Just Say No to Teenage Drinking

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Teens-Drinking-at-a-PartyThis morning’s Chicago Tribune had an article about New Trier officials’ alarm at the increase in binge drinking by their students, as reported anonymously in a survey the students complete annually to gauge teenage health and safety. As national underage drinking rates go down, New Trier’s has gone up.

Recently my teenage daughter told me she wished my husband and I were more “cool” about underage drinking. Apparently many teens’ parents tolerate and even expect a certain amount of drinking on the part of their high school kids. Many parents reason that it’s safer to have kids drink under their supervision. They feel it will lead to more responsible drinking in college.

But as New Trier assistant superintendent says, “All of the research shows it doesn’t work that way.” (“New Trier officials: Binge drinking grew exponentially,” Chicago Tribune, March 11, 2019) According to the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, “Adolescents who attend parties where parents supply alcohol are at increased risk for heavy episodic drinking, alcohol-related problems, and drinking and driving.” (Celia Vimont, drugfree.org, Oct. 1, 2014)

It’s difficult as a parent to take a hard line on the issue of teen drinking. Our culture is very accepting of it, popular movies depict it, and it has come to be seen almost as a rite of passage for teenagers. And teens can find ways of sneaking alcohol unbeknownst to even the most vigilant parents. Yet the research is clear. As Stevenson High School’s substance abuse prevention coordinator Cristina Cortesi states, “We know all of the studies find the number one reason kids don’t use [alcohol] is their parents.” (Tribune, March 11, 2019)

As parents, we want our children to be happy and healthy. In the short term, our teens may hate us for holding the line on teenage drinking. But we need to take the long view and realize that it is their prosperous and happy future that should be our goal.

 

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Feeding the Soul

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Although I don’t really like to cook, I love to feed people. There’s nothing more gratifying to me than to set out a meal and have my friends or family members enjoy it. And while I myself have a tendency to pick at my food, I love hosting a person with a hearty appetite, one who cleans his or her plate and asks for seconds.

There’s something fundamental about meeting a human being’s need for food. Mothers the world over begin the process with their infants almost from the first moment they are born. I loved the close bonding of nursing my biological children, but I also loved bottle feeding my adopted child. In fact, one of the most frustrating parts of having young children is how difficult they can be about mealtime at certain phases of their lives. They thwart their parents need to nurture them with food.

Communal meals have been a feature of every human society from time immemorial. Families and clans have always gathered around campfires and tables to share food and companionship, to bond and feel safe and nourished. Every celebration involves food, and food is the focal point of holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, Passover, and even the Fourth of July. At my parish Bible Study, we always have a table full of treats. If someone forgets to bring them, we get downright cranky.

The joy of feeding people can extend outward to those in need. Most communities have thriving food pantries, and many have soup kitchens, places where the homeless, the underemployed, and the struggling of our society can go to receive sustenance. Of all the charitable acts I can think of, nothing comes close to the fundamental gift of nourishment through feeding people.

During the recent government shutdown, business owners and ordinary Americans opened their hearts, their wallets and their doors to furloughed workers in order to provide them groceries and hot meals. Say what you will about the divided state of our nation. When push comes to shove, Americans will step up and help each other fill our most basic human needs.

If you come to my house, chances are good that I will try to foist some kind of food on you. It gives me such pleasure to watch people enjoy the food I’ve made – or even just bought and unwrapped. As Elizabeth Berg writes in her wonderful novel The Story of Arthur Truluv, “It’s something to feed somebody who is so in need of eating. It’s something to feed somebody, period.”

 

College Craziness

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img_4718_42College craziness has hit my little world. I’m not talking about older adolescents doing jello shots and dancing on the roof of the fraternity house. I’m talking about the craziness that comes with trying to get into college.

When I was a teen, the process of getting into college was a lot more straightforward. The average kid I knew took the ACTs and SATS, sent the scores to their state schools, and waited to see if they got in. Some of the more elite students might apply to a private school or two, but no one I knew applied to upwards of 10 different colleges.

Today, the college application process is so fraught. My daughter is overloaded with honors and AP courses and frantically trying to prepare for the ACTs, all while participating in sports and extracurricular activities in an attempt to show colleges what a dynamic, interesting, and passionate person she is. It’s exhausting, and not just for the teens.

A case in point is the process at our high school for becoming a member of National Honor Society. NHS has been around since I was in high school. Back then, if you maintained a certain GPA, you were automatically accepted into the organization and the designation became a nice little addendum to your grades and test scores on your college application. For my daughter, applying for membership in NHS has entailed a laborious process that includes performing 20 hours of community service and completing essays on one’s character, scholarship, leadership, and service.

That leadership requirement is the one that really gets me. Don’t even try applying to college unless you can demonstrate what a leader you have been in your school and community. These are teenagers, for crying out loud. And how can they all be leaders? Don’t leaders need followers?

The entire college application process has become hopelessly complicated. Most students apply to numerous schools, each with their own application requirements (not to mention fees). And don’t be fooled by their acceptance of “the common app.” Most schools will have additional essay requirements above and beyond the one required in the common app.

