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Are You a Toxic Parent?

(Timothy Devine)

The tip about the party we're racing to in Germantown came from an uninvited friend of the partying kids. (Hosting advice: Police say their No. 1 source of information about teen drinking parties is vengeful kids who didn't get invited.) By the time we arrive at the bash, it's nearly midnight. Squad cars line the street outside; officers cover all doors and windows (kids routinely jump out windows and run when the party patrol approaches). In we go.

Thirty kids are sprawled all over the contemporary furniture in every room. The basement features a heap of beer cans and a Ping-Pong table dotted with cups -- we interrupted beer pong. The kitchen table is littered with condoms, cigars and rolling papers. Quickly, officers separate the kids by age -- under-18s in one room, older kids in another. In the living room, six girls, all in tears, are on cellphones, making the dreaded call home to arrange the Worst Ride of Their Lives.

The host is a 19-year-old boy whose parents are, conveniently, on a cruise. (The parents were not held liable for the party by police because their son, who was cited, is legally an adult.) Eight days of newspapers lie piled unopened on the dining room table. Everyone gets Breathalyzed. The older and sober kids are sent on their way. Older and soused teens get citations and must find their way home on foot. Those under 18, most of them students at Seneca Valley High School, must summon a parent to pick them up.

The cops transform the host family's breakfast nook, where framed paintings of wine bottles adorn the walls, into an impromptu booking station. While officers write 32 citations for underage drinking at $500 a pop, parents begin to drift in. "I'm not very happy," the father of a 17-year-old tells me in a tight growl. He promises there will be consequences for his daughter. "She told us she was going to be at another party, a holiday party with the family there." And then he pulls me aside: "Whose house is this anyway?"

Another father arrives and immediately asks to speak to the sergeant: "Don't you guys have any real crime to take care of?" When the father gets barely more than a grunt in response, he steps over to another officer and, in a quieter voice, asks, "Didn't you drink when you were this age?"

The dads get out of the house as fast as they can, eyeing one another with a lethal blend of suspicion and blame.

A mother walks in, takes in the scene and gasps. Her daughter sidles up to her: "I'm sorry. I didn't know this was going to freak you out or anything," she says by way of comforting her parent. The mother visibly relaxes.

"It's okay," she tells her child, "these police are just harassing kids." She raises her voice so the officers can hear. "They're just trying to spoil your fun."

"I ALWAYS SAID I'D NEVER BE ONE OF THOSE PARENTS who goes out and gets their kid a car when they turn 16." Debbie Sausville laughs, shakes her head, gives me a sheepish smile. "You know what?" When her daughter, Shannon, turned 16, "I bought her a car. You know why? Because I was sick to death of going out at 11 to go get her."

Shannon is 21 now, but when she was 16, she would go out drinking with friends, and her mother knew it. "I know on a few occasions, she drank and drove. I was on the couch one night when she came home, and when I said, 'Come give me a kiss good night,' she was shying away from me, and I knew she had been drinking. And she said, 'Yeah, but not for a while.'"

Sausville knew her daughter had friends whose parents sat and drank with them, and friends whose parents let them have drinking parties at their house as long as everyone stayed over and no one drove. Not in Sausville's house in Clifton: No way. She tried to set limits -- curfews, consequences for violations of the house rules. She prided herself on saying no. But sometimes yes just made life so much smoother.

"Sometimes, it's easier to let them do it," Sausville says. "You're sick of arguing about it. You say, 'Oh, all right.' It's easier to just give them the car or let them go to the party than to have them hate you."

With her own daughter, Sausville sometimes could impose limits. With Lauren, her stepdaughter, it was tougher. A stepmother has a harder time establishing authority, and Lauren's father left that task primarily to Sausville. When Lauren was 16, she and another girl were coming home from a party in a Jeep when they were stopped by police, who found beer in the vehicle. Sausville and another mother talked on the phone about how to handle the incident. "What are you going to do, ground them for being at a party?" the other mother asked. "What can you do?"

Yes, ground them, Sausville said, and she did just that, confining Lauren to the house and banning her from the computer -- "standard stuff, a couple weeks," she recalls. "And the phone was taken away. But they don't care. They know it'll end.

"I mean, I drove in high school. I didn't even like beer, but I drank. Most of us who went through high school and college in the '70s and '80s are lucky to be alive. We say, 'I don't want to be a hypocrite.' My daughter asked, 'Did you ever do marijuana?' Hell, I was in college in the '70s!"

So Sausville hacked her own path through the jungle of parenthood. There were no straight lines. She knew what Lauren was up to, but taking away her driver's license wasn't in Sausville's arsenal of responses. Sausville tried to assert her authority yet also sought to be a friend. She grounded Lauren but let her continue driving. Sausville's older daughter made it through. Her stepdaughter did not.

