Monday, April 18, 2016
Most soccer fans are sadly aware of Abby Wambach’s arrest for a misdemeanor DUI in Portland, Ore., on April 2. However, a more significant part of that story has achieved less notice. As part of her arrest, Wambach had to detail all of her past drug and alcohol history. She admitted to first smoking weed when she was 24 and trying cocaine when she was 25. These incidents would have been during her rise to prominence on the international soccer scene and just after the 2003 World Cup in the United States. At the time, she had already been on the U.S. Women’s National Team for almost four years, played in one World Cup and one Olympics. It may seem a surprising time to begin using drugs when her fame is ascending and she has the world by the tail, yet it’s not so unusual. It’s also troubling to think that later at age 36, after a lifetime of success in her chosen field and hopefully the wisdom and maturity to know better, she would risk reputation and even her life to drive under the influence.
This is the insidious reality of drugs and alcohol. As parents, we can’t ignore the seriousness of these substances in how they can affect our children and their future lives. If someone as accomplished, settled, and respected as Abby Wambach can be affected by intoxicants, then certainly younger, less confident players might succumb. Our kids are assailed daily with mixed message about what their attitude should be concerning drugs and alcohol. In the midst of most televised sporting events they watch people in their 20s have all kinds of fun under the influence of alcohol. Laughing, dancing, attempting daring feats, and having adventures are all cleverly intertwined with some brand of alcohol. The not-so-subtle message that our kids receive is that if you want to be a cool grown-up having tons of fun, then you need to drink their product. When role models, who wear logos or even act as spokespersons for a brand, are added to the mix, it’s not surprising that kids get swayed. And that’s just alcohol.
Parents have a tough time keeping up with all the new drugs available to their kids, and many of them are bought and sold on school property. It’s not just the ones we knew growing up: grass, cocaine, heroin, and amphetamines. Now there are an entire spectrum of “designer” drugs – compounds created in the lab (often in China) and sold under an alphabet soup of street names. Presently, the dangers of Fentanyl, a manufactured opioid, have made front page news with scores of deaths reported across the United States. As parents, we are up against so many factors that even strong vigilance can’t always combat them. When it comes to drugs and alcohol, the best defense is a strong preemptive offense. We can make boundaries clear, monitor social media, check with other parents, and stay involved without hovering.
We must make clear how we stand on the use of drugs and alcohol. Most experts suggest that parents clearly state and back up the policy of zero tolerance, but also establish that should a child become impaired, they should call mom or dad for a drive home with a promise not to discuss the situation until there’s time to sober up both chemically and emotionally. Parents should never be enablers. It’s certainly tempting to use the argument that “kids will drink, so I’d rather they did it in my house where I can keep them safe,” but that merely blurs the lines on what your actual position is on drinking or drug use. My neighbor used that argument and found herself with 23 misdemeanor charges for supplying alcohol to underage kids – each count carried a $425 fine and a 10-day jail sentence. It’s difficult to parent from jail, and fines eat up that college fund pretty quickly. Therefore, for all kinds of reasons, the “keep it in my house” argument is deeply flawed. The reality is that kids who have a group of friends will find themselves at least once at a party with intoxicants – that includes with teammates. Sports may keep our kids busy, but they don’t assure a drug and alcohol free environment. Social media makes it even easier to let the mob know where to congregate. Getting alcohol or drugs is also simple to locate through social media. Kids have older siblings who are willing to buy a six pack or they find what they want in the liquor and medicine cabinets of their own families. That’s why we have to stick to a zero tolerance and to expect our schools to help us out by keeping kids out for a game or two if they are caught. Tough love is called that for a reason. No one wants to see their child penalized for what we agree is a rite of passage for most kids. However, the decision to imbibe can be more damaging than a short suspension if kids learn that there are no consequences or they become addicted.
Because so much risky behavior can be linked to the group influences in social media, parenting consultants advise that we make it clear that cell phones and computers are a privilege, not a right. As such, our kids must include us in their circle of participants on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and other social networks. Experts say parents shouldn’t monitor constantly, but they should let their kids know that they will occasionally be checking in. If we find anything disturbing or questionable, we need to address it. One grandson — who is on numerous sports teams, a great student, and comes from a family with clear boundaries — was discovered by his parents to be considering the thought of sending and receiving provocative selfies because “everyone does it.” He was 14, old enough to understand the consequences once they were carefully explained to him but young enough to be under the strong influence of peer pressure. Parents must not discount how much power friends hold. Friends offer enticing opportunities that stuffy parents have spoken out against. Given the choice, most kids will opt with their peers. So keeping an eye on what is being offered, considered, done, or pushed should be part of our weekly duties.