Why has applying to college become so complex? The answer is competition. So many more students are applying to college today, and the Baby Boomers have left a legacy of overpopulation when it comes to the pool of applicants out there. So colleges can demand anything they want. High school students are left feeling that they have to design a unique computer app or find the cure for cancer in order to be attractive to some of the more selective institutions.

Then these very same institutions turn around and chastise parents and schools for stressing out their kids. In the documentary Race to Nowhere, which was required viewing at many schools, a UC Berkeley administrator bemoans the fact that kids are burning the midnight oil and becoming suicidal over academic expectations at their schools. This from a university whose acceptance rate was 16.9% in 2015.

Of course, we do have a choice to opt out of the craziness. I have no doubt there are many good colleges that do not have such insane expectations for their incoming students. But like many parents, I want my daughter to be able to dream big. I want to encourage her aspirations, not curtail them. What this means for my family is a participation in the craziness for the next several months.

I don’t even want to think about what she’ll be doing when she actually get there!

Minivan Mom

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Of all the cars I’ve ever had, the minivan was my favorite. Back at the turn of the century (I’ve always wanted to say that), we owned a “denim blue” Toyota Sienna XLE, the Rolls Royce of minivans. I’d roll up in the school drop-off line, slide open that side door with the push of a button, and deposit my precious cargo onto the sidewalk. Oh, yeah: Minivan Mom.

I loved everything about that minivan. Its color was so distinctive, and it was so decidedly NOT an SUV, that it was easy to find in a parking lot. The inside was spacious, even for three or four children, and the space between seats made it easy to separate squabbling siblings. At the time, Toyota refused to put DVD players in their minivans, reasoning that they’d prove a distraction to drivers. So my kids were left to the radio, their little books on tape, or – perish the thought – talking to me and each other. One of our favorite things to listen to in the minivan at Christmastime was my brother-in-law Dave Rudolf‘s album Completely Cracked Christmas. The album features parodies of well-known carols, and you could hear us warbling for miles: “What’s that smell? I can tell/We’re getting fruitcakes for Christmas.”

The much-maligned minivan has been the subject of mockery and condescension for years. Owners of the much chic-er Ford Explorer, one of the most popular SUVs at the time, would look down their noses at the Dodge Caravans of the world, as if to say, “We know you’re a harried mother of 6 with your hair in pin curls and your bunny slippers still on at 4 in the afternoon.” But I never cared about the image of Minivan Mom. I drove that baby for over 100,000 miles until its untimely demise.

It happened one warm summer day in June. My teenaged son had left the house in the Sienna, headed to the gym for an early morning workout. Literally on the next block, he ran into an old electric pole, which cracked and thudded onto the roof of the van. Luckily, my son did not get hurt, and we never did get the straight story as to what precipitated the accident. But due to its age, the insurance company declared the minivan totaled, and we had to say goodbye.

We’ve never owned another minivan, but I still miss having one. It was so nice to be able to drive the whole family to Grandma’s house or out to dinner. Now we have to take two cars. Our kids are more likely to argue about who gets to ride shotgun because the back seats in our other cars have never been as spacious.

I’ve heard that affluent families have started gravitating toward old-fashioned station wagons, a relic from my youth that I do not miss at all. Who wants to spend life facing backwards in the way, way back? Maybe the minivan will make a comeback in time for me to drive my grandkids around and teach them twisted Christmas carols.

 

The Kids Are All Right

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Millennials-stock-image-e1479316113621Everyone loves to bash Millennials. There seems to be no end to the stories and complaints about how soft, spoiled, and pampered these children of the 80s and 90s are. My husband likes to call them “the shared plate crowd” and mocks the way they are always taking pictures of their food.

All kidding aside, though, Millennials do seem to have different characteristics from their hard-charging Baby Boomer parents. They have grown up surrounded by advanced computer technology, and their comfort with and reliance upon it has surely shaped how they see the world. They want things fast: information, consumer products, general gratification. They don’t seem overly concerned with privacy in the way earlier generations do when faced with the ever-increasing sense of “Big Brother” watching us through our phones and laptop computers.

Unlike their parents, most Millennials have not known great want. Nor were they raised by Depression-era parents who harped upon their own deprivations during the 1930s. Critics like to point out how Generation Y (the lesser known name for this cohort) has grown up receiving participation trophies for sports and thus been deprived of a killer competitive edge.

But I think we are selling our kids short. If anything, my older two kids have faced a way more competitive workplace as children of the giant Baby Boom generation came of age in the early part of this millennium. They have faced a changing landscape in our country as traditional types of jobs become obsolete and the need for advanced technological knowledge requires even more education than earlier generations needed.

I also think many Baby Boomers criticize Millennials because they are frankly a bit jealous of them. Millennials are changing the workplace and society in general by demanding a better quality of life. For instance, after unseating longtime Congressman Joe Crowley in the House of Representatives, New York Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez drew mockery for saying she was going to take some time for self-care after the whirlwind of a political campaign. This is a particularly Millennial outlook and one I feel will benefit future generations. There is nothing especially heroic about killing oneself for a job, yet Baby Boomers still insist on carrying this trait as a badge of honor.

