Education: Where did we go wrong?

The author of this article is a middle-class mother who can never take off the gold bracelet her husband gave her, for fear that her 18- year-old son will pawn it to buy drugs.
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How misguided we parents are. We have a loving family; we offer our children encouragement, support, understanding. And we have relatively secure professional jobs - a lifestyle that may even be the cause of envy.

Yet for all our wisdom, education, love and care, our children are no more immune from the drug trap than anyone else's. It used to be a comfort factor that people who dealt in drugs were from the "underworld" and that drug-related crime was committed by young people who were somehow "deprived", so sought solace in chemical oblivion.

How wrong we all are. The difference is that a wall of silence surrounds the suffering of so many parents who consider themselves failures. They knew all the answers; these children of the Sixties understood children and their need to be individuals. No strict conformist policies for them, just an underlying expectation, and an offer of opportunities and support. Self-determination was the aim: set yourselves goals; nothing is impossible; do your best; play hard; work hard; make the most of your chances; life is not a dress rehearsal. Yet their children chose another path.

I am inspired to break the conspiracy of silence by another family's story. They had brought their son home from university as he was quite clearly in a muddle, and shouted for help. They collected him, returning to their comfortable village where they and he were quite certain that without money and transport in a small environment where he was so well- known, heroin was impossible. How wrong they were. When they returned from their first time away, an afternoon spent visiting Granny, their much-loved son had calmly cleared out everything valuable. They can only assume that a phone call at their expense produced the transport.

So where had they gone wrong? And why don't they tell the police? They are ashamed. Let no one tell you it is a hard-luck story, that heroin is the drug of the streets and that if your kids stick to soft drugs, all will be well. There is, it seems, little difference between soft and hard drugs to the habitual user. Both can damage individuals and families. My own son has not touched the so-called hard drugs, but cannabis has, to all intents and purposes, ruined his life and has looked at times as if it would tear the family apart.

Who knows? Nobody. His sisters know the truth, but university and boarding school have been wonderful distancers as far as we parents are concerned. How old is our son? Eighteen. And what has he achieved? Nothing. Has he qualifications? No. Is he employable? I doubt it. Is he in school or college? No. Why not? Because since heturned 16, he has been thrown out of three different colleges. So what does he do all day long? Very little.

I can hear you say "throw him out; make him do something; deprive him of money; don't tolerate it". Hear, hear, I reply, but... We did stop his allowance, with a warning. We did it to encourage him to get a job, to become independent, so as not to spoil him, to show disapproval, so he could feel proud of an achievement.

Fine decision that was. How easy it was for him to find his daily cannabis by dealing. He found another easy way; I now have no gold jewellery. The first time it disappeared we found a pawn-shop ticket in his bedroom and my husband went to reclaim it at our expense. Yes, there was much remorse apparently displayed. The second time I wasn't so lucky. The whole lot was gone, whether it was Grandma's bracelet or a wedding present.

Suit pockets have been raided and notes taken from wallets. He tried using the cash card, but my husband saw it was missing and cancelled it; he'd already withdrawn pounds 80.

Soft parents, I hear you say; why didn't you challenge him? We did, but denial was a way of life. He never admitted the thefts - could never acknowledge what he had done.

Now that I know that failure to acknowledge the truth is a product of cannabis abuse, at least I can understand a little, and sleep more easily at night. At the time, it produced an appalling sense of frustration and deep despair. But where to vent these? There is a wall of silence. It is terrible to see your son destroy himself and create turmoil and hatred in the family.

In the end, nothing was safe. His sisters' bedrooms had locks put on them; security boxes didn't work. We live behind sealed doors in our own home. Still any spare money goes. It is hard not to have any cash, particularly if you have to travel to work. If you do, where do you hide it?

Throw him out, I hear you say. Yes, it was an option, and one we considered many times, but throw him to what? He was entitled to no benefits, and the street culture terrified me. Impoverished housing in the inner city filled me with fear. Pay for a bedsit? The options are limited, and rightly so. We were terrified that soft-drug usage would become hard-drug usage and the spiral down be even greater for a young man with all ambition destroyed by cannabis and no qualifications to fall back on.

The last two-and-a-half years have been bleak. His sisters speak a lot of sense and defend their parents in the face of all the abuse that is hurled at us. For, in some perverse way, it is all our fault. His sisters have stayed loyal, but have not always wanted to come home to the turmoil.

Where are we now? Apparently, the cannabis has ceased. The truth went so long ago that I have only to hope that it is the truth. A kind of realisation has dawned that qualifications are needed; but a job is elusive as all decent employers want a reference from school or college, if not a previous employer.

My husband bought me a gold bracelet for Christmas; I still have not taken it off. Would that it were for sentimental reasons, but in our house you have to be pragmatic.

My son's friends have sat A-levels and will soon leave for university. For him, stormy waters lie ahead.

What did I want for my children? The same as everyone else. It worked for two but not for three. You think it won't happen to you. But it could; statistics tell us that 50 per cent of 16-year-olds have tried illegal drugs. What turned this one into an abuser? It certainly wasn't a broken home, unemployment, poor housing, poor education, no future to look forward to, lack of opportunity.

I know I am not alone. The wall of silence is there. I hope it isn't you.

The author wishes to be anonymous