The Rant Continues

I have this backlog of topics that I’m not posting about because my rant has been rattling around in my head, so I’m sorry. It’s long. It’s a rant. But I just have to get it out there to clear the decks. And off-topic, if you’re considering Cinderella at Proctors, here’s my review.

After complaining about the recent cops-and-dogs search at our local high school, I wrote an email to the superintendent and the Board of Ed. I said the same stuff about it being an ineffective method for catching actual offenders and damaging for non-offending students’ perception of school and the police, but in a somewhat less rant-y way. I also said we should focus on openly addressing the very real mental and emotional health challenges that so many kids are facing, including substance use and abuse.

There’s a ton of anxiety and depression among kids in our community, and I think it’s much more than people talk about. It feels like there’s a perfect storm of cultural issues that are screwing kids up. Start with the school day, which contains more testing and test preparation with fewer support services. But that’s not all.

A recent article in Slate focused on helicopter parenting’s correlation with college-age depression. They cite an American  Psychological Association survey in which 95% of college counseling center directors said that “the number of students with significant psychological problems is a growing concern,” and 70% said that “the number of students with severe psychological problems on their campus has increased in the past year.” I don’t think that that would surprise anyone who is around kids this age. The headline puts the blame squarely on helicopter parents, and the article offers up some egregious examples of truly atrocious parenting.

You might think that I’d take some comfort in my Free Range parent stance. Nope. Because once you get past the buzzwords, the “psychological blowback” kids are suffering is attributed not just to “overinvolved parents” but also to “rigidly structured childhoods.” In fact, the article cites a study from the journal Frontiers in Psychology in which the researchers are careful to point out, in sharp contrast to the Slate article itself, that “there is little scientific evidence to support claims on either side of” parenting philosophy debates. Instead, that research study focuses on the correlation between how time is spent and the quality of a child’s “self-directed executive function.”

Executive function is extremely important for children, said CU-Boulder psychology and neuroscience Professor Yuko Munakata, senior author of the new study. It helps them in all kinds of ways throughout their daily lives, from flexibly switching between different activities rather than getting stuck on one thing, to stopping themselves from yelling when angry, to delaying gratification. Executive function during childhood also predicts important outcomes, like academic performance, health, wealth and criminality, years and even decades later.

According to the study, the more unstructured time a child has, the better their self-directed executive function. The more highly structured time, the poorer their self-directed executive function. Which is pretty awful, because rigidly structured childhoods are pretty tough to avoid these days. Between school, homework, and practices, my kids have days when they have almost no free time at all. So we’re actively screwing up our kids. Sometimes I feel trapped. I don’t want to make my kids have to quit their activities. And even if I they did quit for more free time to play around the neighborhood, there would be no one to play with because all the other kids are in their highly structured activities.

So we’re all keeping the kids so busy that they’re not getting the freedom to develop their own coping skills. And it’s not just that: I think that, often, in our anxiety to give overscheduled, overworked kids a break, we parents  become too indulgent and permissive. When J’s struggled through math homework and now she only has ten free minutes before we have to jump into the car and head to practice, I can’t bring myself to tell her to pick up those discarded socks or do other chores. When one of M’s friends’ moms drops everything to pick up a bunch of girls and take them out because it’s literally the first free night her daughter’s had in two weeks, I get it. But we end up with these pretty accomplished young people who are anxious and not-so-great at decision-making (executive function), surrounded by parents who sometimes let them get away with murder.

I got infuriated talking with another parent who applauded the drug search, because while arguing in favor of the cops-and-dogs approach, she recounted a time that she’d walked by kids she knew who were smoking pot right outside the doors to the high school. When I asked if she’d reported the kids, she said no. Apparently, she’d prefer to have everyone’s lockers sniffed than actually turn in kids using illegal substances in plain sight on school grounds. Seriously, what the hell? But then I tried to see her side, and I can imagine that when she sees a friend’s kids, she knows of them as generally good kids making a laughably poor decision or as anxious and struggling kids who are self-medicating, and either way, it feels awkward and difficult to turn the kids in. And I didn’t follow up, to ask if this mom had at least called the kids’ moms. Honestly, I had to stop talking. I think it was clear just by my expression that I was feeling full of Rage And Judgement.

