by Rus VanWestervelt
Rus VanWestervelt is a career educator, guest Bluenote blogger, and NDP parent. In his latest blog, he writes about a topic that is both personally and professionally important to him—parents “staying smart” during springtime celebrations. For those of us blessed to work with, live with, or have teens in our lives, the safety of young people is always foremost in our minds. Here Mr. VanWestervelt addresses the dangers that could arise from sincere yet misguided intentions for safety.
At NDP and schools around the country, this is the most exciting time of the year for students, especially upperclassmen. In alignment with highly anticipated spring events, including Gym Meet, spring break, prom, and graduation, there are celebrations, many of which are not sponsored by the school. These gatherings and parties often come at a time when everybody is feeling charged about the culmination of an event (such as Gym Meet), and the girls and their friends and families are ready to recognize two things: first, that the event was a success, and two, that the event is over.
I don’t need to remind anyone that the temptations
to celebrate with alcohol and drugs are commonplace in Baltimore County and throughout the region. Our daughters — even at the very young age of 15, who have been raised and educated to make wise decisions — are tempted to celebrate in ways that are both compromising and illegal.
We do what we can to keep our daughters safe. We meet their friends, we get to know their parents, and we develop levels of trust with them so our daughters can make “good decisions” when they are away from us. We hope this is enough, as they begin to transition from dependence to independence; we let go — ever so slightly — to give them the opportunities to be strong, and smart, in their decision making.
It’s hard for parents, and it’s even harder for our daughters, who often need to go against the pressures of peers and say no to having a “good time” with alcohol and other illegal substances.
What makes it even harder, though, is when parents are enabling our daughters by hosting “safe” parties where alcohol and drugs are available. As a parent and as a teacher, I have heard the rationale countless times, and I have seen the injurious, and sometimes deadly, aftermath of these parent-hosted parties.
If you are new to the game, here’s how it works. Our daughters have been working tirelessly on academics, or Gym Meet, or finals, or a sporting or theatrical event. They want to celebrate, and they want to do it in a way that really makes the event memorable. A “cool” parent remembers their own high school parties and the fun times they had. But they know that times are different; while they want their children and friends to have a good time like they did, they want to provide a safe space for them to do so.
What can go wrong, if they are under my watch and don’t leave the house?
The cool parent decides to host a party at their house and look the other way as the girls and their friends celebrate the ending of another successful event. Win-Win, thinks the parent: the children are having fun, they are making memories like the parent did, and they are safe.
Nothing could be further from the truth. This is a lose-lose situation for three very specific reasons.
First, it is illegal. “Alex and Calvin’s Law,” passed as Maryland law in February 2016, states that, for the first offense, any person who provides alcohol to individuals under the age of 21 will receive a prison sentence of up to one year and a fine of up to $5,000. While penalties are stiffer for a second offense, they are nowhere near as harsh as they should be, given the number of teenage lives ruined due to the outcomes of such parties.
And, if you need any personal testimonials about why this is such a bad idea, do a little research on Alex and Calvin (the two teens who died), or even email me directly. I will tell you the tragic stories of my students we have buried in the last 10 years.
Second, it puts our daughters at risk in the short- and long-term. Their brains have not yet fully matured, and their decision-making process is compromised and influenced by emotion more than reason. By hosting such parties, parents give their daughters the false impression that they are in control, that they can “handle” the alcohol and the drugs. They can’t, though, and when they leave your house and go to parties elsewhere, they carry with them a false sense of confidence and approval (by you) to party in this way. In a 2014 study conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, about 50% of seniors in high school do not believe it is harmful, “once or twice,” to use crack or cocaine, and 40% believe it is safe to use heroin in the same manner. Give them the confidence that they can “handle” their alcohol and drug use, and they will not think twice about trying more dangerous drugs that are immediately highly addictive and even deadly.
Third, it serves as a gateway for more dangerous parties and the use of more powerful and deadly drugs. According to a 2016 report published by the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, since 2010, the number of deaths related to the use of alcohol, heroin, and other addictive drugs in Baltimore County and the immediate region has nearly doubled from 649 deaths to 1,259 deaths. The drugs are easily affordable, easily accessible, and highly addictive. Using them takes over all rational thinking, and will consume the minds and actions of teens who use them.
It is hard enough for our daughters to make good decisions when they are tempted by so many cheap and available opportunities to drink and use drugs. As parents, we want to believe that we are in control, and that the foundation we have established for them will help them make good, wise decisions; chances are, they will. If, however, they are tempted by “safe” parties hosted by parents, where the expectations of good decision making and trust provided by adults are compromised by the desire to have a good, safe time, then we, as parents, are doing nothing more than enabling them to believe they have control over a situation that they clearly do not — and cannot — at their young age.
Please, do what is right for your own daughters and their friends: do not host “safe” parties for them where alcohol or drugs might be served. Do not contribute to the ever-growing and tragic trend of alcohol- and drug-related deaths among teens and young adults.
Be a parent first, and help all of us keep our daughters safe in what should be the most joyous time of year to celebrate their accomplishments.