Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Teen Drinking and Parenting: A Crisis in our Confidence

I think we parents are having a national crisis of confidence.

According to the Center for Disease Control, over 75% of our nation's adolescents have consumed alcohol by the time they graduate from high school. 36% of all teenagers have had 5 or more drinks on one occasion within the last month. Prior to high school, 40% have had alcohol by the time they finish 8th grade, and 20% of 8th graders have been drunk at least once.

Overwhelmed by these statistics and by the prevalence of alcohol in our society, we are losing confidence in our ability as parents to stem the tide. This becomes evident :

1) When parents host so called "safe-drinking" parties, in which they allow teens to drink in their homes or on their property, but take up car keys, insisting there is no driving afterwards.

2) When parents look the other way.

In both cases, parents are giving in and giving up. We can do better!

I parallel the "safe-drinking" argument to the "safe sex" argument. When I talk about this with seniors in my class, I ask them for their reaction to the following true stories:

In New York City, government officials have been supplying heroin users with clean needles in order to curtail the spread of A.I.D.S.

The A.P. reported a few years ago that in small city in Wisconsin, students from a local high school were shot outside a seedy hotel after Prom--a hotel popular among students of that school. The following year, a mother of an 18 year old girl, so worried that her daughter would go to this unsafe hotel with her boyfriend, told her that she and her husband would vacate their home for the evening.

A Los Angeles city Councilman, perhaps tongue in cheek (but perhaps not), suggested in the wake of yet another occasion of an innocent by-stander being shot by accident in a gang battle, that it would be prudent for the city to offer gun-handling lessons to gang members. His reasoning? Gang members are going to use guns anyway. Let's teach them to use them more safely, he said, to protect innocent lives.

Seniors are appalled by all three examples. Yet the logic behind each is exactly the same as it is for "safe-sex" and for "safe-drinking": "Yes, we think heroin use, pre-marital sex and gang activity are wrong, but since in the 'real world' people are going to do these things anyway, we need to help them do it without risking more serious harm." "Yes, we think teenage drinking is wrong, but they're going to do it regardless, so we need to keep them from drinking and driving".

When we allow teenagers to drink in our homes and on our property, we give our blessing to their drinking, and thus encourage it, irregardless of our intentions. In so doing, we both break the law and violate a common trust among us in our joint task of raising children.

Alabama law is very clear: An adult having control of any residence commits a Class B misdemeanor by allowing an “open house party” to continue; knowing that persons under 21 illegally possess or consume alcoholic beverages at it; and not taking reasonable action to prevent the consumption or possession. If you find out families are hosting a party at their home where alcohol is present, my suggestion is to call the police.

Similarly, in our MCPS policy handbook, we say the following:

"As an adult community we share responsibility for each other's children and so should communicate issues of concern about other's children with their parents. We should be receptive and appreciative if we receive such calls! However, we are sovereign over our own children alone and therefore cannot substitute our judgment for other parents (as would be the case, for example, if a parent decided to host a party which involved drinking, even if that parent went through the precaution of "taking away the keys"). Parents who knowingly allow another family's child to participate in illegal or immoral activities while under their jurisdiction violate a trust among our families and may be asked to withdraw their children from our school (page 24, MCPS Family Directory and Policy Handbook, 2007-08)."

We must stand firm! Are our kids perfect? No. Will they defy us? Occasionally. But when they don't do as we've told them, they sin against us and violate the 4th commandment. In a Catholic and Christian community, we should use this language! When our children sin, our tradition speaks of doing penance as atonement for sin, and yes, it also speaks of forgiveness. But we do our kids harm by telling them it's NOT a sin, or by telling them it's OK to sin as long as they do it safely! We need to speak clearly and consistently to our children about right and wrong.

