Parental Discretion Advised

While it made the national news, it was even bigger news in the area where I live.  It seems that Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler was photographed at a “Beach Week” celebration last summer.  For those not from the mid-Atlantic states, Beach Week is the post high school graduation tradition of renting a beach house on the Delaware or Maryland shore and “partying” to celebrate the end of high school.  I’m sure there are similar exploits in other parts of the country even if the name is different.  According to Mr. Gansler, he was there to pass on some information to his son who was a part of the gathering.  The problem is that it is highly likely (especially when one looks at the pictures) that significant underage drinking was taking place.  Back to that in a minute.

You should also know that Mr. Gansler is running for the Democrat’s nomination for governor of Maryland and a number of unusual anecdotes and stories about him have been appearing in the news lately.  His supporters claim it is a “dirty tricks” campaign from his primary opponent, the current Lieutenant Governor.  I do not intend to get into the politics of the situation, but in the name of full disclosure, that is probably how this issue came to the public’s attention in the first place.

The real question to me is the role of parents in supervising their children and what they allow and do not allow them to do.  For now I will ignore the fact that Mr. Gansler is the senior law enforcement officer for the state of Maryland and that underage drinking is against the law.  (He claims that he did not know such activity was going on and that regardless, he had no jurisdiction in Delaware.)

So the question remains, what was his role as a parent?  This issue came up in my own neighborhood this past summer.  It became apparent to some in our neighborhood that underage drinking was occurring on some community owned property (basically a park).  The Home Owner’s Association wanted to put an end to the activity and proposed hiring off-duty police officers to randomly patrol the area on likely “party” nights.  Seemed like a good idea — not!  I could not believe (or understand) the reaction from a vociferous portion of the neighborhood (many with teenage children) in strong opposition to hiring anyone to patrol the area.  The arguments against it broke down to two major objections.

First, the police would “hassle” their children.  I was appalled that the initial reaction of parents would be that the primary focus of the police is to make life hard on their kids.  Trying to present the fact that community policing efforts actually enhance the relationship between the police and neighborhoods and their residents (everyone gets to know everyone and incidents go way down, and those that do occur are de-fused quietly).  No!  The police, the argument went, would be out to “get” their kids.  Hmmm.  Pointing out that if their kids were doing nothing wrong there would be no reason for them to interact with the off-duty officers and thus there would be no “hassling”  was also rejected,  That is when the light went on for me.  I realized that the parents in opposition were actually talking in code.

Thus the second and more important of their arguments dawned on me.  The code words were “safe” “experiment” “learn from their mistakes” “blow off some steam” and others like them.  In other words, some of the most vociferous parents knew (or would rather not be confronted with the fact) that their kids were partaking in underage drinking.  Ahhhh.  Now I get it.  When asked about drinking and driving, vandalism, accidentally falling down and hurting themselves, or some unwanted physical activity the response was always that our kids are “good kids” and would never do anything like that.

In the end the community did not hire the off-duty officers and the opposition parents formed a committee to check on the area at night.

Thus Mr. Gansler’s actions or inactions become relevant.  What is a parent’s responsibility when it comes to underage drinking?  I’ve found that many parents take the approach that it will happen anyway and so they would rather it happen in a controlled (“safe”) environment and thus those parents condone it.  To me, that is a short-sighted outlook.  Besides instilling in their children the idea that they do not have to follow the law, those parents are opening themselves up to the possibility of tremendous heart-break.  There are just way too many stories of high school and college underage drinkers hurting themselves or others or partaking in sexual activities that all regret (or bring charges forward) afterwards or some other life changing event.

Many parents want to be “popular” and allow it.  Probably more accurately many parents want to give their children the freedom to learn from their own experiences including the “mistakes” that they make.  Give them their independence.  I’m all for that — but there are limits to a teenager’s level of experience and more importantly, limits to their judgement.  That’s where the parent needs to step in and prevent something awful from happening.  In our neighborhood, warnings such as those were considered some kind of disparagement of their children and greatly resented.  In Mr. Gansler’s case he argued that he had no responsibility for other parent’s children, only his own who, he said, he knew was not drinking.

Look.  I made my share of mistakes when I was young. as most of us did.  But mine were certainly never condoned, much less encouraged, by my parents.  I’ve also had my share of “learning experiences” raising our son, but he understood that underage drinking was a serious problem that would not be tolerated.

Parenting is hard — perhaps the toughest and most important job that any of us will ever undertake.  The use of alcohol by minors is a problem and is not an issue that parents can abdicate.  While I’m sure he would rather this never become an issue to him, especially on a national level, I thank Mr. Gansler for creating a national dialogue on the dangers of underage drinking and a parent’s responsibility in dealing with it.

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