For most parents, a part of us would like to control every aspect of our teenagers’ lives. Often we can see that procrastination will end in pain, that a certain friend will cause unnecessary drama, that their crush is unworthy of their attention. . . whatever. We’ve been there, done that, and we’d make better decisions. Please. I would be way better at being a teenager now that I’m in my mid-40s.

But that’s not what we’re supposed to do. We’ve got to resist the impulse and let them learn by doing, offering course corrections when necessary and possibly even full-on smackdowns as needed. I think that some parents would prefer to have a drug-sniffing dog go after each and every student at school because they’re convinced that any guilty parties would not be their “good” kids who should not be exposed to the corrupting influence of those bad seeds. They’d prefer not to acknowledge that, when left to their own devices, it is completely normal for a teenager to make stupid choices, and so we should prepare them accordingly.  In preparation for those moments when we’re not right next to our kids, monitoring them, we should talk to them honestly about all that’s at stake. Controlling your kids only works as long as you’re right there next to them, and then, if that’s been your method all along, it all goes to hell as soon as you’re out of sight. I remember one year as a student advisor at college, there was a kid moving in whose parents were all up in his grill, unpacking for him, fluffing his pillow, lingering long after the other parents had decamped. As soon as they were gone, he went nuts. I just remember it involved a lot of vomiting.

Which is the sort of thing that happens with teenagers, because even the smartest ones can be really, really stupid. They need a little freedom to develop some sense of their own judgement. And it may take a while.

Not too long ago, I was driving on Balltown Road, and I saw a student from the high school walking along the sidewalk smoking a cigarette. I was, like, beside myself. First of all, it’s not as if it’s the 70s or even early 80s, when plenty of people smoked. It’s completely socially unacceptable to smoke just about everywhere, and everyone knows that it’s so bad for you. But I was even more pissed because she was smoking right there where all of the grown-ups were driving along, in plain sight. What the hell? It was bad enough that she was smoking, but shouldn’t she at least have been afraid that someone would tell her parents? Because I’m totally that kind of person. I will yell out the car window to the kid wearing all black while biking at night that he needs to wear something reflective. I will confront litterers. And I swear to God, you guys, if you ever, ever, ever see one of my daughters smoking or drinking, I urge you to: 1) take a photo for evidence if possible; 2) chastise them loudly for extra humiliation; and 3) report back to me without hesitation.

It takes a village, people.

Anyway, when I was hunting for ideas that would be more effective in assisting with potential substance abuse issues, I asked a friend who works in the field, who pointed me to a guide for talking about drugs with kids called Safety First. I particularly enjoyed his description of it as “pragmatic information presented in a non-terrifying format.”

In it, there’s quite a bit of talk about distinguishing between use and abuse. Which always reminds me of that party scene from the movie Clueless, when Cher, after determining that she’s one month older (and therefore, presumably, wiser) than her new friend Tai, offers her some advice: “It is one thing to spark up a doobie and get laced at parties, but it is quite another to be fried all day. Do you see the distinction?”

Yes. Because I think that the vast majority of parents aren’t all that concerned at the idea that our children will at some point in their high school career drink a beer or even smoke a joint. We pretty much fear death and heroin. So I like the idea of drawing this distinction between use and abuse, and helping guide kids so that they can develop that life-sustaining executive function. Because normal, terrific kids can make really stupid choices.

I got mad, again (I know, right? I’ve been having Rage Issues), when I shared an article on Facebook via the KidsOutAndAbout Facebook page. The article terrified me. A girl spending the night at a friend’s house, with parents present in the house, drank 15 shots of vodka and died. Holy crap, that’s horrifying. I shared the article in part because it struck me as something that was so preventable. If the hosting parents had not allowed drinking or monitored better, if the girl’s parents had thought to check the host’s policy on drinking, if the girl had been taught that this much alcohol could kill her, if any of the kids felt like they could contact a parent asap when a friend was in serious trouble, if any parents had pointed out diversionary tactics that kids could take with wasted friends, like hiding alcohol or watering things down. . . it’s just heartbreaking. So after I posted this, I get this freakin’ comment. Now, as a policy I don’t get into commenting back and forth on the page, because I’m, you know, the page. I stay out of it and add vague little “What do you think?” statuses. But here’s what this lady said:

I’m sorry but there has to be some underlying issues here. The sister that is quoted saying that her sister was a curious teen who drank as much as they could till they passed out… That’s not normal teen behavior, *red flag!!* Then what kind of person suddenly decides they want to challenge themselves to drink 17 shots of vodka?

