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Graduation & Prom Drinking

Apparently prom season and graduation time is coming up, because the scary statistics that always accompany this time of year are also starting to appear. Now before the angry comments start filling my queue, I’m not encouraging drinking at either, and especially not drinking and driving, no matter what the occasion. There are, however, some curious features about this time of the year about how we still try to scare our kids into staying sober for prom and graduation that bear scrutiny.

The first missive of Spring comes from Join Together, with the requisite scary headline School Nurse: It’s Not OK to Give Teens Alcohol for Prom and Graduation. Apparently, we’re more likely to listen up if it’s coming from the school nurse. And while I recognize that in many states it’s actually illegal to give your own underage kids alcohol, I’m pretty sure that these days it’s almost always illegal to give alcohol to kids who are not your own. But that’s all year round, and I have to believe that most adults who engage in purchasing or furnishing alcohol to their kids or their kids’ friends at this time of the year, do so with the full knowledge that what they’re doing is not acceptable in today’s social climate, not to mention its illegality.

But here’s the thing, the news report by the school nurse is based on another study, by an insurance company no less, and that headline is Study Shows 90 Percent of Teens Admit Stronger Likelihood of Drinking and Driving on Prom Night, Yet Less Than One-Third See Dangers. According to Liberty Mutual’s study, in “a national survey of more than 2,500 eleventh and twelfth graders, 90 percent of teens believe their counterparts are more likely to drink and drive on prom night and 79 percent believe the same is true for graduation night. Yet, that belief does not translate to concern, as only 29 percent and 25 percent of teens say that driving on prom night and graduation night, respectively, comes with a high degree of danger.” They claim that’s “new research,” as if we didn’t know teenagers believe themselves immortal and are likelier to take risks than the more mature segment of the population. It’s one of the features of being a teenager. But okay, it’s not bad advice to remind teens about the difference between perceived risks and reality, but it’s just so heavy-handed, so black and white. They’ve been using the same scare tactics since I was going to prom over thirty years ago. Here’s the latest version:

[T]here were 380 teen alcohol-related traffic deaths during prom and graduation season (April, May and June) in 2007, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. And the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reports 1,009 total teen fatalities (alcohol and non-alcohol-related) in motor vehicle crashes during those same months in 2008.

Alarmingly, parents may be unwitting enablers of teen drinking and driving: more than one in three teens (36 percent) say their parents have allowed them to attend parties where it is known that alcohol will be served, and 14 percent say their parents have, in fact, hosted such teen gatherings.

But it just strikes me as the razor blade in the apple. Every Halloween, that story gets trotted out to scare kids into being responsible about accepting candy from strangers during the holiday that’s designed for just that. As a kid, I remember being nervous about that the first year, but after hearing it over and over again, and never once seeing any real proof of a razor in an apple, any meaningful fear tended to dissipate. I can’t be the only adult who remembers that as a child there was a great sense that adults were constantly lying to us about the dangers of the world, among many other things less threatening.

But let’s look at those scary statistics. According to the U.S. Census Bureau in 2008, there were 21,469,780 prom-age teenagers in America. So that means 0.0017% died in “alcohol-related traffic” accidents and 0.0046% in “alcohol and non-alcohol-related” traffic accidents. Now as a parent, I agree that even one needless death is too many, and I’d be inconsolable if it happened to one of my children. But the point is that the danger is relatively low compared to other dangers every person in the world faces every day. That seems so obvious to me I’m not even going to go looking for those, because any rational person should recognize that.

Yet here we are again chastising parents for trying to do something about it that’s not just the knee jerk “just say no” total-abstinence policy that we’re so fond of here in the U.S. Our response is simply disproportionate to the true danger, and I can’t help but believe the reason is because it’s — gasp — alcohol and we’ve lost the ability to be rational about it.

