“Summer’s here and the time is right for dancing in the street,” –Martha and the Vandellas, Detroit, 1960’s.
“Summer’s here and the time is right for racing in the streets,” –Bruce Springsteen, back streets of Jersey, 1970’s.
“Summer’s here and the time is right for–hey, where the hell are the kids in this town?” — Me, suburbia, 2012.
My sons are 16, which was prime socialization time when I was a kid, so I expected them to be out the whole summer. And a number of elements have come together for them: a few friends have their license; they have the confidence of kids who feel like their own their neighborhood (no sarcasm there; back in the day I was sure I owned The Bronx, even though I weighed about 80 pounds soaking wet and looked like an Afro on a Tootsie Pop stick), and their social circle is growing to include a variety of groups (baseball, a group from an eastern European Holocaust tour, the XBox brigade, etc.). Add to that parents who encouraged them to hold whatever social gatherings they wanted, and it seemed they would be owning this summer.
Not so much.
A couple of guys have come over to watch sports, play XBox, and/or chow down. There have been car trips to the batting cages, a Yankee game, restaurants (most of them fast food), or snack runs. Some girls have stopped by, or collected them to go hang out, but … None of the big crowds have arrived at our house, and very few teens have been seen in town generally. What gives?
To complicate matters, the driver friends have curbed their cars after getting tickets for having more than four people in the vehicle, so activity has slowed to a crawl. Finally, I confronted my guys, pushing them to tell me why they weren’t just hosting a party to crank things up this summer. We offered the house, the deck, food, soda, music…
The fellas did NOT want to answer, but I’m Bronx Irish, and we put Rottweilers to shame when we clamp down on something. Finally, one guy shook his head, “Dad, that’s not what people think when they hear ‘party’.”
Duh on me. How could I have been so dumb? “You’re saying drinking?”
“I’m not naming anybody–”
Damn right I wanted names, and phone numbers, fingerprints, blood tests, holding pens — but no, I’m not having that conversation, I tell myself, I’m trying to understand what my sons are up against. “I’m not asking that. Just give me an idea–”
“Ninety percent.” He didn’t even hesitate, didn’t even let me finish the question. He just laid me out with a sawed off shotgun of cold truth.
I’m shocked to find I’ve sheltered myself, and so has my wife. We remained willfully ignorant of the scope of the situation. And that’s disingenuous because we both drank at 16, often. Here’s the major difference we have been clinging to: when we were 16, the drinking age was 18. Now, of course, it is three years later. But that doesn’t help. If what my son suggests is anywhere near true, they are the odd men out because they listened to their parents.
The “Just Say No” party line does not address the more subtly painful issues. I don’t want my kids ostracized, but I can’t seeing myself condoning underage drinking, no matter what I did as a kid. But the clock’s ticking on this minefield, and no matter what decision is made, somebody’s going to blow up.
They will be seniors next year, and in college after that, and will have to negotiate alcohol-infused social circles. Being inexperienced could potentially make them socially awkward at that point; allowing alcohol now could force them into situations they are not ready for and hurt their reputations. This a tough place for both kids and parents to be, period.
As much as it sucks, I have to be the Dad here and hold the line. The down side of underage drinking is too steep; too many in this country allow themselves to be programmed to believe alcohol (at least) needs to be central to their social lives. The media bludgeons us with this crass, profit over people message on all fronts, and that misleads the masses into thoroughly believing alcohol and partying is consistently a good idea. But alcohol never lead me to write my novel, or pick up an instrument, or tell a joke, or make a good decision. Alcohol did not get me to call the woman who became my wife, or help me land a job, or buy a house. Alcohol never put food on my table. Is alcohol a part of my life? Yes, I like a stout every once in awhile, and can enjoy a good bourbon. But the key phrase is “a part” not “the central part”. I’ve known too many people who made alcohol (and more) central to their lives, or let it insinuate itself into importance in their lives; way too many of them are dead or at dead ends.
I don’t want my sons to fall into that trap. They will eventually go to those parties, without our permission, and might even drink, without our permission, as is an unfortunate right of passage in this culture. I only hope they wait until they are ready and make their decisions based on their consciously developed moral backbone, rather than to fit in, or be popular, or to impress a date.
My wife and I have spent a good chunk of our lives helping our guys evolve into good men who can think on their own. Their relatively quiet summer has spoken volumes about their willingness to pay the price to be their own men. Bravo.
“You are what you do most often.” –Aristotle, Greece, way back before there was a drinking age.