I used to feel superior to moms whose teens drank behind their backs. Then my own children reached high school and I developed my own perfectly imperfect alcohol policy. Read an interview with Lee Woodruff about her new book, Perfectly Imperfect.
Let me just say right off the bat: If you don’t have teenagers, if you believe that your children will obey everything you say, and that your kids will never experiment with any illegal substances, tell a white lie, or throw a party while you aren’t home—this article is not for you. And before you get all sanctimonious on me, just remember the lessons of Sarah Palin’s stance on abstinence and her recent grandmotherhood. Humans are, well, fallible.
This article is for the people who are parenting teens and tweens who are wrestling with the issue of alcohol and how to ultimately teach our children to drink responsibly. All of us in these shoes are grappling with what, if anything, to allow, absolutely forbid, or turn a blind eye toward.
I told my kids I knew one of their friends kept a Facebook tally of how many times he and his girlfriend had sex. I like to toss out this kind of info just to reinforce my omniscience.
Teenage drinking is the hot topic among any group of red-blooded American parents. We face giant challenges today. When I grew up, the drinking age was 18. My own senior in high school is old enough to legally fight and kill a human being in Iraq, but too young to pop open a beer at home.
Admittedly, the whole issue of teens and drinking is scary when you meld reality with the irrationality of the teenage brain, or when you juxtapose human nature with the law. What should be clear-cut—kids under 21 can’t drink—is not so in practice. Our country’s puritanical roots, prohibitionist past, and attitude toward alcohol creates a subculture of fake IDs, sneaking around, and, as one mom said to me, “forcing kids and their cars further into the woods to drink.”
When my sister’s kids were in high school and attending parties years before mine, I remember feeling superior. “I won’t let my kids do that,” I thought, smirking. Funny the navigating and editing you do, the concessions you make, a little here, a little there, when you actually arrive at that fork in the road.
Kids learn from watching us. They are quiet sponges. In my new book, Perfectly Imperfect, I write about the sudden realization that my then-16-year-old son had grown into himself. Long before high school, his dad and I had already given him our best stuff.
What we show our kids about drinking (the simple glass of wine with dinner or the four-martini neighborhood barbecue where mom stumbles home with a broken heel for a boozy goodnight kiss) have been keenly observed lessons years earlier. Do what we say, not what we do.
I admire the European model of drinking. Kids are offered sips or a glass of wine now and then with the family at the dinner table. They have a shot at viewing alcohol in moderation, as something laced into life, not locked away until a certain age. As my older kids became curious, I gave them sips of drinks—relieved when they were mostly disgusted. And I have tried to treat drinking as anything but the “great forbidden.” But I’ve also been careful. I don’t think any of my children has ever seen me tipsy.
I’ve shared my high-school stories of the times I had driven home from a party after a few drinks, the near-death moments I can still recall with spine-tingling clarity, the cars I got into and shouldn’t have but was too afraid to wake up my parents and ask for a ride. I’ve cast all these tales in the light of “we didn’t know any better back then.” But of course we did. We were teenagers. We were infallible, impervious.
I’m impressed with most of the kids I know that bustle in and out of my house today. I’m thankful that this circle of friends is involved in sports and other activities that hopefully temper their desire to get blotto every weekend. But how do we react and act with what we know is going on under our noses?
Do we have a zero-tolerance policy—one drink and you are grounded for life? Do we allow kids to come over and then take their keys and let them stay the night, turning a blind eye to what might be going on in the basement? I know moms who live in more rural areas and have adopted this policy. I’m not going to judge them for this. Do we let our kids out at night and believe that as long as they aren’t drinking on our property, we have no control? Do we buy our kids beer and leave it in the fridge so we know exactly what they are doing in a controlled situation?
Here is where I sit, because what good is an article like this if I don’t tell you my opinion and then cover my head while you all rain down reactions on me? I’m in the “don’t precisely ask but let them know you know” camp. There will be no drinking on my premises. Not allowed. I don’t want to condone it and I don’t want to end up in shackles making my only call to my lawyer. I want my kids to know that I’m aware they will drink at some point. They are mandated to come and kiss me good night when they get home, even if I’m asleep. They have been taught that I have an eye in the back of my head and am wired telepathically into every other high-school mom. I recently told my kids I knew one of their friends kept a Facebook tally of how many times he and his girlfriend had sex. Their jaws dropped in amazement when I casually mentioned this. “I don’t reveal my sources,” I say when they ask how I know. This kind of info is God-like. I like to toss it out there every now and then just to reinforce my omniscience.
Here is what I do when they go out: I ask where they are going, who they are with, who is driving. What time do they plan on being home? I make sure their cellphones are on and charged. I will ask if there is a designated driver. My son knows exactly what I am getting at.
I read somewhere that a teetotaling celebrity was forced by his dad to down a whole six-pack in one sitting after he was caught drinking. Supposedly he never drank again. I’m not sure the Great Santini method of parenting works like that for everyone. I don’t know what the right answers are at all times. Parenting a teen is the best formula out there for short cuticles, ulcers, and insomnia. As a parent, I feel I’m flying blind most of the time. But I also know just how much is out of my control. I figure if I am around as much as possible, if I listen, keep my ears open, talk and tap into the resources of other parents, I’m doing about as well as a mother today can.
The fact is that in four short months my son will be off at college and I will have very little control over any of this. I’d better hope he has his own ground rules, his own radar for what the smart choices are, a strong backbone against peer pressure.
“I don’t care what time of night it is or how far away you are, if you need a ride home from a party you call me,” I repeat. I picture myself in curlers and a bathrobe pulling up to the fraternity party in college a mere four hours away, or idling outside the Bada Bing strip joint when my son is 23 or 38. I’ll be there. No questions asked. It’s a form of unconditional love. It’s only by God’s grace I survived my own experimentation with drinking.
“Make smart choices,” my girlfriend says to her 18-year-old daughter every time she leaves the house and her daughter rolls her eyes. I’m going to bet someday when that daughter is a mom, she’ll say the very same thing.
Perfectly Imperfect, by Lee Woodruff, 256 pages. Random House $25.
Lee Woodruff is the life and family contributor for ABC’s Good Morning America and the author of In an Instant: A Family's Journey of Love and Healing.