The fact that according to the scary news reports, this is still claimed to be a huge problem nearly 30 years after MADD supposedly set everybody straight and awareness of the issue of drunk driving is at an all-time high, should convince anyone that there is nothing we can do to stop people, even underage kids, from drinking. Prohibition didn’t work. More awareness didn’t work. The “just say no” campaign didn’t work. Kids are still drinking now, as they did nearly 35 years ago when I graduated from high school.

Back in those dark ages, it was quite common for parents to be at high school parties where alcohol was being served, at least where I grew up in suburban Pennsylvania. And most of the other parents in the community were not only aware of it but supported it. I have to laugh when the modern reports refer to such situations as making the parents “unwitting enablers” when there was not one driving fatality from the dozens and dozens of such events I attended in my youth. Parents took keys, and wouldn’t let anyone drive home if they were unable to. It made things safer, despite this weird notion today that the opposite is true.

I recall one of the several graduation parties I went to as an 18-year old, the parents had a few kegs and even entertainment for us. The girl’s father was a movie projectionist and had a movie theater set up in their basement, and he was showing Young Frankenstein, which was only a few years old at that time (and this was in the days before videotape). It was great fun. I walked home that evening, retrieving my car the next morning. No harm, no foul. No one at that party got into any trouble. Imagine that?

Just lucky? Maybe, but I don’t think so. It was most certainly a different time, but that doesn’t mean the parents in my youth didn’t care about their children every bit as much as today’s parents. It feels quite insulting to read today’s adults, who were raised no doubt by loving parents, imply otherwise. You read these press releases, studies and propaganda and start to get the impression that any parent who gives their kid a drink is a monster. These same reports seem to see parents giving alcohol to kids in only one way, as completely irresponsible. But as with the other recent study I wrote about last week, there’s no suggestion that education could be part of it, or that parents might be better judges of how to raise their own children. Or that a party with alcohol that’s supervised could be preferable to kids drinking completely unsupervised, underground. Yet how could it not?

Yes, there’s no doubt our job as parents involves keeping our children safe, during prom season, graduation and every other time of the year, throughout their entire lives, really. But when it comes to alcohol, I’m quite tired of how the anti-alcohol abstinence policy seeps its way into every nook and cranny, particularly when it’s so ineffective. It doesn’t work on college campuses, where all it does is drive underage drinking underground, where it’s unsupervised and as a result far more dangerous. There’s no reason to believe it works any better at the high school level, either. High school kids often struggle with where they fit in society. They’re not really children anymore, yet they’re not quite adults, either. They often want to become adults faster than their parents and society will allow. It’s only natural. They see adults celebrate all manner of occasions — holidays, births, deaths, birthdays, achievements, good news, etc. — with alcohol. For them, the prom and graduation are reasons to celebrate. They want to be adults, they want to act like adults. So they want a drink, too. But many, if not most, are not ready to handle the personal responsibility that comes with drinking alcohol. In part, that’s because no one has taught them anything about how to accomplish that, and in fact even teaching them about alcohol is forbidden in many places and jurisdictions.

So when we instead keep creating policies that keep that status quo, in fact make it harder for parents to be in a position to supervise or educate their own kids about alcohol, I can’t help but wonder what’s really going on. It has to be more about control or ideology or something, because it’s not what’s best for the kids, despite being framed that way. It’s that old “it’s for the kids” canard that’s become so popular in anti-alcohol propaganda. But this goes even a bit further, as it tells parents not only to talk to their kids, not buy them alcohol and don’t let them drive after drinking — all good advice — but also that they shouldn’t do what they feel is best if it deviates from the party line (or perhaps “no party line”). It presumes all adult supervision is bad, and then tries to back up that claim with nonsense. It creates a black and white ideological world where only abstinence is approved. But it doesn’t matter how many more flawed studies or well-meaning advice from school nurses is doled out, “just say no” just doesn’t work. Could we please stop pretending it does, ignoring other approaches that might have a better chance at being effective? Why don’t we try “just say know” for a change. After all, school is supposed to be about learning, about preparing kids to become independent adults, productive members of society. Why not let that include a little alcohol education, too. That might go a long way toward keeping our youth safe on prom night and graduation, too.

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