Young Teen, Poor Choices

Q: This year, my 14-year-old son started a new, academically-driven private high school. He became friends immediately with his peer group on the football team, and we’ve allowed him some new freedom to hang out at their homes and spend the night a couple of times. We made it clear that this is his opportunity to choose the right friends from the start, because in middle school he had some undesirable friends that we didn’t allow him to socialize with. He has always been an excellent student and athlete, but hasn’t had much of a social life outside of school since we restricted his friendships.

Recently, we discovered that our son was drinking at one of the new friend’s homes, and that several of these new football friends have poor reputations. I am at a loss for how to deal with this latest dilemma. I don’t want to restrict friendships forever, but clearly he is not responsible in this area. I think the drinking itself is an isolated event, but he was bragging about it to some old friends at church, and they expressed concern that this is his new normal (thinking that drinking is cool). I’m concerned that continuing with these new friendships will lead to more undesirable behavior.

A: This is the age-old question that has plagued parents: How to get kids to choose the right friends. From family to family, the definition of “right” friends changes slightly, but for the most part, most parents want their kids to have friends who are positive and adhere to the family’s values in word and deed.

But that desire often conflicts with a teen’s desire to choose his own friends, forge to his identity and live his own life. As a teen tries on different personas to see where he fits into the high school social scene, he will often make mistakes and pick the wrong crowd or the right crowd for the wrong reasons.

While your intentions were good, I think you might have jumped the gun a bit to allow him new freedom without investigating whether or not these new friends were the sort that you wanted him to hang out with. Not that I’m blaming you for his actions—I’m just pointing out that it’s our job as parents to ask questions, hard questions, and to hold off on some of the freedoms (like spending the night, for example) until you get to know the kids in question a bit more.

My answer to questionable friends is to invite them to your house. Open your doors and have the kids in your basement. Check in frequently but not obnoxiously. Have them over for dinner in small groups. Talk to them—not grilling them, but see what they’re interested in. Teenagers respond to genuine interest and concern like anyone else.

For the drinking, I’d sit your son down and have a hard talk about underage drinking. In fact, I’d be grounding him for at least a month—this is serious stuff, and while he might have made a fairly innocent mistake, his bragging shows he’s aware that it wasn’t right for him to drink alcohol. I’d also call the parents of teen whose house they drank in to say this is what your son said. Not to point fingers, but to inform them. Then your son doesn’t go over there again, period.

During your short, but hard, talk, I’d also let him know the stakes—that you’re serious about his obeying the law. He might try to brush it off (“It’s no big deal, Mom!”) but you don’t let that sway you. In fact, even if you or your husband drank as a teen, you don’t tell him that. It’s not important to the conversation.

But you also let him know that you realize mistakes can be made, and that you will pick him up anytime, anywhere with no questions asked at that time. You want him to call or text you when he needs help.

Finally, make sure you are spending time with him, one on one, to talk about what he wants to talk about. We take our kids individually out for breakfast with mom or dad on a regular basis to reconnect and give them that personal time. Do things for him that he likes, make sure he’s contributing to the family with chores, and love him as much as you can.

The Path to Hosting Your Teen’s Drinking Party Starts in Childhood

A few days ago, a Bethesda, Md., high school principal begged parents to stop playing host to teenage parties that featured alcohol. According to a Washington Post story, Walt Whitman High School Principal Alan Goodwin sent an email to parents on Nov. 6 saying, “Parents, as we get close to another weekend, please do not host an underage drinking party as apparently some of you did last weekend. This must stop.”

Before we had kids, none of us think we’ll become those parents, the ones who don’t seem to notice when their child runs amok in a restaurant, breaks the china knickknack, or smears sticky substances on your silk blouse. I doubt any parent would gaze into their newborn son or daughter’s eyes and say, “We love you so much that when you’re in high school, Mommy and Daddy will let you drink beer, wine or even hard liquor in our own home, with your friends!”

If we didn’t start out with the intention of becoming a parent who would turn a blind eye—or actively encourage—law-breaking in the form of underage drinking, then how did we get to the place when a high school principal hears enough rumors of parental acceptance of underage drinking that he sends a school-wide email pleading with parents to stop hosting such gatherings?

