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A Debate for the Ages, Part IV: The Parent Movement, Or “Mama Said Knock [the Drug Culture] Out”

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Editor’s Note: In this, the fourth – and final – installment of Points’ “A Debate for the Ages” seriesEmily Dufton discusses the Parent Movement, Teen Challenge, and the peculiarities of youth-centered anti-drug messaging.

Frank Zappa: Straighter-edge than you might think

Stumbling around YouTube the other day, I came across this incredible video of an interview with Frank Zappa, recorded by Canada’s CBC Television on Valentine’s Day in 1971. Interviewer Ralph Thomas asks Zappa what the drug culture had done to the youth of America.

“It’s taken away a lot of their ambition,” Zappa explained. “I think we have yet to reap the so-called benefits of the acid generation as the burn-outs begin to turn up more frequently.” Thomas continued, asking if rock music contributed to this change. Was radio a “propaganda vehicle for the way drugs have been sold?” “Certainly,” Zappa replied. Radio, both AM and independent stations, have “definitely assisted in the popularization of various forms of drugs.”

When I found this video, my jaw dropped. Finally, after years of searching, I knew the answer to the age-old riddle, what do Frank Zappa and the Parent Movement have in common? As it turns out, the answer is: a lot. Both faulted a powerful popular culture (movies, television, and rock & roll) for luring innocent kids into drug abuse, and both found the results similarly upsetting: drug-using kids showed a frightening lack of ambition (later known as ‘amotivational syndrome’), and a tendency to take both a metaphoric and a literal “stumble down the stairs.” 

It wasn’t until five years after Zappa’s prescient interview, however, that the Parent Movement debuted on the national scene. In the summer of the nation’s bicentennial, as Americans celebrated with parades, festivals, and fireworks, Marsha ‘Keith’ Manatt Schuchard and her husband Ronald found, to their horror, that their thirteen-year-old daughter was smoking pot. In a tale that has since become the origin story in Parent Movement mythology, Keith and Ron threw their daughter a birthday party in hopes that it might shake the girl’s newly-acquired saturnine mood. Instead, they discovered that their daughter was only one of the many red-eyed pot-smoking youths that inhabited the wealthy suburbs of Atlanta – and the rest of them were apparently gathered in the Schuchard’s backyard. During the party, as pre-teens stumbled in and out of the house or huddled in groups in the darkened periphery of the lawn, the food went uneaten and Keith got increasingly concerned. This, she realized, was why her previously bright and happy daughter had become morose and withdrawn: drugs.

PRIDE shows it's pride with jazz hands

By 1 a.m., Keith and Ron were out, scouring the lawn in their pajamas, flashlights in hand, searching for proof that their daughter was going down a dangerous path. Marijuana “roaches,” empty bottles of Mad Dog 20/20, and other drug- and alcohol-related ephemera littered the yard, filling the Schuchards with terror and inspiring Keith to launch a grassroots social movement that would dramatically change the war on drugs for the next thirty years. What began as a small organization of concerned parents in Keith Schuchard’s living room morphed with unprecedented speed into an influential nationwide gestalt. Led by organizations like National Families in Action – organized by Schuchard’s friend Sue Rusche in 1978 – and the Parents’ Resource Institute on Drug Education (PRIDE) – formed by Schuchard and Buddy Gleaton in 1977 – activists like Keith oversaw the formation of thousands of individual parent groups across the nation. Over four thousand of these groups had formed by 1983, and by Ronald Reagan’s second term as President, they were influencing national drug policy.

With “Parent Power” as their rallying cry, the movement promoted a zero-tolerance approach to youth drug use and stressed prevention and anti-drug education for children and parents alike. The groups decried the “commercialized and glossily packaged popular youth culture” that Schuchard saw stemming from the overly-liberal 1960s, and worked to counteract anything that presented drug use as fun and cool, or as undermining “traditional adult authorities who could nurture a young person’s ability to reject drug use.” These groups feared that drug use by children as young as eleven and twelve would result in a generation of Americans stunted physically, emotionally, biologically, and morally. Taking Schuchard’s 1979 NIDA-produced publication Parents, Peers, and Pot as their sacred text, they decided that “parents are a child’s main defense against the pressures [to experiment with drugs], but parents need to recognize that they are up against powerful social and economic forces. They may face a hard struggle in helping their child to be drug-free, but the struggle will be worthwhile.”

