors without constant parental supervision. Though we often write off this type of engagement as intrusive helicopter parenting and debilitating condescension, this style also comes with a level of empathy, openness, and engagement that helps children fully absorb and comprehend the consequences of substance abuse.
“What [the CDC] knows about parental and school engagement is simple: the more you talk with children about these issues, the less likely they are to do things,” says Dr. Zaza.
It takes more than a bad trip (or a really, really good one) at college to induce parents to change how they communicate to their kids about youth attitudes about illicit substances. The high expectations of overachieving established by Boomer parents certainly help ward kids away from addiction. According to SAMHSA, fear of disappointing ones parents is an increasingly common disincentive to experiment with illicit substances. But those parents who were either less demanding (i.e. permissive parents) or less responsive (authoritarian parents) were less likely to keep their children drug-free. By ensuring interventions are staged by emotional peers and not merely authority figures, parents are more likely to impart the social skills designed to help their children avoid developing a drug problem.
Of course, not every Boomer parent is immediately equipped to stage an in-home intervention just because they smoked a few joints at Woodstock. While a 2001 study found that some 94 percent of parents claimed to have discussed the consequences of substance abuse with their kids, 39 percent of their teenagers said the conversations never actually took place. And too much leniency can be a serious problem: a lack of boundaries and rules in an overly-permissive parent can increase the risk of drug or alcohol abuse, a reminder that “letting kids drink in a safe space” like your home probably isn’t the best idea.
But as far as today’s kids are concerned, actually talking with their once-wild and crazy parents may be the best cure for the scourge of drug addiction. Growing up, I knew that no matter what I did in the way of drugs and alcohol, I could always turn to my own Boomer parents for help and support if I was in trouble, an unspoken agreement that was, in some ways, the foundation of our relationship during my turbulent teen years—all because I knew they would actually understand what I was talking about. While the Boomers have their own issues with illicit substances, they have the experience and compassion to help future generations prepare for the dangerous world of drugs and alcohol better than any previous one. It may have been a long strange trip for the Boomers, but it needn’t go on forever.