Image courtesy of photostock/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of photostock/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

We focus too much on a child’s happiness. If making our child happy is one of our top goals as parents, then we tend to overlook misbehaviors because correcting a child causes “unhappiness.” When we’ve spent a child’s entire life removing obstacles to his or her “happiness,” then it’s a very small step to handing your now 16-year-old a beer.

We want to be a “cool” parent. While we might not admit it to ourselves, parents at times resemble high school students—we want to be thought of as the “in” mom or the “with it” dad. And allowing our high schooler to participate in activities that skirt or outright thumb a nose at the law does raise our coolness factor in the eyes of some teens. However, what it doesn’t do is provide the type of guidance and role model our teenagers need.

We want to be our teen’s friend. Parenting a teenager has its own set of challenges as the teen begins the necessary journey of pulling away from her parents, while mom and dad transition into the role of mentor. But we often make the mistake of wanting to be friends with our teens when they still need us to be the parent-adult in charge. Friendship with our kids comes a bit later in life; rushing in to that stage too soon can potentially damage the future (and present) relationship.

We parent in the present, not the future. Too many times we are thinking only of the here-and-now when raising our kids, when we should be parenting with our eyes firmly fixed on the future. If we keep in mind who we want our kids to be at age 30, it will inform our decisions today with clarity and conviction. I doubt the parents who have hosted teenage drinking parties thought, “I really hope my son will skirt the law in his job when he’s on his own!” or “Learning that rules aren’t made for her is the best thing for my daughter’s future.”

If we remember that parenting is not cool and that our child’s happiness isn’t the best barometer to follow, then we will be well on our way to being the mom and dad our children need—not the friend who hands them a beer.

Until next time,

Sarah

Underage Drinker

Q: My daughter is in her second year at college who recently came home with six of her friends over fall break. All six are 19. Things were going well until the last night. The girls were heading out to a local festival, and my husband left to attend a football, where I would join him after having dinner with the girls.

But it turned out that when I arrived at the game, I couldn’t find parking, so I returned home to find the girls still home and a cooler full of beer and a bottle of vodka sitting on the kitchen counter. Calling my daughter downstairs, I asked why she had the alcohol.

To my surprise, she snatched it off the counter and ran upstairs, saying that I couldn’t have it because it wasn’t mine.

Naturally, I followed her upstairs. When she wouldn’t come to my room to talk about this in private (the other girls were around), the conversation went something like this:

Me: “It’s disrespectful to drink in our house.”

Daughter: “We’re not going to drink it here but elsewhere.”

Me: “Great! Even dumber. Do you know of the rule for open containers in our state? The whole car can get cited. What kind of parent would I be to just overlook the alcohol and say, ‘Hey do you need some diet coke with your vodka?’”

She decided to put it away and assured me that they weren’t going to drink it. But I know they drink while away at college, so I printed out and gave her the medical reasons why the drinking age is 21, and also the state law pertaining to open alcohol containers.

I am pretty frustrated, but because I really don’t know what I should have said differently and if I should continue the conversation or just let it go. Help!

Image courtesy of Naypong/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Naypong/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A: Unfortunately, many parents react like you did when confronted with a child doing something wrong. Instead of acting, they, like you, talk about the misbehavior. You discussed why she shouldn’t drink as if she was a rational human being instead of a teenager making the wrong decision. Instead of confiscating the alcohol, you let her keep it and handed her a sheaf of paper listing why she shouldn’t drink it. But that’s water under the bridge now. While you can’t do anything about her drinking in college, here’s what you can do.

  1. If ever she has alcohol on her person or in her possession while in your home or vehicle, you take it and pour it out immediately. That’s it. She’s breaking the law and you could be held accountable for her actions while she’s in your house or car with alcohol.
  2. Instead of pointing out why drinking at 19 isn’t a good idea (and believe me, she knows she’s breaking the law!), tell her calmly that if she chooses to drink at college, that’s her business.

But–and this is a huge but–if she gets into any trouble relating to her drinking (on campus, off campus, while at home on break, etc.) whether she’s with friends who are imbibing or tossing back vodka shots on her own (in other words, if alcohol is involved in any way, shape or form to the trouble), then you are not going to pay for her college for at least an entire year, maybe more. If you’ve already paid for the current semester, she can stay. But you are not paying one more dime for at least 12 months until she’s proven she understands how to obey the law by not drinking. And then stick with it.

Yes, she might manage to drink and not get into trouble, but this should show her how serious you take her underage drinking is.