- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 1, 2007

“Mom, you have to hear this message,” Katie said, handing me her cell phone. What followed were 30 or 40 seconds of gibberish.

“Whatever … [laughter] … hello? … [giggling] … no, wait … whatever … give me the phone.” The voices of three of Katie’s high school acquaintances babbled and slurred their way through the phone line until one of them finished the call with this ironic announcement: “I am not wasted. Really.”

“Wow,” I said. “If that wasn’t the sound of ‘wasted’ I’d like to hear the message after a few more beers.”

The phone message, delivered at 1 in the morning, is one Katie will forget quickly. Unfortunately, the teens who made that call probably will have even less recollection of it, given their obvious state of inebriation.

But whatever.

In our culture, teen drinking seems to be a rite of passage, like getting acne or a driver’s license. It’s just something all youngsters do — part of the rebellious years we parents are supposed to accept as normal adolescence.

Statistics from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, displayed on the Students Against Destructive Decisions Web site (www.sadd. org/stats.htm), tell us that 75 percent of American teenagers try alcohol in high school. Partying begins for some as early as seventh or eighth grade, with more than half of all teens establishing regular drinking habits by age 17.

Teen drinking, it seems, is the norm.

Happily, however, this is one area in which my teenagers aren’t normal. (As their younger brother would insist, there are many other areas as well. But I digress).

That’s right. Apparently, it is possible to make it to your junior year in high school — and (gasp) even graduate — without getting wasted, trashed, buzzed, loaded or plastered.

Now, before you put the paper down and decide I’m just some naive ostrich-mother, obliviously ignoring my teens’ age-appropriate experimentation, guess again. I’m a lot of things, but I’m not naive.

Besides, that sort of cynical attitude strikes me as one big reason why teens seem to have free rein to invade the liquor cabinet and mix up a refreshing batch of vodka and fruit punch (yuck). With adults all around them expecting them at least to try drinking, there’s not much reason to refrain.

Instead of the attitude that teen drinking was one more thing we would have to face, my husband and I put out the challenge to our children to buck the trend. We don’t demand perfection — in this or any area of behavior — but we figure just because the odds are against success, that doesn’t mean we ought to drop the bar of our ideal.

After all, the statistic on teen drinking isn’t 100 percent. Somebody, somewhere, is making it to 21 before imbibing adult beverages.

As with so much of parenting, I’m convinced that when it comes to drinking, we generally get what we expect. The new conventional wisdom about adolescents says we should count on them to rebel, to flagrantly ignore our parental commands and to talk back.

In fact, one child-development expert says teens need to talk back in order to assert their independence and explore their individuality. This guy says the job of parents is to help children talk back in ways that aren’t destructive to our relationships.

No. Really. Read that again.

(I’m not going to include this guy’s name out of concern for his safety. This kind of ridiculous assertion could get his house egged by a whole bunch of moms who are sick of being “dissed” by their own children.)

We shortchange our children when we drop our standards in this way. Instead of giving them ideals to reach, we give them excuses for failing to try.

Then we ought not wonder why teens talk back and later, with friends, toast their newfound independence with a case of beer swiped from mom and dad’s fridge.

Setting an expectation of success is just one half of the equation, however. The other half is the decision on the part of teens that an alcohol-free youth is worth the effort.

At some point, our daughters simply decided that whatever the social rewards might be of partying, they weren’t worth the commensurate loss of self-respect (and a hangover, to boot).

It turns out, according to my daughters anyway, that avoiding teen drinking isn’t all that complicated. Because everyone knows who the partyers are, it’s simply a matter of avoiding their parties. Once you decline an invitation or two, you get a reputation as someone who isn’t interested. You gravitate toward others who share your social style. You hang out. You have fun. You stay sober.

I’m willing to consider the possibility that I’m oversimplifying this issue. Teens drink for a host of reasons, from feeling insecure and desiring to fit in to succumbing to peer pressure and even, sadly, escaping depression. Clearly, the current generation of teens drinking to excess is yearning to quench a thirst — one that seems to be generating from the heart.

That’s a thirst parents need to address.

Then again, perhaps more of us should just decide not to give in to the prevailing assumption that all teens drink. When we stand confidently behind our children and communicate our belief that they can outperform the norm, they may take that challenge. It’s worth the effort because success and genuine self-esteem are the best high of all.

You never know — for more teens, sober could become the new normal.

Columnist Marybeth Hicks, a wife of 20 years and mother of four children, lives in the Midwest. She is the author of “The Perfect World Inside My Minivan One Mom’s Journey Through the Streets of Suburbia,” a compilation of her columns. She uses her column to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families nationwide. Visit her Web site (www.mary bethhicks.com) or send e-mail to marybeth.hicks@comcast.net.

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