By in Parenting

Can Illegal Drug Users Make Good Parents?

WritingLover tells us about an online discussion in which people were asked if a person who abused illegal substances could be a good parent . She was surprised that the majority of people didn't just flatly say no. There is a common assumption that anyone who uses drugs is a complete mess, and can barely take care of themselves let alone a child. There's also just this sort of ominous fear associated with the illegal drug trade and with people who use street drugs. They are criminal and they run with a dangerous crowd. How could such people make good parents?

But are these just stereotypes? Are there people who use illegal drugs, and who can actually parent effectively? Is it possible that there are a significant number of good parents who actually use drugs without anyone realizing it?

What Makes a Drug User a Bad Parent?

Instead of having a knee-jerk reaction, why not look at why we fear that a person who uses drugs would be a bad parent. Is it the illegal part? Is it the potential for addiction? Is it the fact that street drugs need to be bought from a dealer? Let's take a closer look, and see if these concerns are realistic.

Good Parents Shouldn't Break the Law

Illicit drugs are by their very nature illegal. Purchasing, possessing, and using them is breaking the law. But does breaking the law itself, make someone a bad parent?

Tax fraud is breaking the law. And as the whole world saw in the case of Martha Stewart, people go to jail if they are caught. But is Martha Stewart a bad parent because she committed tax fraud? If one of the writers here failed to report his writing income on his taxes, he's be breaking the law. Does that make him a bad parent?

Obviously, as parents we'd like to set a good example for our kids as much as possible. And respecting the law reduces the possibility that we might be taken away from our families. But these things tend to fall in line with things like making sure your kids see you reading, exercising, or eating well.

We all want to live a healthy life and model responsible lifestyle choices for our kids. But none of us is perfect. And at what point does doing the “wrong” thing make someone a bad parent? I'd like to think it's when the behaviour interferes significantly with our ability to care for our children's needs. If a person who breaks the law still manages to keep the kids clean, feed them and supervise their homework, get them to school on time, and support them emotionally and intellectually, how can we say that breaking the law causes bad parenting?

Good Parents Should Use Mind-Altering Substances

So maybe it's the “drug” part of illicit drug use that causes a person to be a bad parent. Certainly, we find it harder to care for our kids' needs when we are altered. And we don't want our kids to see us inebriated, or to think that escaping into a bottle at the end of the day is a positive way to cope with stress.

But what about parents who regularly have a glass of wine with their supper? Or parents who step outside to have a much-needed cigarette every now and again? And what about parents who admit to being quite addicted to coffee – or to Facebook, Pinterest, bingo, or crocheting for that matter? Are they bad parents?

Our friend WritingLover allows that it's probably OK to use illicit drugs (presumably marijuana) for medicinal purposes. And a lot of people who read this would probably agree with her. Many North Americans agree that medicinal marijuana should be legal – but then again, many North Americans thing recreational use of marijuana should be no more an issue than having a beer on the patio when it's hot, or going out for cocktails with friends.

We accept that mind-altering and potentially addictive substances are a part of normal life: alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine top the list. But there are also the so-called natural highs that people can get from doing an enjoyable activity or from he physical exertion of long-distance running.

Parents who achieve that natural high are put up on a pedestal. “I could never do it myself!” exclaim the couch potato set. “How do you ever manage?” ask those who never seem to be on time, and who spend a good part of the day counting down the minutes until the kids' bedtime.

Parents who confess to a smoking addiction may be chastised for not quitting, but nobody would ever suggest they aren't good parents. Parents who drink regularly – even if it seems a bit too often – are never questioned unless drunken episodes begin to interfere with parenting. And any parent who guzzles coffee by the gallon is sure to get a knowing smile from anyone who has spent some time in the parenting trenches!

Let's face it, even if an addiction does interfere with a person's job as a parent we can be tolerant. A nice, uncomplicated addiction to prescription pain killers gets explained away as a complication of the original injury. Especially if the parent in question is a professional mom who serves on the PTA and volunteers as as a soccer coach, and whose ancestors came over on the Mayflower. As long as the neighbours don't have to witness anything embarrassing, it's all good! She just needs a little rest and rehab, but she's a great mom and she'll be back to her family before they know it. We can all understand that...

No, the fact that a parent indulges in a mind-altering substance isn't the problem either – as long as it happens away from the kids and doesn't interfere with their proper care or their emotional well being. So maybe it's the criminal element that parents have to go to if they want to buy illicit drugs?