Before she lost control of her family's Ford Explorer on a hilly stretch of Colchester road in Fairfax Station; before she flipped the SUV and smashed into a car driven by her friend, who suffered minor injuries; before the horrific end to that Friday night a year and a half ago, Lauren Sausville, a 16-year-old junior at Fairfax High School, drank. She drank a lot -- at least six beers and four shots of vodka, enough that when the authorities found her, the level of alcohol in her blood was 0.13, well over the legal limit of 0.08. Lauren got the beer from an older guy she knew from the neighborhood. She was buried in a beautiful white-and-pink casket.

Does that make Debbie Sausville a toxic parent? Does she deserve the cold shoulder she gets from parents who believe she is responsible for what happened to Lauren, and even for the troubles their own kids have faced? There are parents in Clifton who do not speak to Sausville, who greet her with a glare. There are parents who believe that she, by failing to stop Lauren from driving, by failing to take control of a teenager who drank to excess, not only failed Lauren but also failed them, endangering their children. Sausville takes on those accusations when she speaks about Lauren's death at schools and parent meetings. She tells parents that "you give the right to drive to your children, and you can take it away." She counsels a more aggressive approach to parenting than the one she practiced. She is friendly, open, frank about what happened. Sausville is someone who knows how to get along with people; she's in sales. But when she sees herself being frozen out by other mothers, it grates. The silent recriminations are the ones that sting. "Believe me," Sausville says, "there are a few houses I'd like to knock on the door of and say a few things. We don't talk to that many of the parents. They would only resent and ignore anything that was good that we did. And I would say to them: 'How dare you accuse me?'"

It's not that Sausville believes she did everything right. "I wish we had forbade Lauren to hang out with this group," she says. "It's all about choices, like Robert Frost and the paths less taken. When you're young, the friends you choose are the path you take. With Shannon, the values I instilled finally kicked in. She could have gone down the wrong path, but she turned to the right way. With Lauren, she got in with a rough crowd, and that was the beginning of the end."

Still, she says, a parent cannot be there every minute. Should not be. "Look, we're all defensive of our kids and our parenting. But there's no book that comes with them. Lauren chose to drink. Lauren chose to drive." Parents who think they've found the formula -- parents who look right through Sausville -- make it harder for everyone else, she says. "Anybody who thinks they've got it down, their kid is snowing them."

The quest for perfect parenting, Saus-ville believes, has led to a ratcheting up of expectations to unreasonable, absurd levels, creating pressure for parents to be hyper-involved in their children's lives, to be that much more deeply aware of their kids' activities than the next parents. She sees a gulf between mothers like her who work and mothers who have quit work and committed themselves entirely to child-rearing.

"In this area, you have to have two incomes to get by. And then the schools call you to come in for a conference at 1 p.m. And you're supposed to be like the moms who have no other life: 'Oh, let me just take the cookies out of the oven and hang up my apron and I'll be right over!'" The comment hangs in the air for a long while, and then Sausville says: "Sorry. There's a lot of anger."

THE OTHER PARENTS TOLD NANCY MURRAY SHE WAS NAIVE. You can't stop them from drinking, other mothers and fathers said; you can try to keep the kids safe only by keeping them close to home. Murray kept calling other parents to make certain her teenagers would be properly supervised at parties, but somewhere deep inside, she began to wonder if maybe those other parents were right.

When the Murrays' daughter Meagan turned 17, she wanted to have a birth-day party at the family's house near Burtonsville. The Murrays were anxious about maintaining control of 40 17-year-olds, but "you do want your kids to socialize," Murray says. So the parents green-lighted the party, with all the precautions they could think of.

"We made kids leave their jackets at the front door," Murray recalls. "We had a coat rack -- short of searching them, what else could we have done? Everyone knew the rules -- no alcohol. We were there the whole time. We made ourselves obvious. There wasn't one more thing we could do." And still, she learned later, some kids managed to sneak alcohol into the house. "It's a shame, because you really can't have parties at your house for kids in high school."

One other thing sticks with Murray about that party: Not a single parent called ahead to check out the situation. "Not one. We call them, but they don't call."

Still, Nancy and Thomas Murray stick to their rules. Anything less, they believe, would be an abdication of their role. One night when the Murrays were out for the evening, their daughter called on the cell to ask if a couple of friends could come over to the house. Even though Murray had known those friends since they were in elementary school, she didn't want them hanging out at her house without adult supervision. So when the kids arrived at the door, the daughter explained that she was sorry, but her parents had said no. The visiting kids left and ended their night in trouble: There had been drinking, and one teen capped his night with a visit to the emergency room from all the alcohol he'd consumed. Later, that boy's mother called Murray. The mother was tracing her son's movements, asking questions as if Murray were to blame, somehow, for not stopping her child from drinking. "She wanted to hold us responsible for not calling her or not helping her son," Murray says. In another mother's mind, this most responsible and conscientious of parents was now somehow suspect. "And of course we didn't know what those kids were doing. We only knew that we had made a choice for our kid. You know, parents do want somebody to blame."

