The Washington Post Magazine's July 30 cover story, "Are You a Toxic
Parent?" presented an attitude about parents who take a reality-based
approach with their teens concerning alcohol. These parents, rarely
discussed rationally, are demonized by those who do not understand
their attempts to keep their teenagers safe by allowing alcohol
consumption at home as a strategy for preventing drunk driving. This
view--also the official one--is encapsulated in the piece's accusatory
I found the Washington Post's presentation of these loving and
concerned parents who live in the real world and know their teens are
going to drink unfair. They know thousands of teenagers die every year
from alcohol poisoning or alcohol-related accidents, sometimes just
weeks after leaving home for college. These parents are making tough
decisions and have found that trust and open communication is a more
effective strategy than one-dimensional "Just say No" speeches.
During my high school years, my home was a place where my friends and
I could drink beer with my parents standing by just a few feet away.
Here is how it worked.
On Friday night, my friends and I--ages 15 to 17--gathered in my
backyard with a case of beer and some wine coolers. We assembled in a
shed in my backyard, sat on couches and listened to Bob Marley music.
After some time, without warning, the light in the room flicks on and
off. All of the laughing stops and there is silence. I tell everyone
to chill and walk outside of the shed, across my backyard, up to my
parents' bedroom window.
My dad opens the window to his room and tells me, "Keep it down out
"Okay daddy, we will," I assure him.
I return to the shed, smile at my friends and say, "turn the music
down." Most of my friends have been here before and know the routine.
One of the girls at the shed for the first time can't believe my
parents are just a few feet away in the house.
My parents did know that we were drinking in the shed. They
understood that my friends and I, along with half of my high school classmates,
had consumed alcohol and tried marijuana. Although they would have
preferred that we didn't drink alcohol or smoke marijuana they
decided it was better to have us close by, safe in the backyard where they
could keep track of us instead of having us drinking in public and
could make sure that we were not drinking and driving.
During my teenage years in Santa Cruz, California, I always
appreciated my parents for allowing my friends and me to hang out in
the shed in the backyard. Neighborhood kids spent thousands of hours
in that shed. We would meet there after surfing. We would meet there
before going out on the weekend.
It is only now, 15 years later, that I understand and respect how
brave and protective my parents' actions were. I say "brave" because
my parents were breaking the law and could have been arrested and
prosecuted for allowing us to drink at their house. I say
"protective" because they knew that having us in the backyard kept us safe, away
from the much more risky activity of drinking and driving around town
like so many other teens.
While most parents hope that their teenagers will not drink alcohol
or smoke marijuana, the reality is that 75 percent of high-school
seniors will have tried alcohol by the time they graduate, and 50 percent
will have tried marijuana. In addition to allowing us to drink beer in the
backyard, my parents made it clear that my friends and I could always
call them for a ride home from a party. I understood clearly that they
much preferred a call from an intoxicated teenager asking for a ride
home than a drunk teenager driving his drunk friends home.
"Just Say No" is a nice slogan, but hardly a sufficient strategy for
protecting our young people. Despite millions of dollars worth of
scare tactic ads telling kids that smoking pot will fry their brains
like an egg, half of all 18-year-olds will end up "Just Saying
Sometimes" or "Just Saying Yes."
My parents' goal for their two kids was not to practice the
unrealistic mission of abstinence, but to keep us safe by engendering
responsibility. In this regard, they were incredibly successful.
Their two kids never got into trouble with the law and never got into an
accident or a fight that involved alcohol. We learned how to drink in
a way that didn't lead to injury to others or ourselves.
Now as I start my own family, I am thankful for the example set by my
parents and their wisdom. I look forward to talking honestly and
openly with my children about alcohol and drugs in a way that, above
all, will keep them as safe as possible.