“Don’t tell anyone I’m growing tomatoes or they’ll think it’s pot.”
It’s 1989. I’m 11, and my dad is actually growing pot, right next to his crop of tomatoes. We’re having our annual weed talk, to which he adds new details each year, but the key lesson is always delivered the same way, in the post-WWII slang of his childhood: Loose lips sink ships. Tell anyone—anyone!—that he smokes pot, or even that he thinks it’s OK, and I risk sending him to jail and destroying my family in the process.
Nearly 30 years later, it’s hard to believe that the secret shame of my childhood is now completely legal. Yet, for all the open conversations around stock prices and medical potential, it can still feel like a confession to admit to using and enjoying cannabis. (And, yes, I mostly call it cannabis now, although I'll also use weed for this article. Pot and weed are OK for variety’s sake, but cannabis is the correct botanical term and, unlike marijuana, isn’t loaded with racist history.)
Approaching the cannabis conversation with kids can feel even more daunting. Even rational adults have such wide-ranging reactions, so who can guess how kids will react if you tell them you use it?
Alcohol-imbibing parents can choose from a range of social examples to frame their conversation and can even joke about it, patting beer guts and hashtagging “mommy juice.” But the norms surrounding cannabis are changing so quickly that our conversations haven’t necessarily caught up, and the topic can feel heavy.
So, whether you’re already consuming or you plan to now that it’s legal, what’s a pot-puffing parent to do?
“Like anything—talking about sex, talking about alcohol—the earlier the better,” says Sarah Rosensweet, a parenting coach and mom of three. This is especially important if you think you might consume weed in front of them—the same way you might drink a beer while the kids play in the backyard. “If they see you doing something, of course they’re going to ask ‘What is that?’” says Rosensweet. The conversation will look different depending on your child’s age, but the point is, don’t avoid it. You don’t drink alcohol in secret or avoid talking to your kids about it, so don’t do that with cannabis either.
It’s a big cultural shift going from clandestine to corner store, and it’s OK to approach it cautiously. There’s no need to bombard kids with information. “We’re setting an example for our kids of how we want them to proceed as they grow up, so go slowly and be thoughtful when you’re talking to your kids,” says Rosensweet.
When in doubt, consider how you would answer their questions about alcohol. “If they ask what it is, you can say that it’s something for grown-ups and that they can decide when they’re grown up if they want to have any,” says Rosensweet.
If your kids are old enough that they’re already aware of cannabis (although they probably know it as marijuana or weed), then they might be shocked to know that their parents are “doing drugs.” This is where it will help for you to have a solid understanding of the safety, benefits and drawbacks of cannabis and how it differs from other drugs, both legal and illegal. Curious kids might even like to be taught the reasons why cannabis was originally banned and why the government has changed its policy. (See “Educate yourself about cannabis,” below.)
Cannabis is objectively safer than alcohol—fewer than one in 10 cannabis users becomes dependent, compared to one in five people who drinks, and it’s impossible to die from taking too much—so its advocates often avoid comparing the plant with booze. But from a recreational perspective, many of the lessons we preach about alcohol are transferable, particularly that it is a substance for grown-ups best enjoyed in moderation. “Even though there’s this new conversation happening around the healthy benefits of cannabis and the idea that it can be used as medicine, I think it’s still an important conversation to have with your kids that too much of anything, even if it’s a good thing, can be detrimental,” says Rosensweet.
“You want to give kids the good and the bad,” adds Nina Herrera, a patient educator with the cannabis clinic Solace Health and mom to a seven-year-old. “Focus on why we use it and what it’s for.”
Mom of three Tabitha Fritz is adamant that parents should neither hide nor glamorize their consumption—a refrain echoed by parenting coaches and cannabis experts. For Fritz, a side effect of her frank approach to cannabis is that when her then-12-year-old son was offered a joint, he turned it down. As he told his parents later, he didn’t join his friends because he didn’t want to put his developing brain in jeopardy—a kid-specific risk he had learned about at home.
It’s not the only time that his cannabis savvy has surfaced. When a public nurse came to his school and overstated the dangers of marijuana, he raised his hand and politely informed her that, actually, it’s called cannabis, it’s not addictive and it does have medicinal value. “I like to think that he informed the whole classroom of future normalizers at that moment,” says Fritz.
As your kids get older, they’ll start to see and hear more about pot, and they may come to you with their questions. For Herrera, satisfying your child’s need for information means educating yourself on the new cannabis landscape, whether you consume or not. “Cannabis is going to be everywhere, and it will not only look and smell like weed but also come in a lot of different forms,” she says.
For example, a joint isn’t the same as an edible, a topical or a puff on a vaporizer. Ideally, parents should understand the differences to accurately explain the benefits and side effects to their kids. The Facebook group SheCann is an excellent community resource, websites like Hempster and Leafly offer up-to-date cannabis education, and the CSSDP Toolkit provides evidence-based strategies for initiating cannabis talks with teens.
If you’re returning to cannabis after a break or testing out a new method of ingestion, be particularly mindful. “You have to figure out in advance, when you’re not around your kids, what level is safe for you to not be impaired if you’re going to consume around your kids,” says Rosensweet.
If you are consuming edibles or cannabis-infused foods, be sure to store them in a locked container (companies like Stashlogix make cannabis-specific lockboxes, and you can find fridge-safe, lockable medication containers online). Personally, I make sure my six-year-old son is familiar with the look of every edible I make. He knows that they are grown-up treats that will make kids and dogs sick and that he must tell me immediately if he ever finds my lockbox open.
“Growing up, there was a stigma, and it was a drug,” says Rosensweet. “It’s a shift to think about cannabis as something you can do—and something you can do around your kids.”
Stigmas won’t dissolve overnight, but for all the fear and shame of the past century, cannabis is already a part of daily family life, here and around the world. For parents who are already consuming, legalization is less about changing reality than tweaking how we talk about it.
That’s a welcome departure from the Prohibition-era model I was raised with, and I’m grateful that I can teach my son the matters of fact, not fear. Still, a few of the tidbits I absorbed as a child remain true: Cannabis and tomato plants thrive in similar conditions and, frankly, they taste great paired. Next summer, I think I’ll ask my dad and my son to help me plant a tomato and cannabis plot together.
Listen to Today's Parent editor-in-chief Kim Shiffman talk about pot on The Big Story podcast.
The Big Story, October 16
Learn more at The Big Story Podcast.
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