Califano gives parents The Strait Dope
By Rita Papazian
Westport News    Posted:  08/14/2009

As the school year approaches, there is one book to put on your school supplies list this fall. It is a book for parents titled How to Raise a Drug-Free Kid: The Straight Dope For Parents, written by Joseph A. Califano Jr., a former secretary of health, education and welfare and founder and chairman of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University. 

The book, a guide to help parents get their children through the pre-teen, teen and college years drug-free, debuts this week. Califano, a Westport resident, discussed the book during a telephone conversation from his Manhattan office last week. 

Why the book?

Califano says there is no book like it on the market. There are lots of books offering guidance to parents dealing with a son or daughter with a drug or alcohol problem, but no book, as extensive as this one, offering parental advice in helping their children avoid drugs. From years of research, programs and focus groups, Califano and his associates have learned that parents want to know how they can avoid their children even starting with drugs.

The book emphasizes two major findings. One, the child who stays away from drugs, tobacco and abusing alcohol until age 21 is virtually certain to steer clear of these substances forever. Two, teens who learn about the risks of drugs from their parents are much less likely to try them. 

The book offers advice on the following topics:

  • When and how to talk to your kids about drugs and alcohol.
  • How to respond when your kid asks, "Did you ever try drugs?"
  • How to know when your child is most at risk.

How to prepare your teen for the freedoms and perils of college.

"Parents have no idea what their kids' lives are like today," Califano said. "They don't understand the influences and the circumstances. " This problem is going to be solved in the living room and in the dining room, not the court room," said Califano, emphasizing that parents have the most influence on their children and they need to get and stay involved in their children's lives.

"Get dad involved," said Califano, who had a long and distinguished career in Washington, D.C. as special assistant and top troubleshooter for Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara during the Kennedy Administration, then as special assistant for domestic affairs during the Johnson administration where he helped shape dozens of Great Society bills related to health care, education, children, criminal justice, the environment, consumers and social welfare. From 1977 to 1979, he was U.S. secretary of Health, Education and Welfare when he mounted the first national anti-smoking campaign.

Throughout his federal government years, Califano said he made sure he devoted time to his growing family, two sons and a daughter. They went to church on Sunday morning and spent the afternoons doing activities as a family. He even made sure that he and his wife stayed home on Saturday evenings to balance the time spent away from the family during the long weekdays working for presidents.

"Get to know your child. Listen to your child," Califano said. "Kids don't get drugs from a guy in a dirty trench coat. They get it from their friends."

Califano encourages parents to keep up the communication with their children so that parents know who their friends are, what activities they are engaged in, and where they are spending their time. If parents are engaged in their children's lives, they will be able to detect signs of stress, a very important barometer, for it can lead an adolescent to turn to drugs or alcohol for relief.

Also, he encourages parents to make sure they have dinner with their children. 

Califano said he recalls growing up an only child in a predominantly Italian and Jewish Brooklyn neighborhood surrounded by lots of aunts, uncles and cousins who would gather for Sunday dinners. Acknowledging that parents are very busy today with some holding down two jobs, or both parents working in the household, he encourages parents to make the time to eat dinner together a few times a week. He believes that family dinner is so important that in 2001 CASA initiated "CASA Family Day -- A Day to Eat Dinner with Your Children" on the fourth Monday in September. The purpose is "to promote parental engagement as a simple and effective way to reduce children's risk of smoking, drinking and using illegal drugs." Throughout the country, the president, governors -- including Gov. M. Jodi Rell -- and municipal heads will recognize the importance of family dinners by proclaiming Family Day next month. If a family is having difficulty finding time to have a family dinner, maybe the parents should assess the activities that take the children away from the home, Califano says.

In the book, Califano states: "In the 1996 CASA survey of teens, I noticed that kids who had dinner with their parents every night of the week were far less likely to smoke, drink or use drugs than kids who never had dinner with their parents. The kids who had frequent family dinners also tended to get A's and B's in school, were less likely to be stressed out, perpetually bored, or have friends who smoked, drank, or used drugs." Family meals are so important that Califano devotes an entire chapter to the topic and offers advice in how to get children talking at the dinner table.

Califano, who puts value on spirituality in young people's lives, also advises parents to attend a church or synagogue with their children, for again, this is another opportunity for a family to be together and communicate.

In addressing the use of drugs among adolescents, Califano educates parents about the differences between the genders when it comes to the reasons for taking drugs. Boys will take drugs for external reasons, such as showing off and acting "cool"; whereas, girls take drugs for internal reasons, "to self-medicate to combat low self-esteem, a lack of confidence, depression or anxiety."

"You may think this is obvious, but when we surveyed parents they didn't know there were differences," Califano said.

He encourages parents, especially those with children entering middle school, to give special attention to their children the first six months of the school year because they will be entering a new school where a large percentage of their peers are a few years older than they, which may lead to a loss of self-confidence. 

He encourages parents to set a good example. "What you do is more important than what you say." 

Califano founded CASA in 1992 to devote his life to combating substance abuse and addiction, especially among children and teens. CASA is the only national organization that brings together under one roof all the professional disciplines needed to study and combat all types of substance abuse as they affect all aspects of society.

Throughout his long career in public service and private law practice, Califano said he would meet people, see situations and study statistics that underscored how drugs and alcohol were the underpinnings of society ills. It fuels welfare, crime, teen pregnancy, health care costs and was even a prevalent problem in the auto industry he said, where it was common knowledge that you "don't buy a car on Monday."

How To Raise A Drug-Free Kid: The Straight Dope For Parents is published by Simon & Schuster's Touchstone/Fireside Division in paperback for $15, so that it is affordable. The book includes a glossary of terms and a list of Web sites for parents to gain information about drugs and drug policy; parent and community organizations; and mental health organizations.

The book's Web site,, offers opportunity for parents to ask questions confidentially. In the near future, the Web site will include a public forum for parents, educators and other professionals to exchange advice, experiences and information. The book offers examples of this type of exchange.

Here is one example:

"Several of Robert and Ethel Kennedy's children developed serious substance abuse problems. One of their close family friends was reported to have been a heroin addict and facilitated the children's use. Their son David Kennedy struggled with heroin addiction and died in 1984 of a drug overdose. David's brother, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., also struggled with heroin addiction but eventually overcame it."

Here's another from Vincent Lobell, a recovering drug user and substance abuse counselor at Outreach House in Brentwood, N.Y., speaking at CASA's Family Matters conference, 2004:

"We would have weekly sleep-overs and several of the kids I hung out with had older brothers or older sisters in high school that were experimenting with drugs. So I remember my first experience was a kid that had stolen marijuana from his brother and brought it to the house and we all tried it." 

As one would expect, Califano is against legalizing marijuana. "It's a different drug today," he says. He suggests the public read three papers posted on the CASA Web site on the topic. In the book he writes that marijuana today is much more potent and dangerous than the pot of the 1970s and 1980s. "The pot that your child would be offered today is likely to be as much as ten times more powerful than the marijuana available a generation ago. We've still got a lot to learn about the consequences of smoking marijuana, but what we now know tells us that it's dangerous for your child to use it."

Califano will discuss his book at a Westport Public Library-sponsored author event on Mon., Oct. 26 at 7:30 p.m. in the Bedford Middle School auditorium.