The school year is winding down, proms and summer vacations are looming, and parents at Norfolk Collegiate School are talking about peer pressure and underage drinking.
Not just pressure on their kids. Pressure on themselves, the parents.
Pressure to be the nice guys and not the cops with their children and their children’s friends when it comes to them experimenting with alcohol. Pressure to want their kids to like them, to think they’re cool. Pressure to not look like a prude in front of other parents.
A mother with 14- and 17-year-old sons complained that she was the only parent she knew who checked to see if other parents were chaperoning parties in their homes. If she raised the question of alcohol use, the other parents often shrugged and said the kids were going to drink anyway. Better that it be under their roofs.
“They looked at me like I was nuts,” she said.
More than 50 parents of students at this private school met in its cafeteria Monday night for a panel discussion on underage drinking. What are the legalities? What can parents do to discourage it?
“I was kind of hoping to get some ideas on how to handle it,” said George M. Kemp of Virginia Beach, who’s struggled over the issue with his 17-year-old son. “Prohibition doesn’t work.”
Maybe not, but don’t give up, panel members told the crowd.
For one thing, giving or even unintentionally allowing your children to use alcohol – such as by retreating upstairs behind a closed bedroom door while the kids party unsupervised downstairs – is against the law, reminded Judge James H. Flippen Jr. of Norfolk’s Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court. It’s called contributing to the delinquency of a minor. And it’s punishable by up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.
“It’s serious business,” the judge said.
Helping children “get used to” drinking before they, say, head off to college sends a confusing and immoral mixed message, said Michael L. Goodove, a lawyer and president of the local chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
MADD calls for zero tolerance for underaged drinking. Goodove’s brother was killed at college by an underaged drunken driver. Parents, he and the other panel members said, need to repeatedly talk with their children about why drinking is inappropriate as well as illegal for them.
But don’t try horror stories – they won’t work on savvy teens, said Richard H. Jaglowski, a therapist who’s coordinator of the Child and Adolescent Program at Maryview Psychiatric Hospital.
A firm, consistent and honest stand against their drinking – parents can at least control their own homes – and a game plan to deal with slip-ups is what’s needed.
“There’s nothing you can do to stop your child from drinking,” Jaglowski told the parents. “Nine out of 10 kids, by the time they reach 17, have had alcohol. Forty percent have tried marijuana.
“The only way that’s not going to happen is if you Velcro your kid to your hip.”
Mary Gauthier knows this. The mother of four teenagers and a Norfolk Collegiate faculty member, she regrets not taking a harsher stand when she caught her oldest son with a beer in ninth grade. She cared too much about what her children thought of her.
Years later, on one of the son’s visits home, friends came over late. There was drinking that Gauthier didn’t know about until one of the son’s underaged college friends drunkenly called her the “coolest mom” because she didn’t get angry.
“I was really ashamed of myself,” Gauthier said.
The National High School Senior Survey, an annual study by the University of Michigan, showed in 1995 that illegal drug use was rising among American high-schoolers, and alcohol use was remaining fairly stable, although increasing slightly for seniors.
In 1995, almost 81 percent of seniors had tried alcohol, and 55 percent of eighth-graders had. Thirty percent of 12th-graders had had five or more drinks in a row in the two weeks before the survey; 15 percent of eighth-graders had. More than 63 percent of the seniors had been drunk at least once in their lives, and more than a quarter of the eighth-graders had.
Students at Monday’s discussion agreed that alcohol was prevalent – at parties, driving around, at homes after school when parents weren’t home. Start alcohol education when children are 11 and 12, they said. Talk to children, but don’t come down too hard – they’ll rebel, the youngsters said.
Parents were hoping for more answers. “We know our kids are going to drink,” said Stephen B. Ballard Sr. of Norfolk. “I did it. I imagine nine out of 10 here did it.”
“It’s a tough issue,” the father of two said later. “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
One of his friends serves alcohol to teens, Ballard said. Going the other way, parent Kemp and his wife stopped drinking at home, believing that setting responsible examples was the key.
Roz Klein’s oldest child is 14, so it’s still easy for Mom and Dad to lay down a black-and-white line concerning alcohol. But it won’t always be, Klein acknowledged.
“I agree with one of the parents who said your kids aren’t going to like you no matter what, so you might as well do what’s right.”