Nor can we look the other way. I think we often do this because we get worn down. We don't ask our kids to give a full accounting of where they're going as they leave the house on Friday nights because it will irritate our children and disturb the "domestic tranquility". We don't enforce our own curfews. We don't ask for a full accounting of where they've been when they return home. We don't make them speak to us when they return home because it's god-awful late. We don't do the "kiss and smell test" when our kids come home, robbing our kids an excuse to save face with peers by saying "I can't drink; my mom is crazy, she will demand to smell my breath when I get home". We parents don't check with each other about events being hosted in our homes because we're worried that the other parent will be offended. Instead we allow teens to play the shell game: child A tells his parents he's going to child B's house, child B tells his parents he is going to child A's house, and both child A and B, unbeknownst to parents A or B, go to child C's house, where there is an unchaperoned drinking party. We don't want our kids to be unpopular or lonely, so we too often allow them to do things when our parental radar is beeping at us, telling us it's not a good idea, even if it means our child has to spend Friday night at home with us, miserably unhappy to have such horrible, uncool parents, "unlike everybody else's parents".

We can make a difference if we decide to do so, together, in two very practical ways.

First, our kids need alternatives. Soon MCPS will host our homecoming dance, from 8 until midnight. In the absence of any alternatives, kids will go out drinking afterwards. But if we have parents from each class willing to host alcohol free parties, many of our kids (though not all) will happily choose these activities. I encourage you to plan with each other. Perhaps families can join together to host a breakfast. Perhaps a family or two can rent 3 or 4 lanes at the bowling alley for the evening, and invite students after the dance to hang out there. Maybe there are families who have basements in their homes with billiards and ping-pong tables and they could invite their child's friends over, making it clear there will be no tolerance for alcohol. If we join together and give our kids alternatives, we can make a HUGE dent in the drinking.

Second, about 7 years ago, we started an idea at Montgomery Catholic which met with enthusiasm at first but then fizzled out, I think partly because we changed principals (2 principals ago) and children of the women behind it graduated. However, our PTO would like to re-institute this idea and carry it forward. It's a simple idea, really.

One of our biggest problems as parents in standing together against teenage drinking is our reluctance to communicate with each other. We feel hand-cuffed to call other parents, because we're worried about appearing to be busy bodies or worried that they will think we're trying to tell them how to be good parents.

We're inviting parents to sign a pledge card to each other. It says, very simply, three things:

1) I will not allow teen drinking to take place on my home or property, and will do my best to monitor things carefully whenever other teens are in my home;

2) I commit to calling other parents who have taken this pledge about information I have received concerning the health and safety of their child.

3) I welcome phone calls from other parents about the health and safety of my children or about events I am hosting.

Three simple statements. The PTO will publish a running list of families who have taken this pledge, invite those who were not here tonight to also take this pledge, and then post this list in the Knight-line and on the Web site. If your kid is going to a certain family's home, you as a parent can check to make sure that parent has pledged to keep his or her home alcohol free, and you can feel comfortable in calling for the details, because this parent has invited you to do so. In other words, the pledge gives us permission to talk with each other. Standing together, we can make a difference.

Of course, there are things we can do with our own children as their parents, beyond this community effort. I will share with you a personal example.

We learned that one of our older children was drinking while spending the night at a friend's house. Exasperated, I talked to a mother who had raised five older children well, someone I really respected, and asked how her how she and her husband dealt with this problem. Her answer was surprisingly blunt: They didn't allow their teens to spend the night out. "Not even with parents you trusted?" I asked. "No", she said, "because we didn't want to get into the position of publicly rating one parent as better than the other. So we told our kids don't bother asking." She also said that years later, for a birthday present, her 5 children gave her a plaque, pronouncing her as "the world's meanest mother". The bottom of the plaque said "Thank you, Mom". She says it's the best birthday present she's ever received and that plaque still hangs prominently in her home.

So we've taken her advice with my younger children: we don't allow our kids to spend the night. Yes, we are now contenders as the world's meanest, most unreasonable parents. But that's OK. Our job, as parents, is to take the long view. Maybe one day--no time soon--our kids will thank us, too.