Every now and then, I spend a few hours with about 60 high school boys and girls and their parents listening to them talk about better parent-teen communication regarding sex, alcohol and drugs. The question for parents that keeps popping into my mind as I listen to both sides speak is: “Where does trust end and neglect begin?”
The teenagers want to be trusted. The parents want to trust. But parental unease surfaces as the potential for parental neglect in the face of possibly unwise and risky teenage behavior rises. Where do you draw the line between trust and neglect?
Surely, no parent wants to be guilty of neglect, just as all parents want to trust their offspring. The question provides a nice framework for great conversations, if both parents and teenagers are willing to talk. Doing it in groups with other parents and teens seems to improve the acoustics for the desired exchange.
The conversation, as I hear it, typically turns on issues of 1) curfew; 2) driving (who’s in the car? who’s at the wheel? where are you going?); 3) friends (who do you hang out with?); 4) honesty; 5) pregnancy; 6) the internet; and 7) trust.
In families, the participants seem to agree, there is a need for “consistency” and there has to be agreement on the “irreversibles” in the ongoing discussions about “boundaries.”
Communication is, of course, at the heart of dealing with these issues. The teens have to be permitted to speak openly about what they perceive to be double standards (e.g., some parents drink and drive). Parents have to explain their “need to verify” (e.g., call the parents of a teen who is hosting the party).
Expert facilitators can be on hand to provide technical information on drugs and alcohol. It is helpful to dig a bit for answers to the question of why kids drink — just to have fun? To try to cope? Or, just to see what it’s like? Similarly, with drugs.
Notably absent from the conversations I’ve listened to is any discussion about religion (although most of the participants in my experience are Catholic). Nor is much said about the need to establish baseline respect for human dignity. That would cover respect for self and others as a bedrock principle of right, fair and just behavior.
I’ve also noticed that no one suggests the value of service projects in getting teens “out of themselves” and into growth-producing character development. Not that participants were unaware of this; they just didn’t bring it up.
No mention is typically made of shared work — parents and teens working together on meaningful projects. That used to happen a generation or two ago when it was not uncommon for a small-scale family business to provide Saturday and summer employment for the kids. Those opportunities produced for the young a lot more than spending money.
And it is worth noting that the school that has hosted the gatherings I’ve attended had very little to do with the design, promotion and provision of the program. This was the work of one mother whose children are all grown with families of their own. She decided that it would be useful and just went ahead and put it all together in memory of one son she lost years ago in a drug-related death.
It would be too facile to say that anyone could do it. But it is not wide of the mark to suggest that this intergenerational exchange of experience and information could be happening on a much larger scale if more good people simply step up and decide to make it happen.
Jesuit Father William J. Byron is professor of business and society at St. Joseph’s University, Philadelphia. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.