The Parent Movement is the focus of my dissertation, so for a longer examination of the Movement’s history and effects, check that out in (hopefully) 2014. As for this post, I wanted to look specifically at how the Parent Movement participated in the core debate of this series – did parents see drug abuse stemming from root causes like poverty and unemployment, or was personal culpability still at addiction’s heart?

Like last week’s discussion of rights and choice, the Parent Movement again reframes the debate, as most previous conversations had focused on legal adults (save for my post on Teen Challenge, which also focused on underage youths), asking if the economic and social pressures addicts faced were the underlying causes of drug abuse. The Parent Movement was concerned primarily with young people – pre-teens, teenagers, even elementary school students – who were not legal adults, could not make their own decisions, and could not legally consume our society’s legal intoxicants, alcohol and tobacco. Teen Challenge did not paint young drug users as dangerous criminals or disadvantaged minorities; they were helpless, naïve, and gullible children who were at the mercy of a venomous, ravenous drug culture that wanted to take their money and their lives.

Lifetime drug abstinence is not the goal, sayeth the good book

Youths needed to be protected from a culture that would destroy them, but once they reached eighteen, they were free to do as they pleased, so the thinking went. As Schuchard repeatedly stated in Parents, Peers, and Pot – though the idea escapes most historians of the Parent Movement – “the parents did not preach prohibition forever.” Rather, they “insisted that their children not use drugs while they were too young and vulnerable to handle the psychological, physical, and social hazards involved.”

Since kids aren’t necessarily being demonized by this view, we must shift the root causes versus personal culpability debate away from a focus on the underage user and toward an understanding of the society that has allowed such drug taking to occur. If there are ‘root causes,’ the Parent Movement saw them as located in the popular drug culture that sold rolling papers and Frisbee bongs to “Tots Who Toke.” If there was an argument for personal culpability, blame for failure to take responsibility could be spread widely. It fell both on the parents who had for too long naively ignored their children’s drug use and on the “experts” who told them that drug use was no big deal.

Once children were highlighted as victims of the drug culture, rather than criminals endangering the safety of American society, the Parent Movement turned their attention to rescuing children from the scourge of drugs. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, Parent Movement-inspired pop culture attacked both drug abuse’s root causes and personal culpability issues through a series of anti-drug television specials and comic books, including:

Captain America, Drug Warrior

  1. The New Teen Titans, a DC Comics-produced venture in conjunction with Keebler, IBM, and the American Soft Drink Industry. (1983)

  2. Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue, which featured nearly every character in the Disney catalogue trying to convince young Michael to stop smoking pot or, presumably, trying crack. (1990)

Kermit, Ms. Piggy, and the rest of Mikey's crypto-parents

These cartoons represent only a small fraction of the wave of anti-drug pop culture that the Parent Movement inspired. Their answers to the nation’s drug ills are both fitting and troublesome. These shows blame both the user and society while promoting a message that ostensibly promotes a loving and caring family environment that will accept the user once he comes clean. Shows like Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue brought this message home through the mouths of the Muppet Babies: “You use, you lose,” Baby Kermit the Frog said to Michael, before Baby Miss Piggy added, “Listen to us! We care about you, Mikey!”

The Parent Movement perfectly embodies the tension in American society. They sought to counteract drug culture by providing a loving family environment, one that threatened steep ramifications for drug use even as they loved the user. This push-and-pull effect – that both frightens and embraces kids – has, in many ways, come to define the modern war on drugs, exclaiming “Kids, don’t do this! But adults, you should – as long as you’re purchasing alcohol and cigarettes.” The Parent Movement’s potent mixture of self-esteem building and scolding assured us of two things: that we’re just fine without drugs, but if we take them we’re headed straight for our rooms.

This parental tension was not missing in 1971, however. After all, how did Zappa conclude his interview, when he was asked about giving advice to a hippie girl who had joined the Weathermen? “I was actually too stoned to know what I was talking about.”

Thanks for hanging out with me over the past month. It’s been great blogging for Points, and I hope these posts have entertained you. Frank Zappa and I both wish you happy a Valentine’s Day, and a very insightful rest of the year!


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