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Are You a Toxic Parent?

(Timothy Devine)

Nancy Murray calls. She calls even though her kids are "so embarrassed." She calls even when -- especially when -- she doesn't know the parents who are hosting the party. She calls and runs through her questions: Will you be there? Will you be in the room? Will you be checking who comes in the door?

The host parents answer, sometimes readily, sometimes grudgingly. But, however the parent on the phone responds, Murray has concluded, "you really don't know, no matter what they say." Murray, who has two kids in high school and two already finished, has learned not to trust other parents, even those she knows fairly well. "These are people I socialize with," she says. "And they say, 'Well, they're going to drink anyway, they might as well do it at my house, where I can watch them and know they're safe.' I tell them that's against our rules, and they say, 'Oh, you're being naive.'"

Few parents realize until they are deep into the battle to keep their kids safe that the enemy is often other parents.

EVERYBODY LOVES PARENT-FROM-HELL STORIES. Remember the Frederick mom who drove around with three kids in her car trunk just because the kids "wanted to ride back there"? Or the mother who put her 4-year-old out of the car on the Beltway and sped away, bumping him as she left, all because "he wasn't sitting down like he was supposed to"?

Bizarre cases such as those appall us. But there's a far more powerful category of wayward parent stories: the tales of those whose behavior endangers not only their own children, but others -- even yours.

Start with the ultimate case: Silvia Johnson, the suburban Colorado mom who entertained high school kids at weekly parties with Jack Daniels, Bacardi rum and peppermint schnapps. Johnson provided the liquor, did shots with the 15- and 16-year-olds, supplied the methamphetamines and joined the kids in taking them. And she sexually serviced at least five of the boys, right there at her parties. She did this, she told police, to be the "cool mom."

Johnson, 40 when she was arrested in late 2004, told the police that she had permission from some of the boys' parents to serve them alcohol. This turned out not to be true. But Johnson never backed down from her contention that her behavior was justified. "The guys would flirt with me," she told interrogators. She was proud that they were interested in her. "Luckily, I've been able to stay in the shape I'm in. I haven't exercised in 15, 20 years. My mom's skinny, too.

"Guys can do it, and they're considered studs. A girl does it, and she's a slut. There's no word for a female that's a stud. The double standard, so to speak. I fell in love with being part of the group, in a way, 'cause that was never something I was a part of growing up. I was never in the popular group. I was never cool. Here, I was considered the cool mom."

There was no double standard in the court where Johnson was sentenced a few months ago: She got 30 years, warming parents' hearts nationwide.

IF THE NEWS GODS DIDN'T PROVIDE US WITH A STEADY DIET OF TOXIC PARENT STORIES, we'd have to make them up. In fact, we do. We used to call them fairy tales (depressive, passive father stands by while evil stepmother torments children; see "Hansel and Gretel," "Cinderella"). These days, we call them memoirs, an entire publishing genre in which checked-out, selfish, laissez-faire parents spawn a generation of lost twentysomethings whose unhappiness is the foundation of their literary success. (See Elizabeth Wurtzel's Prozac Nation, Mary Karr's The Liar's Club, Jeannette Walls's The Glass Castle.)

These stories sell because no matter how lousy a parent you are, you find deep satisfaction in knowing that someone else has mucked up the job worse. On the silver screen, the mother in "Mean Girls" draws all-too-knowing laughs with her desperate attempts to be one of the kids. Mrs. George offers alcohol to the teens: "Because if you're going to drink, I'd rather you do it in the house." Later, she announces that "if you ever need anything, don't be shy, okay? There are no rules in the house. I'm not like a regular mom, I'm a cool mom."

In real life, on the Saturday soccer and Little League fields, at parent meetings at school and at grown-up parties, nothing draws a crowd like stories about those parents.

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