This fall I read two stories in the Los Angeles Times that were so horrific and so similar in their details that I had to go back and check that they weren’t reporting the same event. They weren’t. In each case, an exemplary teenage boy – one a star football player and aspiring Eagle Scout, the other the student representative to his local school board and a reporter for his high school newspaper – had attended a certain kind of party and then died as a result of drinking. One boy had passed out and aspirated his vomit; the other had succumbed to alcohol poisoning. The parties – one in northern California, the other in South Pasadena – had been held in private houses where there was no adult supervision and at which a $5 admission price had been charged. Even the mechanism for determining which guests had paid the cover charge was the same: one boy died with a small black X written in felt pen on his wrist, the other wearing a proof-of-purchase bracelet. They were clearly a pair of terrific and well-loved kids, adolescents who had made a single, simple mistake and then paid a terrible price for it. The heartache that has attended their needless deaths – at the pitiably young ages of 16 and 17 – has been without end.
As a former high school teacher and the mother of two pre-teenagers, I am amazed at a strange hole in the safety net of contemporary parenting that seems to gape wider and wider each year. Today’s parents will chopper into school if they think their child has been given an unfair grade on a quiz; they will spend hours manipulating coaches to re-jigger the roster of an all-star team if their kid has been passed over; and they will take over simple school fundraisers – like wrapping paper sales and car washes – that are supposed to be the teenagers’ responsibility. In other words, they build a firewall between their children and all of the old disappointments and aggravations that are meant to prepare them for the big league disappointments and aggravations that are the stuff of adult life. But then when it comes to teenage drinking, to teenager partying in general – when it comes to the kinds of experiences in which kids can get into a huge amount of very real trouble, parents suddenly disappear into the wallpaper.
We work teenagers hard today: we expect so much of them on the playing field, in the classroom, in their endless extracurricular activities and community service projects. Then they tell us, very reasonably, that they need some freedom to go out and be kids, to just have some fun, and that’s where the breakdown takes place. Instead of insisting that we get as much information about the parties as we demand about the soccer team, we stand back and let them go, hoping for the best. They go to co-ed sleepovers where we have no idea what kind of supervision is in place, join social networking sites where they are often hectored into behavior and attitudes that are clearly not in their best interest, go to parties where would-be promoters charge entry fees and give them alcohol they can’t handle. Many of today’s teenagers are locked into a pattern of super achievement followed by super partying that is leaving them absolutely fried and exposing them to dangers that could all too easily be avoided. It’s our job to change this situation.
Teenagers need limits and boundaries, and (sorry to say) we are the ones who have to provide them. It won’t be easy for us; we are a generation of parents who place a high premium on the quality of our relationships with our teens. In part this stems from a laudable impulse: we love them so dearly, and we want to be close to them. In part it stems from something less noble: our horror at the prospect of becoming middle-aged, of turning into the washed out and comical supernumeraries of all the teen movies we once loved. But that is exactly what we are called upon to do.
The kids are going to fight us every minute about it, and that’s their job. Adolescents are forever delivering opening statements to the jury, twisting a set of facts that seem irrefutable into a completely different story. They don’t do it with the intention of tricking us. They do it because they honestly believe – bless their little hearts – that their stupid-ass plans are solid as Sears. They’re chips off the old block! Remember all the idiotic things you did as a teenager, exercises in the foolhardy and the improbable that you somehow managed to survive? They want to do those things, too. Because no matter how smart they are – no matter how much they’ve learned about the rain forest and the electoral college, and despite their invaluable knowledge about how to get our Earth, Wind and Fire play list superimposed onto our Work Out play list – they don’t know anything yet. Nothing at all. Why? Because they just got here. They’re in the Arrivals Lounge of life; they just cleared customs as hour ago. It’s our job to make sure they don’t get run over when they’re trying to catch their first taxi into town.
Here’s the bottom line, Parents of America: we’ve got to stop buffering teenagers from the normal disappointments of adolescence and start taking a very active role in the parts of their lives that they want to keep secret from us. Less bitching out the algebra teacher who gave Beavis a C+ (which was probably a gift), more insisting that Butthead can’t go to the party until you’ve had a good, long conversation with the adults who are going to be chaperoning that party. Otherwise, we abandon our children – whom we have spent years enfeebling with our endless harangues on sun block and bike helmets, our armamentaria of bubblegum flavored Motrin and no-fuss ear thermometers – at the very moment they need us most.
Caitlin Flanagan is the author of To Hell with All That. She is at work on Girl Land, an exploration of the emotional lives of pubescent girls.