SO JUST HOW MUCH SHOULD WE FEAR TOXIC PARENTS? Can you really draw a straight line from parenting style to kids' behavior? The state of Maryland tried to find out. In a comprehensive, decade-long survey of 35,000 adolescents, the state's education department looked at how differences in parenting match up with differences in substance abuse. Bingo: Kids who admitted to drinking or using illegal drugs were twice as likely to say that they can always change the mind of an adult to get their way. The study concluded that non-users are more likely to have a parent who always makes sure they wake up in time for school, more likely to say that a parent always worries about them if they don't know where the teen is, and far more likely to report that their parents have rules about whom they can be with. (Non-users also seem to come from families that spend more time together. Drug or alcohol users are far less likely than non-users to report that their family eats together every day.)

Intentionally or not, some parents are communicating to their kids that it's fine for teens to drink or smoke pot. While only 12 percent of non-users in 12th grade say their parents approved of them drinking beer, 38 percent of seniors who drink believe their parents are okay with that. Similarly, while only 3 percent of seniors who don't smoke pot believe their parents approve of marijuana use, 15 percent of seniors who do smoke say they have their parents' consent.

And while many parents believe teenage substance abuse is inevitable, the survey numbers tell a different story. Marijuana use has been in persistent decline at all grade levels in the Maryland study, with the most recent results showing that 16 percent of 10th-graders reported smoking pot in the last month, down from 23 percent in 1994. Drinking numbers also declined, though they are much higher, at 31 percent for 10th-graders, down from 45 percent a decade ago.

Statistics in hand, more than 120 parents, counselors, police officers and school administrators gather in a Rockville auditorium on a weekday evening for a town hall meeting. The idea is to put all kinds of parents into one room and let them hear why some say no to their kids. Meg Baker, who runs Drawing the Line, a Montgomery program aimed at educating parents about how to keep kids safe from alcohol and drugs, thought that if families from both sides of the divide came together, maybe activist parents could persuade the others to change their ways. After all, Baker believes, what parents really crave is some spine, the courage to do what's right. She occasionally gets calls from parents anxious about letting their teen attend a party where they suspect there will be drinking. "The mother says, 'Oh, I don't want them to go, but the other parents don't mind. What should I do?'" What the parent is really saying, Baker has learned, is, "Could you please give me the okay to send my child to the party?'"

"And I won't do it," Baker says. "I'm thinking, well, at 17, it's a little late to be figuring out your parenting guidelines. But what I say is that most kids are not drinking, and you shouldn't buy into the perception that everyone's doing it. But they just say thank you. And I know they're going to let the kid go."

It quickly becomes clear that the premise of the evening is flawed: The parents here are of only one kind -- those who believe they have enormous influence over whether kids will get in trouble, those who are appalled that some parents host drinking parties. The kind of parents Baker sought to change do not attend this sort of meeting.

Everyone goes through the motions anyway. The police and the prosecutors rail against parents who, as Montgomery police Capt. Tom Didone says, "just don't get it." Police speak gravely about the $1,000 fines courts can levy against adults who furnish alcohol to underage kids. There is exactly zero discussion across the dividing line.

In truth, even those who organized the town hall meeting know that real dialogue was unlikely. Rita Rumbaugh, a mother of four who runs the Montgomery school system's program for Safe and Drug-Free Schools, started doing this work more than a decade ago, before parents became quite so anxious about college and their kids' futures. Back then, she says, "it was all much more open. But now parents are generally not amenable to the information we offer. It's harder than ever to talk to parents. When a school steps into a parent's space, saying we're really concerned about your child, the parents get very offended. They really think they've made it safe when they take the kids' car keys away at a party. It's discouraging to try to reach those parents; in fact, it's easier to get through to the kids."

ALLAN SHEDLIN IS A FATHER OF THREE ADULT DAUGHTERS, a former school principal who runs a business in Bethesda coaching parents on child-rearing. Kids thrive on firm boundaries, Shedlin preaches, but he sees more parents than ever who can't bring themselves to set limits for children of any age.

"I watch the intensity and hyper-ness of my own daughter's life in Ashburn and the impact that has on her 4- and 6-year-olds," Shedlin says. "More and more parents are spending less and less time with their children, so when they do spend time, they want it to be free of conflicts. And they think setting limits produces conflicts. Of course, my experience is just the opposite."

When one of his daughters was graduating from high school, she asked if she could have a party to celebrate the occasion. Sure, Shedlin said. And can we serve alcohol? she asked.

