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Are You a Toxic Parent?

(Timothy Devine)

"Those kids are raised by wolves," a father tells me at a backyard barbecue. "The parents checked out years ago."

"The mom can't be bothered," another mother explains about neighborhood kids who have fallen into a world of trouble. "The parents are blind to it."

Teenagers get all the ink for being backbiting, cliquish and prone to bad decisions. But in the harsh game of competitive parenting, the cliques are just as strong among the parents. In the world of toxic parents, there's always someone the rest of us love to hate.

Of course, there have always been such parents. When I was in high school in the 1970s, I recall my friends' parents shaking their heads over the mother and father who left town for weeks on end, while their son turned their apartment into a handsomely outfitted casino, complete with table games, cigarette girls and full bar. But back then, our parents usually knew little about our friends' parents. We had not yet entered the era of the so-called helicopter parent, the mothers and fathers who hover over their precious ones, swooping down to intercede in any difficulty, even after their children head off to college.

Today's hyperinvolved parents marvel at how oblivious their own folks were to their teenage adventures. In the popular culture that chronicled the early years of American suburbia, parents were largely clueless or absent. There are no parents portrayed in Charles Schulz's "Peanuts" or George Lucas's "American Graffiti."

Parents of today's kids grew up in a time of generational conflict and adolescent rebellion, the era of sex, drugs and rock-and-roll. Many were eager participants in the cultural mayhem. But by the late 1970s, with divorce rates at record highs and teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and drug addiction on the rise, the world seemed a dangerous place in which to be a kid. Boomer parents have reacted to the upheaval of their youth by moving in two, seemingly opposite, directions. Some recall the excesses of their own adolescence and adopt a permissive approach, unable or unwilling to assert themselves as authority figures. But boomer parents have also brought us the era of zero tolerance, the criminalization of adolescent acting-out, and the elevation of safety and security to the top of the priority list. These parents, recalling only too well what they did as teens, are the founders of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Wigged out by news stories about pedophiles, drugs, Internet predators and drunk drivers, they refuse to grant their own kids the independence they themselves enjoyed. These parents have come to believe that their kids face a far tougher, cutthroat path toward selective colleges and jobs.

Getting B's in school is no longer good enough to get into the University of Maryland or the University of Virginia; in an era when a one-semester drop in grade-point average or a single blot on a disciplinary record can be enough to scotch a kid's chances of winning admission to a good college, some parents believe it's their duty to wall their children off from the wrong crowd. Especially in affluent suburbia, the pressure to get into a top college, the competition to use the teenage years to rack up extracurricular achievements and the professionalization of youth sports all combine to make parents not only more protective of their young, but also much more wary of other adults.

The tensions often begin in elementary school, when some parents are determined to raise their children in a PG world while others allow their 8- and 9-year-olds to watch R-rated films, play M-rated video games, listen to music with raw lyrics and drift amidst the sewage of the Internet. My daughter was in second grade when she phoned home begging to be rescued from her classmate's parent-sanctioned afternoon frolic with R movies. One of my colleagues banned her fourth-grader from contact with a group of boys after he attended a sleepover at which, as the mother later proudly announced, the kids had never gone to bed but instead had watched R movies and played Halo, an M-rated video game, all night. It was just a matter of time, my co-worker figured, before the kids in that house would be experimenting with drinking, drugs and sex, with little or no parental resistance.

As a father and as a reporter, I have been at meetings and parties where parents whispered rosters of mothers and fathers who were to be avoided at all costs because they "let their kids run wild." At one gathering, I got into a chilly exchange with an erudite father who argued that it was "naive in the extreme" to attempt to keep teenagers from drinking and drugs. "They're going to do what they're going to do," he said, and as he walked away, five other parents swore to one another that they'd bar their kids from social contact with that man's child -- thereby, I suppose, confirming his diagnosis of our naivete.

In the middle-class nightmares of kids drugging, drinking and driving into disaster, such horror stories are often accompanied by those tales about the mothers and fathers who provided the booze or hosted the party or arranged to be absent. When teens go off the rails, adults search for reasons. Sometimes, there are none: A "good" kid was simply in the wrong car on the wrong road. Or is it that simple? Would that kid have been there if the parents had done their job and set limits?

Ron McClain is the father of two teenagers who attend Montgomery Blair and DeMatha high schools; he is also head of the private Parkmont School in the District. As a father and a school leader, he has watched parents take sides, splitting themselves into camps more polarized than any teen cliques. He has seen how

parents who define themselves as interventionists come to view other parents as a threat. He also knows parents on the other side, who justify their more lax approach by telling McClain that "I want my child to be experienced, as long as he doesn't get killed on River Road." Some of those parents are more permissive on principle; others, exhausted by their children's adolescent excesses, are defeated and discouraged. They're just praying to get through it until the kid goes to college. They defend their hands-off


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