Any parent who has ever waited up for a teenager to come home in the wee hours could sympathize with Tony Blair last week. The British Prime Minister's 16-year-old son, Euan, had gone out with friends to celebrate the end of exams and was late in returning.
The clock ticked. Then the phone rang. Euan had been found drunk on a sidewalk in London's Leicester Square. Because he is under the legal drinking age, he was arrested.
British politicians and columnists, many of them parents themselves, wisely treated the Blairs with compassion. Mr. Blair himself described his eldest son as "basically a good kid." He spoke for many parents on both sides of the Atlantic when he said, "I look at my kids growing up and there is so much for them, so many things they can do that we could never do, but there are also big problems and challenges there. It's tougher."
In the United States, underage drinking has become widely accepted by teens and parents alike. Patricia Hersch, author of "A Tribe Apart: A Journey Into the Heart of American Adolescence," finds that teenagers see drinking and drugs as a normal part of adolescent life. Similarly, adults shrug and tell her, "Oh, teen drinking has always been around."
True. But what has changed, Mrs. Hersch finds, is not only the pervasiveness of drinking and drugs, but the younger and younger ages - often 12 or 13 - at which students start indulging.
Among parents, she sees a "dangerous convergence" of views. Adults, she says, tend to see some drinking as a rite of passage - "to sort of wink at it." Yet those adults fail to understand that this is "not a rite of passage but a way of life for adolescents."
That way of life affects everyone. Parents, Hersch says, "fool themselves with a false sense of security when they say, even if they're correct, that their child does not do [drugs or alcohol]. For children who are not doing anything, their amusement for the evening is to watch those who are, because they're so funny." She is saddened that out-of-control behavior becomes "the focal point of amusement, rather than the sheer pleasure of human companionship."
Where do underage teens get all this alcohol? From older siblings and friends. From liquor stores that sell to minors. And from parents themselves.
Hersch calls this parental role "a dirty secret that nobody wants to talk about." Many underage students are being served alcohol by parents. Again and again, she hears parents complain about "how difficult it is, if not impossible, to stop parents from serving other kids."
Parents also send mixed messages to teens, she says, when they allow children to host parties when adults aren't home.
Even the idea of a designated driver sends conflicting messages. Teenagers give Hersch their own creative definitions of the term. Some say they designate "whoever is the least drunk of all of us." Others tell her, "I knew he wasn't too drunk to drive because he could put the key in the ignition." Or, "I knew he wasn't too drunk to drive because he could find his own car."
For Euan Blair, an evening of drinking ended only in embarrassment. For other teens, it can lead to tragedy. Three weeks ago, a 17-year-old boy who grew up in our middle-class suburb west of Boston was killed when the car in which he was riding crashed. The teenage driver had been drinking.
In a new survey, 54 percent of teens in our community say they engage in illegal drinking. They also note the popularity of binge drinking. The findings mirror patterns across the country.
To reduce underage drinking, a group of local teens will soon distribute a new guide for parents, encouraging them to be more active in combating the problem. It recommends "family pledges." It also calls for a network of parents to band together to enforce a newly adopted zero-tolerance policy on underage drinking in town.
Zero tolerance may not be possible if adults send confusing signals themselves. But creating a network of adults could be a promising first step. As
Hersch says, "Any set of parents cannot handle adolescence alone. It does require that village."
She gets an increasing number of calls from colleges about alcohol. Students who have been drinking all through high school, when there are restrictions, get to college, where there are no restrictions, and "go nuts," she says. "It's horrible."
Simply dismissing teenage drunkenness as a "rite of passage," or labeling it "perfectly normal," as one British family expert did, confers a quiet, if inadvertent, stamp of approval.
Euan Blair learned a hard lesson last week that will probably serve him well in coming years. Now, if the spotlight can shift from10 Downing Street to young drinkers everywhere, his experience could serve a larger purpose, calling attention to a youthful social pattern long hidden in the shadows.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society