My letter to fellow parents about sex, drugs, and alcohol

kids smokingLet me set this up: my son’s in 7th grade and so far things are moving along smoothly, with us parents having created a reasonably respectful community where we can talk about things, socialize on occasion and generally help nurture each other’s children as we all go through the first steps of our children’s adolescence.

But there’s more going on when our children hit the teen years, and the pressures and opportunities for mischief get considerably more dangerous. It’s not about stealing a candy bar from the local market or sneaking a kiss, it’s scoring a fifth of cheap whiskey for a party, it’s pushing your girlfriend to “go all the way”, it’s driving while drunk. Big serious stuff, and kids are never prepared for the reality of these situations or their consequences.

13 might seem crazy young, but the stats are rather sobering. According to

  • 5.5% of 10th graders regularly smoke cigarettes, and 10.3% of 12th graders smoke
  • 6.4% of 8th graders consume alcohol (5 or more alcoholic beverages in a two week period), 10.4% of 10th graders and 21.6% of 12th graders
  • 31.6% of 9th graders have had sexual intercourse, 40.9% of 10th graders, 53% of 11th graders and 62.3% of 12th graders.
  • 8.9% of 14-15 year olds and 10.6% of 16-17 year olds report at least one major depressive episode (e.g. major depression)

Add these up and whether you’re in an upper class suburban enclave or in a more rural or urban setting, there’s a lot brewing for our children and a whole lot they’re being exposed to that we parents are generally clueless about.

As a result, another parent and I have been hosting parent evenings where we seek to get everyone together from my son’s 7th grade class and talk candidly about parenting and issues related to school, culture, dating, field trips, parties, etc.

For our second parent evening, the subject is one that should be popular: sex, drugs and alcohol. Except so far only one parent has said they’re showing up.

What the deuce?

There’s precious little point in having a conversation about these big topics without participation, so I’ve just sent out a letter entreating parents to join us and talk about each of our approaches to these big topics and how we might work together to support our children surviving adolescence with minimal bad consequences.

Here’s what I wrote (slightly edited for privacy reasons):

Hi everyone. As you know, we are co-hosting another parent discussion evening on Sunday, this time where we’re planning on talking about the dangers of adolescence that our children are starting to face, and are certainly going to be dealing with over the next few years: sex, drugs, and alcohol. (yeah, we’ve been saying rock ‘n roll, but I’m more worried about alcohol than bad musical choices, personally).

I’m sending out this additional message to really encourage each family to send at least one parent to our discussion.
Because these issues are all going to come up in the next few years, whether our kids are making the decision to do something dangerous/stupid or whether they’re around others who are doing so. We parents are going to hear about it, and hear about which other children are involved in these activities.
The result? Potential conflict and upset, parents angry at each other / judging each other, and an unpleasant situation.
That’s why I believe passionately that it’s *now*, before we have to deal with the problems, that we parents can best have a candid and respectful discussion about these possible scenarios and perhaps work towards some consistent rules of behavior and class-wide behavior and activity agreements.
For example:
   * Our children are 13 (or just about). Is it okay for them to go on one-on-one dates? Evening dates?
   * Can your child watch an R rated movie at someone’s house?
   * Do you drink in front of your children? Do you let them sample your alcoholic beverages?
   * Do you smoke cigarettes or weed in front of your kids, or with them knowing you do it?
   * If you host a party for the children at your house, will you be present the entire time? Can kids sneak into the basement?
There are a lot of pitfalls, and I can tell you from discussions I’ve had with other teen parents that it’s considerably more serious once children get to high school. Instead of theory, instead of worrying about kids sharing a beer, it can be a bottle of vodka or whiskey, driving while drunk, them buying and smoking weed and sleepovers that are really just cover for a late night tryst. And pregnancies and STDs.
I promise, we’ll end sharp at 6pm, but if you think none of this is relevant to your little angel, well, I fear you have a bit surprise on the way, and that’s why it’s great that our school counselor and 7th grade teacher are both going to join us, to share their experience and recommendations on how we as a parent community can best create safe boundaries, honor the adolescent journey our children are just beginning, and continue to foster an environment of mutual respect so we can have difficult conversations when they arise.
We really hope to see many parents join us Sunday afternoon. No RSVP needed, just show up!

Now whether we get a good turnout, we’ll have to see. But for my part, my son’s social, he’s charming, handsome, and definitely interested in getting into mischief. Probably with other kids in his class. So I personally want to know that their parents and I can talk candidly if issues come up or situations arise, not just get into shouting matches on the phone.
For those of you who have children in the teen years, how have you tried to create a culture of empathy and mutual support in your parent community? Or have you?

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