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Setting Standards for Your Family About Substance Use

Form convictions that you can hold with integrity as you shape the life of your child.
By Dennis and Barbara Rainey


In this article we’ll confine our discussion to alcohol and tobacco, assuming all will agree that the use of illegal drugs is wrong. The trickier subject for Christians is to reach biblically informed conclusions on legal substances.

We will not try here to explore these subjects at length. Our goal is to encourage you to form your own convictions that you can hold with integrity as you shape the life of your child. To help you do that, we present our own views, with which we know some within the family of Christ may not agree.

The harmful effects of smoking and of secondary smoke are well documented. We sympathize with those who may have developed the habit earlier in life and may have tried to quit repeatedly. A nicotine addiction is serious.

If this is a problem for you, preventing the smoking habit in your child may give you an added incentive to stop smoking. Research has shown that if a parent smokes, it’s more likely the child will smoke. The good news is that when a parent stops smoking, the child will also mimic that behavior.(1) Kicking the habit could improve the health of everyone in your family!

Alcohol use is a more challenging issue.

Much has been said in the Christian community about drinking. We don’t believe that Scripture teaches that drinking is wrong. Certainly, drunkenness is prohibited in Scripture. Ephesians 5:18 says, “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit.” In other words, we are not to be controlled by anything or anyone other than God.

Although the Bible may not prohibit alcohol use, we felt early on with our children that we did not want to give them a potentially confusing message and possible temptation. We decided to abstain from drinking. We reasoned that if they felt it was okay for Mom and Dad to have wine with an occasional meal or to drink a beer now and then, would they know these instances were exceptions? We decided that our children would not have the maturity to conclude, “This is an exception.”

Instead we thought they might look at us and say, “Well, if Mom and Dad do this, it must be okay for me, too”—long before they were mature enough to form their own rock-solid convictions.

Concerning the use of any substances, here are three convictions that have guided our thinking and behavior.

1.  Teaching and modeling a rich love relationship with Jesus Christ will draw our child away from a desire for any false high.

This is the key to fending off a host of temptations. Show your child something that he will long for and desire to replicate in his own life.

Our Creator placed within our souls deep longings for happiness and satisfaction that only God can satisfy. In our sinful frailty we are prone to make idols of false gods that seem to promise the happiness we seek.

We parents need to make sure, by what we teach and how we live, that our children understand happiness and deep satisfaction are available from only one Source. As John Piper has written about God: “His people adore him unashamedly for the ‘exceeding joy’ they find in Him (Psalm 43:4). He is the source of complete and unending pleasure: ‘In thy presence is fullness of joy; in thy right hand there are pleasures forever’ (Psalm 16:11).”(2)

2. We will present a model of personal behavior that minimizes our child’s opportunity to have any excuse to use or abuse substances.

The following words of King David express well the desire we have to not cause our children to stumble by what they see us doing: “My eyes shall be upon the faithful of the land, that they may dwell with me. He who walks in a blameless way is the one who will minister to me” (Psalm 101:6).

This says so clearly that a pure and blameless life is a powerful example. If we have major flaws or compromises in our lives, our children will see them. This conviction led us to not drink alcohol. We determined to present our children the highest model possible for them to replicate.

A related topic requires comment here. If you or anyone in your home is taking any type of prescription medication, be aware that many children initially begin experimenting with drugs at home.

A friend of mine told me that, as a teenager, his friends jokingly said their drug dealer was his mother. She kept some mood-altering prescription drugs in her medicine cabinet, and the boys pilfered a few capsules at a time to mix with alcohol to provide themselves with a high.

3.  We will stay emotionally connected to our child, offering generous attention, acceptance, affection, and love.

Research supports the wisdom of this conviction. Robert Blum, reporting on a study done with 90,000 seventh- through 12th-graders nationwide, said: “Kids have less emotional distress when they feel connected. They experience fewer suicidal thoughts, fewer suicidal attempts. They are less involved with interpersonal violence. They smoke less, drink less, use marijuana less, have a later onset of the age of intercourse—everything you can think of. Connectedness with parents protects adolescents.”(3)

Substance abuse is a killer snare, and ultimately only God can protect our children. But we need to pray hard and work hard to steer them away from this trap’s ghastly jaws.

For the Single Parent

If your former spouse drinks, you will want to consider your options for communicating your convictions to your preteen or teen. Asking your former spouse to give up drinking may be out of the question, although we would encourage you to talk with him or her about the issues we’ve raised in this article. Appeal to the need to present a unified front to your teenager and the potential danger that this substance represents.

If you can’t reach agreement, spend some time shaping your own convictions and how you are going to talk about them with your child. Anticipate the questions that will come because Mom and Dad don’t believe the same thing. Know how you will respond to the inevitable questions that will come if your child sees your spouse drinking or drunk.

Talk to other single parents who may be facing similar situations and hammer out your strategies and statements together.

As always, resist the urge to speak evil of your former spouse.


1) Cited in David Elkind, Parenting Your Teenager (New York: Ballantine, 1993), p. 207.
2) John Piper, Desiring God, Expanded Edition (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 1996), p.19.
3) “Teenagers close to parents not as likely to drink, smoke,” Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph, 10 Sept. 1997, p.1.

Adapted from Parenting Today’s Adolescent: Helping Your Child Avoid the Traps of the Preteen and Teen Years. Copyright 1998 by Dennis and Barbara Rainey. Used by permission of Thomas Nelson, Inc., Publishers.

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