What do alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, pot, narcotics, sugar, porn, gambling, and screens have in common? People love them, and often way too much. Each has the potential for harm and/or addiction, which is why we refer to them as our vices. But just because pleasurable things come with risk doesn’t mean they should be demonized or banished, lest we repeat the costly errors of our prohibition era. The challenge is to know how to enjoy the pleasures of a vice without foolishly throwing caution to the wind.
Good vice advice begins by recognizing that the coin of every vice has two sides. Sugar causes obesity and diabetes, though also motivates children to finish their fruits and vegetables. Caffeine elevates heart rate, increases anxiety, and causes insomnia, though also promotes alertness and productivity. Alcohol damages the liver and disrupts mood and behavior, though also enhances social and romantic encounters. Gambling leads to financial ruin, though provides exciting entertainment and occasional payoffs. Porn complicates romantic relationships, though also provides satisfaction when partners are unavailable. It’s unwise to think that our vices are bad when the truth is that they all have their benefits and risks.
Accepting the truth that vices are complex two-sided coins allows us to consider and manage them more sensibly. And from this starting point the best vice advice can be found in what I refer to as the dinner/dessert principle.
There are no health benefits to sugar-based desserts. On the contrary, processed sugar is poison - sweet, delicious, irresistible poison (literally lethal in excess). But this knowledge will never stop us from consuming it, nor should it. As with all vices, the question has to do with how to enjoy it wisely. For instance, when we pair healthy dinners with unhealthy desserts, we do so with attention to their sequence and proportions. (If you know parents who routinely start their kids off with a large portion of dessert before feeding them a small portion of fruits and vegetables, consider reporting them for child endangerment.) Loving parents know how difficult it can be to get kids to eat enough healthy food, so they effectively reward them with smaller amounts of unhealthy food. It’s Behavior Modification 101, and the net effect is that the good outweighs the bad.
The dinner/dessert principle illustrates the three most valuable pieces of advice regarding vice management.
Responsibilities should precede vices because they’re more important (sequence).
Responsibilities need to outweigh our vices (proportion).
Vices are best used to motivate and/or celebrate achievements (reward).
When sequence, proportion, and reward are applied to the relationship between responsibilities and vices, this offers the best chance for promoting a balanced lifestyle. When these dynamics slide too far out of balance, vices erode the quality of our health, productivity, and relationships.
Back in the 20th century it was relatively easy for parents to protect their children from most vices. That all changed with the dawn of the “screen age” when tvs, phones, and computer monitors began bombarding kids and teens with powerful sources of stimulating and addictive content. Screens are now indispensable for education, work, and social connection without any lines separating them from the exhilarating shows, social media, gaming, and porn that fuel cravings every bit as hazardous as those of ingestible substances. It’s like having bakeries, ice cream shops, and candy stores in every room of the house, school, and office available 24/7. Yikes!
The power and prevalence of virtual vices make the habits of the dinner/dessert principle critical to establish in our children as early as possible. When a child gets used to indulging in life’s desserts before his or her dinners, that’s a genie that’s awfully difficult to get back in the bottle. Preparing our youth for balanced lives hinges more than ever on their ability to internalize these patterns.
Here’s one more gem of vice advice to take stock of: vices earned are more gratifying than vices taken. Devouring an ice cream sundae before dinner, homework, and chores will be delicious, but its delight will be somewhat soured by the guilt and anxiety of irresponsibility. But when a sundae is devoured as a reward earned after completing homework, chores, and a healthy meal, the delight is further sweetened for one that is deserved.
So the best vice advice simply boils down to this - earn your vices before indulging in them in the right measure.