Good Parents Shouldn't Spend Time with Criminals

I think we can all agree that associating with criminals can be dangerous. Especially the ones who are known for being violent. Biker gangs and foreign drug cartels are scary, and sometimes it's really not healthy to know people who belong to these groups. The risk can even carry over from the individual to his spouse and children. Good parents want to reduce the chances that they'll be taken away from their families because of something the criminal element does. And they certainly don't want the criminals to become involved in their kids' lives. Good parents stay away from criminals

Except for the police officers, judges, lawyers and other officers of the court. And the corrections and parole officers, the health care workers, social workers, prisoners' rights advocates, chaplains, security guards, customs agents and many other professionals who have a daily contact with dangerous criminals because of their jobs.

But nobody thinks those jobs make an individual a bad parent, do they? I didn't think so.

When we think about it, a lot of the contempt that we have for people who use illicit drugs is rooted in fear and ignorance. It's made worse by the news media and the entertainment industry, who are only too happy to stoke the fires of racism and classism, and to perpetuate the stereotype of the poor black crack whore, doing the chicken walk in front of a tenement block.

The local drug dealer could be that clean-cut college kid who lives in his parents' basement. It could be the guy who runs the pizzeria, and coaches his kids' hockey team every winter. And the parent who uses illicit drugs might be no different than the couple who down a bottle of Chablis after the kids go to bed at night.

Good parents just parent well. They keep a roof over their kids' heads, food on their plates, and clothes on their backs. They help with homework and attend ballet recitals. They go to parent-teacher interviews, and get just as excited as the kids when a cool new family movie hits the theatres. The presence or absence of illicit drugs – or even a drug addiction – is no guarantee that any of this would change.

It's just a lot more complicated than that. We need to stop treating questions like this as if the world were just black or white.

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Image credit: 1gram of marijuana ” by ch1ris23/SketchPort ( CC BY 4.0 )

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JohnRoberts wrote on July 21, 2015, 5:27 PM

In general drug users are probably bad parents but there are always exceptions to the rule. You can't make blanket statements about anything anymore.

AliCanary wrote on July 21, 2015, 6:16 PM

Studies show that children who live in a home with smokers have a much higher risk of asthma and other breathing disorders than the children of non-smokers. Alcohol, which is perfectly legal if you're of age, is one of the most devastating, home-wrecking drugs out there, so maybe the question should just be "drugs", legal or illegal. Mothers who use recreational drugs while pregnant can cause horrific damage to their babies. That's bad parenting to the nth degree.

msiduri wrote on July 21, 2015, 7:09 PM

Perhaps if the question were framed differently: How wise is it to use illicit drugs, marijuana included, when you are raising children?

Nar2Reviews wrote on July 21, 2015, 7:53 PM

Some good points here. Whilst we can never have a black and white world, good parents only go so far. It isn't their fault if they befriend someone who may not be a good person.

cheri wrote on July 21, 2015, 10:03 PM

I agree with JohnRoberts
They may not be good models or examples yet its not right to judge them as a parent

Bensen32 wrote on July 22, 2015, 10:12 AM

There are so many If, Ands and Butts to this open ended question. Depends on the amount of use, the drug in question and the individual in question. There are many bad parents that don't use drugs. Alcohol is legal for those of age and I have seen many bad parents that only use alcohol.

Ruby3881 wrote on July 22, 2015, 3:38 PM

The problem there is, do you include all drugs? So then we're looking not just at adding alcohol and nicotine to the equation, but also caffeine. And over the counter pain killers, allergy meds, sleeping pills, and cold medicines. And let's not forget all the prescription drugs that could potentially cause mood swings, impair someone's reflexes, make them drowsy, and even cause a change in their personality.

Would someone like me be unfit to parent if I took anticonvulsants that made me drowsy, caused mood swings, and potentially caused depression and personality changes? Or would I be a responsible parent when I took them, despite the side effects, because they would prevent me having a seizure and being out of commission for days at a time? Would it be irresponsible for me to take these potentially teratogenic drugs while pregnant, and to continue taking them while I breastfed my babies?

These are real choices I had to make while pregnant and when my kids were small. Do you know what my doctor told me when I had to start taking anticonvulsants while pregnant? That it would be irresponsible for me not to take them. Because the potential for harm to my baby was far greater if I didn't. Would you then say it's OK because a doctor said it was, or would that potential to cause birth defects in my babies put me into the category of "bad parenting to the nth degree"?

