In 1962, James Meredith became the first Black man to attend the University of Mississippi. Just prior to Mr. Meredith’s enrollment, the Governor of Mississippi, Ross Barnett, tried to convince the president of the United States that Meredith should not be allowed to matriculate. The governor, representing the opinion of many folks in his state, felt strongly that black students and white students should not drink from the same water fountains or attend class together.
A transcript of their phone call survives. President Kennedy is unflaggingly polite, but he does not waver in his conviction that Meredith be allowed to start school.
In addition to its historical significance—Thurgood Marshall, Andrew Young and Barack O’Bama didn’t happen by themselves—this conversation is notable for what is not said. President Kennedy does not say to Governor Barnett:
“I am the president of the United States of America; I have the legal and the moral authority to make you do what I say.”
Nor does Kennedy say,
“You backwoods, inbred, one-eyed, racist, thudpucker, I will crush you like the insignificant vermin that you are. Your family will suffer for generations untold for fighting me on this issue.”
Kennedy certainly doesn’t say, “I thought we were friends, you hurt my feelings, why can’t you see this my way?”
The president sticks to the point—Black students will start at the University of Mississippi. In today’s terms he is “on message.” The president doesn’t debate, he doesn’t use his listening skills, he doesn’t seem overly concerned about whether or not Governor Barnett is going to send his family a card next Christmas. Because in a very real sense, there is nothing to talk about. The marines and the National Guard—thousands of men with loaded rifles—are not referenced explicitly, but both men in the conversation know the location of those men and their rifles. The president has made a decision. Whether or not Governor Barnett is pleased about the decision is less important to the president.
There are many instances when you can—and should—evoke consensus with your children, listen to dissenting opinions, and allow children to have their voices heard so that they can develop self-advocacy skills. “Would you like another piece of chicken?” (Okay, let’s be more realistic: “Would you like another brownie?”) “Would you like to wear the blue shirt of the red shirt?” (Note that attending first grade naked is not an option.) “Would you like to invite Sophia and her family to your quince?” Would you like to take a calculus course? Of course parents must understand that sometimes adolescents make imperfect choices and that both generation must be prepared to live with the consequences.
Other times parents must be on message with your kids. There are a small number of topics on which debate is contra-indicated. Matters of health is an example. Especially when your kids bring home garbage like the following.
“Mom, all the other kids are smoking pot. Adults drink, kids should be able to smoke pot. Marijuana is in the Bible. And it’s legal in Colorado. And I know lots of kids who smoke pot and do good in school. Marijuana is good for you; glaucoma and cancer patients need it. Lots of famous people smoke marijuana and they’re happy. There’s nothing wrong with marijuana. All your friends smoked marijuana in college and none of them are like brain damaged or anything. Both teams in the super bowl this year were from the only two states to have legalized pot. Why can’t I just try pot and if I don’t like it I won’t do it anymore? You’re so mean. I’m not going to have any friends. Everybody else smokes pot…”
And on and on.
Now would be a good time not to address any of these arguments—some of which are dumber than others, all of which are completely vacuous. The message is simple and straight forward. Just as Kennedy doesn’t allude to the marines and the loaded rifles, parents don’t need to articulate that they will not support their child economically or emotionally should she choose to smoke pot.
No one is arguing against medicinal marijuana. No one is suggesting that the war on drugs is winnable. No one is disagreeing that marijuana is any better or worse than alcohol. No one is discounting that there are some functioning adults who smoke pot. No one is insisting that every marijuana user goes on to harder drugs. Your position, as loving parents, is only that in your family, teenagers don’t get to choose to smoke pot. I believe the expression is “Not on my watch.”
Having articulated your position twice a year or so, there is nothing left to talk about: James Meredith IS going to attend class at the University of Mississippi. Your kids are NOT going to smoke pot. If they choose to use, they can do so somewhere else with someone else’s support.
It’s time to be on the right side of history on this one. Half a century after James Meredith walked up the steps to the University of Mississippi, no reasonable person would agree with Governor Barnett that college classes should be separated by race. History will tell us that insisting your kids stay away from pot was also the right call.