Millennials have also brought a degree of social enlightenment with their more open and tolerant attitudes. It’s no surprise that as they have come of age, acceptance of gays and gay marriage has increased in our culture. And as widespread social media have highlighted racial injustices in our society, it is our young people out front demanding change. This trend seems to be continuing with Generation Z, Millenials’ little brothers and sisters. Think of how the Parkland High School activists have developed a high-profile presence to protest the horrible scourge of school mass shootings.

My biggest criticism of Millennials is that they don’t vote. And because there are so many of them, their voter apathy has real consequences. With more election participation on their part in 2016, we might have seen a Bernie Sanders presidency. However, the Trump presidency may be waking up many Millennials who have been too cynical and disengaged to participate in politics in the past. Their new cohort in Congress may be a first step toward their greater influence on the political scene.

Every generation disparages the ones that follow. It’s our age-old fear of becoming irrelevant. (Remember how Greek god Cronus deposed his father Uranus and then suffered the same fate at the hands of Zeus?) And the older generation can feel judged when their children make different life choices. We don’t want to think there might be a better way.

But I see Millennials as a bit more self-centered, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We Baby Boomers wanted a better life materially for our children. Millennials seem to be looking for more balance in their lives. They take themselves less seriously – although not, apparently, their food (see above)!  I’m hopeful that Generation Y will usher in a more healthy and open society. And if so, I think it’s to our credit – we Baby Boomers – who gave our kids security and tended to their self-esteem in a way that was not available to us.

So mock all you want, but I think the kids are going to be just fine.

Thankful Tree

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With Thanksgiving around the corner, I’ve been reminiscing about a little tradition I tried with my children when they were younger. I’d find a leafless branch in my backyard, stick it in a small terra cotta pot filled with pebbles, and voila! We’d have a thankful tree.

I didn’t make up the idea of the thankful tree. I’d read about it and thought it would be a nice way to make the holiday a little more meaningful and encourage gratitude in my children. Before Thanksgiving, I fashioned colorful paper leaves out of construction paper, punched a small hole in each one, and tied a ribbon through the hole. Then on Thanksgiving, I encouraged family members to write something they were thankful for that year on a leaf and hang it on the tree.

The thankful tree made a cute centerpiece for the Thanksgiving table. Its starkness fit into the season when fall was giving way to winter. Its leaves gave it color and made it a conversation piece as family guests read about the things their loved ones were thankful for.

Thanksgiving can be an overwhelming holiday. There’s so much food and the endless preparation that goes with it. Family members who haven’t seen each other in a while are suddenly in close quarters. Forward-thinking types are plotting their Black Friday shopping for the next day.

The thankful tree gives people a chance to pause and take stock of their blessings and to realize how many things there are to be truly grateful for. I’d encourage families to give it a try and hopefully establish a tradition of gratitude and togetherness for their many Thanksgiving holidays in the future.

Let Them Eat Candy!

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I’ve had a Come to Reese’s moment about Halloween. Since having kids, I’d become a bit of a Halloween Grinch. The whole holiday is exhausting for parents of young children. The costume dramas, the school parties, the candy wrappers all over the house, the kids hyped up on sugar. I couldn’t wait until November 1 each year when I could turn my mind from goblins to saints.

And I had a hard and fast rule about trick or treating. My kids were done after eighth grade. I found it obnoxious for hulking teenagers to show up at my door with their giant pillowcases, begging for treats. Many of them didn’t even dress up! Of course, I always gave them candy. I’d learned from Larry David’s experience on Curb Your Enthusiasm what happens to homeowners who refuse teenagers treats.

But this fall I’ve seen a plethora of articles and memes on Facebook imploring people to give teens a chance to go out with their pint-sized brethren and snag a few Snickers bars. After all, trick or treating is an innocent and harmless activity. More importantly, it brings out the child in our adolescents who are trying in so many other ways to be too cool for school.

Maybe I’m becoming soft in my old age. Now that my youngest is 17, maybe I’m just nostalgic for the days when my little princesses and pirates were dumping out their hauls of candy on my family room floor, excitedly chatting about their trick or treating adventures. Let’s face it. My adult children are more likely to be downing shots than M&Ms this Halloween.

So when my 17-year-old mentioned that some of her friends were going to trick or treat, I suggested she join them.

“Who are you?” she demanded. Like my other kids, she had internalized the “no trick or treating in high school” rule. (Who says I’m not an effective parent?)

“Sure,” I encouraged her. “I’ve had a change of heart about the whole thing. It’s a fun, wholesome activity. You should go.”

I even offered to make her and her friends our traditional Halloween snacks of wienie dogs and Bagel Bites. (Who says I’m not a provider of healthy food?)

Will she take me up on my offer to let her be a kid for the day? I hope so. And I hope to see fun-loving teenagers at my door tonight. With one caveat: I draw the line on trick or treaters who don’t wear a costume. So teens, put on some devil horns or cat ears and come on over!