Ellen Freeman Roth                      

Sunday Magazine
July 8, 2007

Cruel, But Less and Less Unusual

I'm the meanest mom. That's what my 15-year-old daughter says when I nix her plans to hang out at a friend's home without an adult present. Her father and I set that policy after learning that 97 percent of the parties in our town at which the police find underage alcohol consumption occur in homes with no adult present.

"But I don't drink!" my daughter protests, exasperated that we're short-circuiting her social life. It could seem that our measures are draconian to her, especially when she compares us with parents who tell their teens "Just make sure there's a designated driver," or those who allow their kids to drink at home where consumption can be monitored.

Some kids consider those parents to be the cool parents. But among those of us who remember Earth shoes, even those who smoked pot or drank alcohol in high school in the 1970s, uncool is gaining traction. Hundreds of us packed a meeting this spring in Weston to talk about risky youth behavior.

That's where we picked up the 97 percent figure; we also learned that 49 percent of high schoolers in Weston have used alcohol and 29 percent report binge drinking. The last speaker was a high school senior who pointed a finger back at us. He said that parents are leading the way to the liquor cabinet, since alcohol often figures heavily in our own fun, and that we unwittingly give our kids ample opportunity to drink.

I was hardly laissez-faire before, but I realized that there was room – and need, said the numbers – for more vigilance. So before hosting our 17-year-old son's after-prom party, we sent out a list of rules. My husband and I would search our guests' bags when they arrived and check anything retrieved from cars. We would turn on our burglar alarm to ensure there would be no sneak departures or arrivals. We prohibited kids from bringing in liquids, and we locked up our liquor. Maybe it was overkill – this was, after all, a gaggle of high school juniors who wanted to eat pizza and play Guitar Hero – but we were nearly as strict as the Transportation Security Administration officials at the airport.

Soon after, one mother wrote a front-page article in our local newspaper recounting the night this spring she was watching television, completely unaware that her 14-year-old daughter and two friends were getting drunk on vodka upstairs. Two of the girls had to be taken by ambulance to the emergency room. "It happened in my house, with me home, with the last minute planning done via text messages from the back of my car while I was driving them around," wrote the mom.

Teens in our town were appalled that the mother went public – talk about mean. But underage drinking is associated with death from injuries and alcohol poisoning, risky sexual behavior, physical and sexual assault, and alterations in the developing brain, according to a US Surgeon General's report released this year. The more rock-'n'-roll-era parents learn about the dangers of underage drinking, the more we're changing our tune away from "The Kids Are Alright." Now, it's "Won't Get Fooled Again."