"You mean alcohol is really that much of a problem?" the mother of a ninth-grade student at a Columbia high school asked at her first meeting of the school PTSA's alcohol and drug committee.
She blushed, as I and other veteran committee members turned in amazement to stare at her.
"I trust my child. He's been to parties where kids were drinking, but he doesn't drink," the parent of another high school youth -- a senior -- said during a different discussion of underage drinking.
In my three-plus years on the committee, the one thing that has become clear is that parents who are too busy, or who just don't want to get involved, add up to massive denial of a very real problem. They ignore the fact that today, drinking is the social standard for teens, not the hidden aberration.
In the well-to-do Montgomery County community of Potomac, high school kids used three chartered buses, two hired by
parents, to take them from their homecoming dance to an unsupervised drinking party as a friend's home. County police finally broke it up and sent more than 70 kids packing. Later, one parent said she thought the bus was going to a supervised, non-alcoholic party. She was snookered, she said.
Recently, I and other members of our Parent Teacher Student Association committee telephoned several hundred parents of students to ask them to come to a meeting on alcohol and drug use among teens and hear what a Howard County health counselor and a police officer had to say. The phone calls followed a mailing notifying parents of the meeting.
Forty-two parents, including six committee members, showed up hear a police officer and a county health counselor declare that parents in Baltimore's affluent suburbs are in denial, especially about the drinking their "good kids" do.
Statistics roll off many of these parents like water off a duck's back. A 1992 state-sponsored drug and alcohol abuse survey, for example, showed that 65.5 percent of Howard County kids in grades six, eight, 10 and 12 had used beer or wine, and 20 percent of these students began to drink at age 10 or under.
The survey found that 31 percent of those kids reported having had five or more servings of alcohol on the same occasion, and this kind of binge drinking occurred for 21 percent before their 15th birthdays.
In addition, the survey showed that while nearly every kid knows he or she should not accept a ride home from a party if the driver has been drinking, half of the high school seniors reported they have been passengers in cars with drinking drivers.
One in four Howard County high school seniors surveyed admitted driving at least once themselves while drinking.
Statewide, kids reported believing they would be in more trouble with their parents if they got caught smoking tobacco cigarettes than for drinking beer or wine.
The kids, often allowed almost unlimited use of a family car, or owning one themselves, frequently go cruising on weekends, meeting at predesignated spots to trade information on parentless homes where a spontaneous "party" may be happening.
Howard County homes have been damaged by drunken kids rampaging through them. Some have suffered thefts. And yet the kids who live there usually won't reveal the identity of the vandals for fear of being ostracized in school.
Several years ago I spoke to a parent whose ninth-grade daughter attended one of these unscheduled parties that just grew like Topsy at a friend's house just down the street from her own home. She heard kids screaming obscenities in the street that night, she admitted, and knew they were drinking, but never called the police for fear her own daughter would be harassed at school. She instructed her own daughter to come home.
The friend's father came home later to find his car sideswiped in the driveway, and minor damage inside. None of the kids would name anyone else who was there.
Parents often allow themselves to be intimidated by their kids, who complain about being severely embarrassed by parents who call their friends' parents before weekend evening excursions. The kids talk to each other every day. The parents almost never talk to each other. Many don't bother to become acquainted with their kids' friends, much less their friends' parents.
Guilt, once the potent weapon of aging mothers, is now skillfully wielded against parents by their bright offspring: "What's the matter, don't you trust me?" Worried about damaging their kids' all-important self-esteem, and less than eager to find any bad news, many parents back off.
A few buy the beer themselves and give it to the kids on the theory that it's better to let them get their "buzz" at home and sleep it off in the den.
Adults can comfort themselves with the idea that their kids surely don't drink, even though everybody else's kids may. Wanting to trust, they cop out on their responsibility both to themselves and to the parents of their kids' peers.
After all, the kids are making good grades, aren't they?
A5 Larry Carson is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.