Parents can also be allies. Become acquaintances with the parents of your children’s friends. A simple phone call to introduce yourself (Hi, I’m Ashley’s mom. I understand your daughter and Ashley have become friends) will open the door. Give parents your phone number and make it clear if any parent feels uncomfortable for any reason, they should call. When our kids tell us about a party, a trip to the mall, or a movie with friends, it’s a good idea to check with the parents to see if they’ll be home during the party or what curfew they set for their kids. That way our children can’t tell us that Ashley’s mom lets her stay out until midnight. Dating has to be a family discussion to agree upon not only the age when dating will be allowed but also the etiquette of dating. That should include meeting the parents and definitely meeting the prospective date. One idea is to have the date over for dinner to get to know him or her without the awkwardness of everyone just wanting to leave and get on with the date. When traveling to tournaments, we can’t always go along, so make sure there’s a family you trust to keep an eye on your player. Before a tournament, it would be a nice gesture for the coach to gather the parents and ask them what they feel comfortable with when their kids are away – R movies, going to a convenience store on their own, and video games are just a few of parents’ concerns. Recently in Wisconsin, a high school coach got in trouble for letting a group of senior girls watch “50 Shades of Grey” during the car ride home. That could have been avoided had the parents been involved. By the way, most of the girls said they had already seen the movie, which convinced the coach to allow the viewing. Shocker – that wasn’t true.
Pre-teens and teens are so difficult to teach because, of course, they see themselves as a) invincible, b) smart enough to avoid problems, c) entitled to stretch the boundaries, and d) so much cooler than their parents. When we point out the dangers of alcohol and drugs, their attitude is often dismissive because facts are far less interesting than anecdotes in which people have a great time and there are no short or long term consequences. All we can do is use opportunities to quietly state our concerns and our love. When push comes to shove, most kids will opt for their friends’ opinions over their parents’ years of wisdom. So we have to trust that we have invested in our children some common sense that will guide them through impulsive decisions. They may use illegal substances, but they may also be smart enough to not get in a car. We have to cover all the options and let them know that we trust them which doesn’t mean, by the way, that we are naive. I let my kids know early on that I probably knew 80 percent of what they thought they were doing secretly, and occasionally in a non-threatening situation I would inform them of one or two things I knew just to make it clear I was watching. My daughters, who are grown up now with kids of their own, marvel at how well informed I actually was, and how well informed they are. Nevertheless, it’s the 20 percent that’s scary. We can only combat that by being accessible, giving our kids all the information we can without lecturing, loving them, and applying the appropriate consequences. A psychologist once told me that a kid’s job is to get the best deal he or she can get. If that requires lying, sneaking around, manipulating, and begging then so be it. Our job is to stick to what we believe, not give in, and be consistent in how we exercise our discipline. If rules will change, they need to be our choice and not in reaction to a sudden situation (Come on – the movie doesn’t even get out until 10. Why do I have to be home at 11?). Which reminds me: Never answer why because kids love to get us into arguments (“Be home at 11” rather than “Because that’s the curfew”).
What always surprises me is how our children can grow up so differently from one another. I raised four children with what I thought were exactly the same boundaries, love and expectations. I have four completely different offspring. I’m sure there were subtle differences in how I handled things but more significantly, the outside influences on my children were often dissimilar – teachers, coaches, teammates, friends, setbacks, attitudes, and a myriad of other intrusions on my perfectly constructed parental plans definitely left their imprint. So despite our standardize efforts, it’s actually wonderful that we raise clearly individual and independent kids. However, that variability also wreaks havoc with insuring that we’ll never have to deal with drug and alcohol use and dependency. It happens in the best of families to the best of people. When a role model like Abby Wambach gets caught, it can be a teachable moment both for parents and kids. Even someone with maturity, status, and support can be trapped by bad decisions. Let our children know that everyone is fallible — even we are — but we all need to be cautious when it comes to being swayed by outside pressures or our own internal impulsiveness. Giving our kids a safety net through love, attention, and the “it takes a village” approach by including other parents, teachers, clergy, and coaches in raising our kids may prevent some life-altering mistakes. If not, the net will help mitigate the long-term effects of those decisions, sometimes after a painful period of time. I know the ache of watching people I cherish succumb to drugs and alcohol, but I also know the powerful healing that can come from love.