Bart Connor has some interesting theories about the differences in problems and decisions facing youth between the '60s and the '80s.

We chatted last week when the Olympic gymnastics gold medalist was in town for the conference sponsored by the Utah Federation for a Drug-free Youth. It attracted thousands of elementary through high school age youth to hear an impressive array of speakers, from the celebrity to the professional athlete to the program specialist, talk about why it's important to avoid drugs.Connor pointed out that, although he has consistently chosen a drug-free lifestyle, it was never a hard decision for him. For one thing, he was committed to physical fitness and professional athletics long before he even reached high school.

Second, and more interesting, he graduated from high school in 1976 - "after heroin was the big thing and before cocaine became popular." In a word, he said, his generation (those who were teenagers in the mid- to late-'70s) didn't really face major temptation to get involved in drugs.

His generation was the sandwich generation, he said. Those who grew up in the late '60s faced a minefield of personal decisions, including what to do about the drugs that were everywhere.

In the '80s, the problems are just as complex - maybe more so. Only now, drug abusers are not necessarily a group of "hippies" who get stoned and stump for "peace and love."

Today, the substance abuser can be found on elementary school playgrounds or college campuses. His preferred vice may be one of many that are readily obtained, including crack, alcohol, marijuana, "rush," over-the-counter remedies like cold medicine, speed, cocaine . . . . Depression, stress, growing numbers of suicides, etc., are related factors that further complicate the picture.

The best way to avoid addiction, Connor said, is not to get started in the first place.

The key, he said, is being centered. That means having a sense of who you are and what's important to you, as well as the strength to pursue your goals without giving up. It also means being committed to something, whether it's a religion, a career, a school, a dream. In a lot of cases, he said, it's music or even skateboarding. What matters is caring passionately about something. Something besides drugs.

But the bottom line is being committed to yourself. Regardless of who you are. And part of that commitment is not wanting to hurt yourself or the people you care about.

In my opinion, you could pour all the money and time in the world into programs and still not come up with a quick fix. It's a multifaceted problem and there are just as many sides that must be involved in the cure. But one facet sometimes gets overlooked. That's the way we raise our children to see - and believe in - themselves.

I have a friend who went the drug route in the '60s, and his frantic and loving parents did everything they could to straighten him out.

He's straight now. But it was a long, hard road. And he isn't straight just because of things that people did for him, although those were important, too. He's straight because of things he did for himself.

At a certain point, he chose to hit the brakes on his downward slide. He chose to be a partner in his cure. And he chose to take responsibility for his action and mistakes. That's when things began to work for him and they've worked ever since.

The main tool is a sense of self and respect for your own worth. When you instill that in a child, it doesn't mean he'll never have problems.

But, if he's very lucky, that youth will find that he has the tools for a solution right inside of himself. The strength to not get started on that path. And if he's already on the path, the strength to get off it.

Connor is right. It is easier not to get started to begin with. Fortunately, because of prevention programs and education, as well as efforts by a broad spectrum of people, addiction is no longer "cool." Saying `No' means you're smart, not cowardly.