Ugh. Just because you’re not aware of it doesn’t mean that it’s not normal. I’ll concede that passing out repeatedly indicates an abuse problem, but that “what kind of person” comment is so awful and victim-blaming. She was a competitive athlete, someone used to setting goals and achieving them, someone who liked to compete and win. It makes such sense. The fact that this was a monumentally stupid goal is not in any way surprising to me. I’m pretty smart and didn’t get into too much trouble as a teenager, but at some point my friends and I stole a classroom chair from our high school and took turns leaving it on each other’s front porches. I distinctly remember swiping someone’s light-up yard gnome and leaving it several houses down the street. And I remember drinking a whole lot of sloe gin, throwing up, and returning to it because I wanted to finish the bottle. Part of the thing with drinking is that the more you do, the stupider you get, and next thing you know, 15 shots could sound like a worthy accomplishment.

Pretending like this poor girl is some bad-seed aberration is just a way for people to pat themselves on the back and reassure themselves that their kids would never do something that stupid. We can all only hope and pray that that’s true.

And the parents, oh, my gosh, those parents who hosted the party? How awful. I remember standing around on a driveway at some unbelievably lame keg party in high school and looking up to see the parents and several of their friends standing in the window, looking down at us. And even as a teenager, I was like, “That is completely inappropriate.” So if you are the kind of parent who hosts drinking parties or you know who those parents are, please let me know so that I can forbid my children from ever going there. And then, maybe, go pick them up if they go there anyway.

I shared that vodka-drinking story with M. After saying that drinking was a bad idea, I reminded her of some other tips, like that vodka is much stronger than beer, that alcohol should be alternated with water, that people who are already drunk will be too incoherent to notice if you start watering things down or making bottles disappear, that I would much rather pick her or her friends up wasted than at a hospital or a morgue. There was quite a bit of “I know; do you think I’m stupid?” eye-rolling.

And then, just the other day, another horrible story about a young woman who left a party drunk and wearing shorts and a tank top in sub-zero Wisconsin and was found frozen to death a few hours later. Yet another cautionary tale to share with kids, a drinking hazard that seems too bizarre for reality and thus actually seems to make an impact. How could her friends just let her go? M wondered. They just didn’t think. It probably didn’t seem like a big deal. That’s the whole impaired judgment thing. Think of how terrible her friends must feel now. And we pondered this, driving between rigidly scheduled activities, while I hoped that the story would help that executive function to kick in sometime when she and her friends need it.

Okay, done. Something light next time, I promise.


  1. Claire

    Great post. I really feel that trying to pigeon hole parents into categories like “helicopter parents” and “free range parents” is misleading. Yes, there are people that fit the stereotypes to a T, but I think there are many more parents who are their own version of hybrid when it comes to parenting style. And honestly, each approach has its good points and downsides. Most people would probably call me a helicopter parent, yet my son played alone in our fenced-in backyard starting at age 4, and even at at that age I would leave him in the front yard to go in and make a cup of coffee. Each parent knows what their child needs and what they’re capable of, and they make decisions accordingly. They might not always get it right, but a little grace goes a long way. It all comes down to balance. Being an involved parent is a good thing as long as it doesn’t crowd out the child. (I know I strayed from the main point of your post, but this portion of it hit a nerve.)

  2. @Claire, yeah, I feel like there’s way too much noise pitting extremes against each other when there are so many challenges that everyone shares that are too complicated for people to want to address them at all. And meanwhile we’re not doing great for our kids.

  3. Mary Ellen Whiteley

    Excellent, thought provoking post. It left me with a big knot in my stomach. I look forward to reading more from you on this subject.

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