"I'm not the parent I thought I'd be," one mother told me the morning after picking up her ninth-grade son from a party in Summit, New Jersey, one of the many affluent suburbs circling New York City, where we both live. He'd called the night before and implored her to get him right away, as fellow 14-year-olds were drinking. But after arriving to pick him up, the Mom didn't confront the parents angrily or demand to know what is going on! Instead, she exchanged pleasantries with the parent on duty, who was apparently oblivious to the vodka in the basement, and took her own kid home. "I didn't call the next day, either," she said.
Suzanne, who lives in New Vernon, New Jersey with 15-year-old Chrissy and younger son Matthew, remembered calling the hostess of an upcoming party and asking if alcohol would be allowed. The hostess assured her it would not. Lo and behold, alcohol turned up, and was widely consumed. "My dilemma became, do I call the mother back?" Suzanne told me. "I didn't," she said.
Others parents who spoke with me shared similar stories. Armed with good intentions, many parents blink when it's time to confront the adult chaperone who failed to supervise the Sweet 16, for a variety of reasons. They do it first to protect their relationship with their child. The Mom whose 9th-grade son called in a panic was sworn to secrecy by her own child: he didn't want his mother, of all people, making a stink. "If I'd called after he explicitly told me not to, I'd have jeopardized our relationship," she said. It was more important to her that they maintain trust and open communication -- so that he would pick up the phone and call again -- than that she speak to the parent who had allowed alcohol.
Parents also keep quiet to protect their child's social standing. Status for teenagers is a sacred and fragile condition. If Mom calls your best friend's mother to discuss the beer pong tournament, you -- the teenager -- risk ostracism. "Chrissy said, 'if you do that I'll never be invited back to another party.' And I believed her," Suzanne explained. "I had so much sensitivity to her social struggles that I decided not to put that on her shoulders." Suzanne believed that no matter how carefully she expressed herself to the hostess who served, that Mom might discuss the conversation indiscriminately in her own family, opening Chrissy up to retribution. "Parents are often careless about what they say around kids," Suzanne said. She kept quiet instead.
No one wants to be thought the town busybody, either. Though you might take perverse pleasure in dishing with close friends about the latest out-of-control party at someone else's house -- preferably, an enemy's -- that's a far cry from dialing a number and demanding answers. Much seems to depend on how well you know the party hosts: the more distant the relationship, the less likely you are to call. Even in the Facebook era, few of us have more than a handful of true friends -- another limit on how many calls we're likely to make.
And being honest with such a friend brings its own risks. Vicky's 11th grade daughter reported to her mother that her friend's son was well-known in school for drinking and smoking pot; he was frequently spotted puffing suspiciously in empty woods. Vicky decided to call the mother to tell her what was happening, believing that she'd want to know if her own son was in trouble. "She immediately got defensive and angry at me," Vicky said. "I was the bad guy for telling her, and she didn't believe it anyway. I learned from that to keep my mouth shut when I hear about someone else's kid," she added.
And if you bypass the parents entirely and go directly to the police? Karen, a Summit mother of two, explained what happened when she and her husband spoke to the police about a party where teenagers -- including theirs -- were drinking. "My daughter suffered social suicide as a sophomore in high school, because of what we did," she said. "Over the summer, we had a rock thrown through our window. That's how I learned about the code of silence," she said. "One of the women said to me, 'Let me tell you how it's run here.' They told their kids to run and deny the drinking. The parents would rather deal with it themselves," she added.
But "dealing with it yourself" -- by not calling out the parent who serves, or keeping quiet about the neighbor kid getting high in the woods, or adopting a don't-ask-don't-tell policy about underage drinking perpetuates the fiction that teenage drinking is a purely private matter. Volumes of studies and reports released by medical experts assert that reducing underage drinking requires a community effort: the Surgeon General's 2007 Call to Action to Reduce and Prevent Underage Drinking recommends that parents "partner with other parents in their child's network to ensure that parties and other social events do not allow underage alcohol consumption, much less facilitate its use," and suggests parents form coalitions to "ensure that the culture in the schools and community support and reward an adolescent's decision not to drink."
There's more. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism warns in a 2002 study that school-based anti-drinking programs must be "combined with extracurricular, family, and policy strategies that help change the overall social and cultural environment in which young people live to create sustained decreases in consumption and alcohol-related problems." The Department of Health and Human Services in 2011 advises parents to be sure that "schools and the community support and reward young people's decisions not to drink." What hope does our community and so many like it have if good parents go silent when their voices matter most? This is a town, after all, where every 10th grader at a recent Sweet 16 received a monogrammed water bottle shaped like a fifth for a party favor.
I've not yet received an anxious phone call from my teenagers asking to be rescued from an adult "supervised" drunken party, which has spared me the awkwardness of making that call -- or even testing my own intestinal fortitude for such confrontation. But knowing how much I value the bonds I've established with my children, I wonder if I'll be able to stand up to their threats and tears and call those parents when the time comes, which it surely will. Suzanne discussed the anguish she felt when she didn't contact the parents who had looked the other way, wondering if "I was violating my own sense of right and wrong." Who knows? When your teenager comes home from a party wearing socks soaked in Budweiser, then collapses in your arms and begs for your silence -- all while promising to never, ever drink -- it must feel like a battle between the child in your lap and the "community" out there. Even if the Surgeon General officiates, it's an unfair fight. The kid wins.
And yet...maybe that's defining the battle too narrowly. There's some buzz in town about a Morristown, New Jersey Dad who recently provided alcohol at a graduation party he hosted for 160 Deerfield Academy students, including his daughter. The kids got loud, police were called, and the cops busted 140 of them for underage drinking. According to the Daily Hampshire Gazette, every one of those kids must accept alcohol counseling or pay a fine and lose their license for 90 days, before heading off to college in the fall. I wonder if the man would have been so generous with the beverages if swarms of parents had been checking-in all week to make sure there'd be no drinking. Maybe all our kids would win the larger war if more of us parents dried our children's tears, gathered our courage, and called.