The thing is, we don't know anyone's story without taking the time to sit with them and listen with an open mind. Maybe the woman who smokes a little pot does it because non of the prescription drugs really take away the tics and the speech impediments, or allow her to relax enough to be herself around her kids. Maybe the man who snorts coke is doing it because he's working 2 or 3 jobs just to keep a roof over his family's heads. The coke helps him stay alert when he's so tired he just wants to curl up in a ball and go to sleep. Or maybe the parent is self-medicating because he can't afford the doctor and the prescription drugs. In all three cases, the parent is not getting high. The parent is not losing the ability to parent, but rather is using an illicit drug to overcome a medical condition or to cope with gruelling work conditions. Are these bad parents?

People make far too many assumptions both about parenting and about what an illicit drug user (or an "abuser" or legal substances) looks like.

Ruby3881 wrote on July 22, 2015, 4:04 PM

I'm going to ignore the question of who among us is completely law-abiding all the time, because I think most of us recognize that nobody is that perfect. Everything from speeding the highway to failing to report your $20 lotto win on your tax return is breaking the law. It all counts, whether you were caught doing it or not!

But let me look at the question of what a parent can an cannot teach their kids. First of all, you have to understand that I don't have to personally embody something in order to teach it to my kids. So a single Dad doesn't have to get a woman to come in and teach his girls about menstruation. He can impart a technical understanding of the subject, supply the necessary products, and support his girls through their transition into adolescence all by himself. He may elect to ask a female friend or relative to help with that, but it's not necessary.

So with that in mind:

Can a parent who never graduated high school teach his child the value of an education and encourage that child to get a university education?

Can a parent who now regrets fooling around all the way through high school and taking all the bird courses, just to get out of school with less effort, now turn around and instill the value of good study habits in his child?

Can a parent who is overweight and out of shape teach a child to make positive lifestyle choices? Can she teach the child to eat right and be physically active?

Can a parent who never learned to swim or ride a bicycle teach his child to do these things? My Dad sure did!

Can a parent who bullied as a child teach her own kids not to bully? Can a teen mom teach her kids the value of waiting until marriage, or at least of using contraception?

Can a parent who struggled with math help her kids with their homework? Yup, my Mom did it!

Parenting isn't about being a perfect model of everything we want our kids to be and do. More often than not, we are forced to look it up online or read a "dummies" type guidebook, or just fly by the seat of our pants. And sometimes we need to let our kids see us struggle. They learn from that, just as much as they would from seeing us do something perfectly - perhaps more.

So yeah, sure, a parent who breaks the law can teach his child to respect it. Think of all the moms & Dads who are in prison, and whose kids learn from their parents mistakes. There are some really heartwarming stories about kids like this who have gone on to become police officers and lawyers, or clergy members and outreach workers who help people learn to make positive choices.

Again, we tend to make far too many assumptions.

AliCanary wrote on July 22, 2015, 5:03 PM

Yeahhhh...did you miss where I said "recreational drugs"? It seems like it.

Ruby3881 wrote on July 22, 2015, 5:05 PM

That's an interesting suggestion. But then shouldn't we add in some of the legal drugs, like alcohol?

Ruby3881 wrote on July 22, 2015, 5:44 PM

Good point! A lot of kids who had great parents end up doing bad things because they've fallen in with the "wrong crowd."

Ruby3881 wrote on July 22, 2015, 6:16 PM

When I was studying gerontology years ago, this kind of question came up frequently. The fact is, if someone is in a helping profession, we tend to see the most extreme end of the spectrum. So in my case working in a veterans hospital, I saw elderly people who were chronically ill and had been for some time. That clouded my perception of what the aging process looked like. I didn't see healthy, fit, well oriented seniors. And so I needed to be told that not all people at a given age are going to be frail and ill.

In your case, the people you are meeting as a clergyman are probably already in crisis. If they're coping, they aren't going to admit to the pastor that they smoke up on Saturday nights or that they sniff coke between jobs to stay awake, are they? And if they're coping, you aren't going to suspect drug use either.

So yes, some parents who have very serious drug problems - and I suspect we're talking about specific types of drugs here too - will do some atrocious things as parents. Their kids will definitely need help. But then, a lot of atrocious things happen to kids whose parents don't do illicit drugs, too. They may not be the same kinds of atrocities, but as Ash Beckham would say, there is no "harder" life. There is only "hard."

Ruby3881 wrote on July 22, 2015, 6:23 PM

Much agreed! It was a poorly defined question to begin with. But I left it as it had been stated by WritingLover because so many people see the world exactly this way. It's either black, or it's white. They aren't capable of even contemplating the spectrum of grey in between.

