But I kept an open mind when I was asked to read and comment on “Reality Gap: Alcohol, Drugs and Sex – What Parents Don’t Know and Teens Aren’t Telling.” The author, Stephen Wallace, will be headlining a forum March 6 at Gann Academy in Waltham about keeping teenagers safe.
Never has a book’s subtitle been truer. Parents end up in that cavernous reality gap more than a few times during a child’s adolescence. But what I liked about Wallace’s book is that it’s one-stop shopping: He addresses a number of tough subjects in one succinct volume.
Wallace has impressive bona fides as a school psychologist and an adolescent counselor. He has put his experience to effective use as the chairman and CEO of SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions). True to its roots as an organization originally founded to counter drunk driving, Wallace devotes a great deal of time and energy into plumbing the depths of the drinking epidemic among our teens.
But before he calls up statistics and programs, he establishes a hard truth. Most parents – I include myself as an occasional member of this group – tend to ignore information that runs counter to our positive perception of our children. This is called cognitive dissonance, and it’s a phrase that clangs around in my head. Am I really that unaware when it comes to my kids?
I no longer break into my children’s computers to look at their viewing histories. Yes, once upon a time I did that when they were in middle school to keep them safe. But my daughter and son are on the cusp of adulthood, and I’ve got to trust that Ken and I have done enough things right so that our children can make intelligent and moral decisions.
Role modeling for our kids is crucial. But as parents, we also need to be armed with information. Here are some basics that Wallace reports. Most of our kids’ risky behaviors fall into three broad categories: Avoiders, Experimenters and Repeaters.
Let’s use alcohol as an example to explain these descriptors. First, 80 percent of all high school students will have consumed alcohol by graduation. If you are the parent of a teenager, I’m willing to bet my mortgage that your teen has been to a party where there was drinking. My older teen has. As far as I know, she’s told me about most of the incidents. She’s certainly taken us up on our offer to pick her up with no questions asked when the presence of drinking has made her uncomfortable.
A kid who volunteers information and calls for a ride may be what Wallace describes as an avoider. Such teens have chosen to avoid alcohol for a number of reasons. Wallace cites religious beliefs as the prime motivator. But other kids are able to put the brakes on drinking long enough to think of the consequences. In theory, no one wants to throw away a thriving high school career for swigs of vodka and lemonade. That’s exactly the point: These kids have innately sound judgment.
But many avoiders can drift into the next category: experimenters. They’ll drink because their friends are drinking. They’ll drink because they’re curious about what it feels like to be buzzed.
If kids like that feeling, they may slide into the dangerous category of repeater. Note that most repeaters don’t drink just for the buzz. Drinking can be a form of self-medicating for anything from anxiety to low self-esteem.
I think drinking should be allowed in strict moderation at home during a holiday meal or a celebratory dinner. There’s no better way to demystify alcohol than to allow your child to have a glass under your supervision. Please, no e-mails about this; you know your child best, so this may not be the right choice for your family. But on Shabbat, Anna usually blesses the wine and then has a small glass with her meal. In doing so, I believe we’re teaching her restraint and limits. College is just around the corner for her, and drinking is a big part of college life that she’ll have to contend with.
I think our policy on alcohol falls in line with Wallace’s advice on transitioning a child into independence. Kids need limits throughout high school. Kids want limits so that they know how to create their own when parents aren’t there to supervise.
Wallace also addresses a situation that has tripped me up for a while. A lot of us were once experimenters and maybe even repeaters with alcohol or pot or sex. What you choose to share with your child is personal. But don’t feel that the adolescent decisions you made about sex and alcohol must influence your parenting. Our pasts shouldn’t necessarily influence our children’s futures.
As much as we’d like to be fair and open with our children, parenting is not always about parity. It’s about being wise and circumspect. And for Stephen Wallace, it’s about creating safety by establishing boundaries, regularly communicating and, as his book demonstrates, seeking out relevant knowledge.
Stephen Wallace will present his Parent Power program at Gann Academy in Waltham on Tuesday, March 6 at 7pm.