Most people assume that anyone who does any illicit drug, in any quantity, is automatically the kind of psychotic drug fiend portrayed in Reefer Madness. In reality, most people who use drugs appear pretty normal most of the time. And unless the individual is specifically looking for a really out of control experience, few drug highs look the way people expect them too. For people who haven't used drugs or been around drug users, it's probably pretty tough to detect a drug user when he's not using. And it may even be difficult to detect while he's using too.

msiduri wrote on July 22, 2015, 6:34 PM

I guess what I was trying to get away from was the black and white idea of a "good parent." Even the best of parents do stupid things. Even the worst parents—barring the psychotic—do decent things for their children. If the idea is to parent to please society, every parent is a failure or a hypocrite. But if the idea is to parent with the idea of raising your children with the goal that they will be eventually responsible, if flawed, members of society, that is, IMHO, much more workable.

Is it irresponsible to have a glass of wine at dinner with your kids present? I have a hard time believing that. Smoking a jay after dinner, because it's illegal, presents a bit more of a problem. And, of course, being loaded around your kids, regardless of the source, is irresponsible. Forgivable if it happened one Christmas. Forgivable if it happened after Grandma's funeral. But not when you're driving a car full of kids. So there are all sorts of gray areas. Just my humble opinion.

Ruby3881 wrote on July 22, 2015, 9:15 PM

Your question was whether we should broaden the discussion so it would 'just be "drugs", legal or illegal.' You didn't mention whether said use was under prescription, for self-medication, or for recreation.

Ruby3881 wrote on July 22, 2015, 9:25 PM

So then you would say any parent who fails to report his earnings from Persona Paper, or who gets a speeding ticket is unfit?

You answered the question with another question. My question to you would be, do you expect all parents to be perfectly law abiding? And if not, where do you draw the line?

It's very easy not to speed if you don't drive. I don't drive either, so no special points for either one of us there. I also declare all my income. But I do parent, and I know plenty of other parents. Nothing about parenting is as black and white as some people would like it to be.

I think you raise a good point with your question. But one of the best ways a parent can teach a lesson that will stick with kids is for them to see their parent working hard to improve himself or to right a wrong. You don't have to agree with that. I was just answering your question.

Ruby3881 wrote on July 22, 2015, 9:37 PM

I can see that you definitely grok! Yes, there is all sorts of grey, and that was exactly my point. There is a huge difference between quietly smoking a joint after supper (outside where the kids aren't exposed to it of course, because this is how responsible parents deal with smoking anything) and being so stoned you forget to pick the kids up after school.

The law is a problem, but even when laws change as they did in Colorado, there are people who think there is no responsible way to consume cannabis. Those are assumptions based in fear and propaganda. And that's no way to be, either from an individual point of view or as a society.

Definitely, we have to take more care with things like driving. But you know, driving while on cough medicine or after being up all night is just as dangerous as driving after a couple of drinks or eating a pot brownie. But if a mom has been up all week with a colicky baby and she falls asleep at the wheel while driving carpool, how does society react? It's sure different from the reaction if that same mom has quaffed a fifth of gin before going out to pick up the kids for their day at school!

As you say, nobody is ever going to parent well enough to please society. But maybe, just maybe, society needs to change its standards and use a little logic. And really, when we get down to it, society is just you and me and the guy next door. Conversations like this one, where people actually take the time to think things through a little more objectively, are what we need to come to a place where we have more realistic expectations, and perhaps even offer a little more support to those who are doing the tough job of parenting.

AliCanary wrote on July 22, 2015, 10:25 PM

I think you should go back and read my comment more carefully. I did not ask a question. I observed that your question could reasonably encompass legal drugs, as well. When you asked whether I would accuse you of "bad parenting to the nth degree" for using prescribed medication during your pregnancy, you were specifically referring to prescription drugs, where I had specifically referred to recreational drugs.

You seem to have taken my comment very personally, although I obviously did not mean it to be so. I am rather dismayed by your mischaracterization of what I said--it is exactly the opposite of what you claim!

Ruby3881 wrote on July 23, 2015, 1:15 AM

It seems that you were going one way with your comment, and I went the other way. But no, not taking it personally at all! Nor did I want you to think that I was upset with you for that "nth degree" comment. We may only know each other online, but I like you well enough that if something you said had hurt my feelings, I'd talk to you about it privately emoticon :smile:
The reason I used my own example was that your earlier comment focused on ways in which recreational drug use (including the legal ones like alcohol and cigarettes) harm children. And I don't dispute that. But I wanted to point out that there are a lot of times when children are negatively impacted by a parent's illness or the drugs needed to treat it. And if we were to judge fitness to parent on the impact alone, we'd be condemning a lot of people without really wanting to.

That's the important point: there really isn't and shouldn't be a one size fits all answer to this question. No matter what criterion we could suggest, we'd lump a lot of great parents in with the small percentage who are so dysfunctional as to be completely unfit to care for their kids. So we really just need to stop asking questions like this, and stop judging when it's not our place.

As for mischaracterizing what you said, I'm really sorry you feel that way! I thought we were just having a lively debate.

Yes, you were clearly looking at recreational use. But the original question was illicit use - which includes both the abuse of legal substances, and the use of illegal substances for other than recreational purposes. Society doesn't approve, whether the substance itself is legal or not. So it's an illicit use.

The way I learned to debate, you don't get to change the terms in the middle of a discussion, so I kept to my initial terms. I was redirecting, not trying to put words in your mouth.

Bensen32 wrote on July 23, 2015, 4:00 AM

Exactly, as a former user myself I am usually pretty good at telling who does and who doesn't and sometimes when I says something to someone they are like how did you know. I can tell, I been there. Quite a few people I know still use but most people wouldn't even know. They hold good jobs, have houses, raised good kids, it's not like the movies and the media would like you to think that someone who smokes pot turns into a junky the next day.

VinceSummers wrote on July 23, 2015, 7:24 AM

Afraid I'm going to say they are falling seriously short of their responsibility as role-models. And the same applies to a person not paying his taxes. It is important not just to preach, but to practice. In Nelson County, Virginia, drug-users (many of them crack, etc., walk along the highway because they don't have a car. They are wearing filthy clothes and sleeping with anyone or anything that will give them a financial advantage. Kids? They are a source of income such as WIC, food stamps, etc.

AliCanary wrote on July 23, 2015, 12:08 PM

Ah, I see. It seems you were taking my comment to mean that causing damage to the child would be bad parenting, when I meant that cavalierly choosing to use drugs recreationally in spite of the fact that they may harm the child was the bad parenting. Another issue that I don't believe anyone addressed was the heartbreak caused to the kids by parents who, as a result of drug use, die too young. My dad smoked his way smack into lung cancer; others may lose their lives to heart disease, emphysema, pancreatic cancer, colon cancer, cirrhosis, and a host of other things. Usually by the that time, the children have already been "raised", perhaps, but they never stop being our parents! It causes a lot of pain and regret on both sides.

msiduri wrote on July 23, 2015, 12:21 PM

I grew up with a nasty alcoholic stepfather. I refer to him, completely and entirely without affection as "the ogre." I've written about him elsewhere, so forgive me if this is a repeat for you.

When I was about 10, my brother 9 and the ogre's daughters by his first marriage (I think) about 11 and 12, we were coming home from a party at a home of a friend of the orgre's. He drank scotch and Tom Collins, as I recall. And he was drunk. He made a game of running through red lights and scarring the hell out of my mother. He was laughing and she was screaming. The bastard could have killed all of us. He was having a grand old time.

The next morning, the only thing I said to him was, "Headache?" I was told not to be nasty.

Guess how much patience I have for drunks now? I have even less patience for drunks around kids. I've called cops more than once on drunk parents around kids. Yeah, my civic duty and all. And I would do it again.

(One of the reason I'm with my husband is that he drinks rarely. That and he's all around a decent guy.)

All that to say, while there is some give and take, there are some definite limits. Because of my experience with this bastard, I'm pretty hard and fast on those limits. Children, particularly small children, are completely dependent on their parents for everything. And a parent who puts them are risk may not need to have them taken away every time (this is traumatic for children) but there has to be some sort of intervention.

A childhood friend of Mr. Siduri's is an addict. While he and his wife were using, child protective services came to the house and threatened to take the kids away. They were about 11-13 years old at the time. The oldest one to the CPS people, "We can be packed in 15 minutes." Mr. Siduri's friend was surprised and hurt to hear this. My reaction is, "No sh!t." But it helped him stop using.

OK... Of the soapbox...

Last Edited: July 23, 2015, 12:25 PM

msiduri wrote on July 23, 2015, 12:37 PM

My sister-in-law's mother was an alcoholic. She talks about her being too drunk to service Thanksgiving dinner. This is only one incident, of course. She also has an older disabled sister (for whom she's still caring). There was no one else capable of running the household. She had to do it, starting in junior high, particularly when her older brother became addicted to heroin. While no one sent her door-to-door or involved her in scams, she did lose lot of her high school years to worrying about this. I understand this is not an uncommon pattern in alcoholic homes.