"Christina, do you really need to ask me that question?"

"Well, Dad, then nobody's going to come."

People did come, as Shedlin predicted they would, and everything went along swimmingly until Shedlin did a walkabout to see how the party was progressing. He saw a boy put something into his Coke can. Shedlin told his daughter the boy had to go. Did she want the father to confront the boy?

"No, Dad, I'll take care of it," the daughter replied, and she ushered the boy to the door. There was no further conflict, Shedlin says, because "there were rules, and they were predictable."

When parents come to his office complaining about kids who act out, get into trouble or seem to run the family, the root problem Shedlin often finds is the parents' failure to set limits -- to determine bed times, to restrict TV watching, to steer kids away from bad influences, to withhold driving privileges, to be in charge. The failure to say no to a little kid's every whim leads fairly directly to the inability or unwillingness to say no to coed sleepovers. "What's missing," Shedlin says, "is parents setting their own compass."

IN HER POTOMAC NEIGHBORHOOD, Ginny Walter's parenting didn't stand out as particularly problematic. No parents ever objected when she arranged for kids to sleep over at parties at her house because she assumed they'd be drinking; at least this way, there'd be no danger of anyone driving home drunk. "We'd joke that we had gray, black and red carpet in the basement so it was vomit-proof," Walter says.

No one said no when the kids asked to have coed sleepovers, even though the parents talked about how there was certain to be sexual activity. "The parents got all excited about it," Walter says. "Everyone knew what went on, and it was cool to have the parties at your house. They're going to be a cool parent!"

But then word started spreading that Walter's daughter was having problems at school and home, problems involving substance abuse, problems that some parents thought might influence their own children in the wrong direction. Suddenly what Ginny Walter did became the subject of whispers and worse.

"It started with some of our best friends saying that 'if it were my daughter, I'd put her in her room.'" Walter remembers every painful remark, every snub, every glare. "A few parents called me with great concern, but you wouldn't believe the things that come out of parents' mouths when you have a kid who has problems. 'She's not watching her kid,' they'd say. Or, 'They're serving her beer at home.' Or, 'Her kid is just out of control.' I spent a lot of time crying. It killed me."

Later Walter, whose daughter is now out of high school and doing well, found faint satisfaction in learning that some of the mothers who had been most critical of her parenting eventually ran into crises with their own children. "The harder they judge you, the quicker they fall into the same position," Walter says. "You get to boys and cars and alcohol, and, all of a sudden, you're so freaked out, you don't know what the rules are."

But no matter how much anguish her friends faced with their children, they and Walter never discussed their kids' problems. When Walter tried to bring up the topic, the subject was quickly changed. Walter traces the roots of the silence to the competition among parents to get their kids into college. Admitting that your child might have a problem was somehow seen as losing a step in the race up the ladder.

"This competitive college process is the main reason parents don't talk to each other about any of this," Walter says. "If you're at a parent dinner, and you want to have a discussion about your kids getting in trouble, you can't touch the topic. It's all about college and PSAT practice classes. I never found any camaraderie. I never found another parent to talk to about all that. Nobody admits any problems -- drinking, drugs, anything. And somebody should go see these parents drinking."

Rather than reach out to comfort or counsel a struggling mother, parents redoubled their efforts to portray their own children as normal or thriving, Walter found. Her troubles became the object lesson other families used to lecture their own kids.

"How do you change it?" she wonders. "Do you go to Back to School Night and raise your hand and say, 'Does anybody else have a kid who's in trouble?'" Walter heard from plenty of parents who boasted that their kids confided in them, that there were no secrets in their house. She wasn't buying it. "Why are they talking so much about being in control? It's because they're in such fear. You all have kids, they all go to play group, they all go to summer camp, and then some of them get screwed up. They see me, and everybody else is saying, 'Please don't let me be her, please don't let me be her.'"

Walter concluded that those parents were deluding themselves. "Most of the parents saying those things just haven't gotten over to the other side yet. The mother that gave me the hardest time ended up losing her cookies because her kid was dating some really bad guys. All these things that happen, it becomes a way to backstab the other parents. They'll see. Everyone gets their day."

AT HOME IN TAKOMA PARK, at work at the small school he runs and on the soccer fields where he coaches, Ron McClain hears the whispers and accusations made by parents against one another. As a father, McClain puts himself in the activist, interventionist camp, taking a firm line with his kids. But his job as an educator teaches him that all is not always as it seems.

Even with their emphasis on security, helicopter parents can feel very much lost, uncertain whether all their precautions might be for naught, might even backfire. And for all their seeming certainty about letting kids find their own way, those who get tagged as toxic parents nonetheless worry about their kids, too.

"Somewhere inside, those of us who are more likely to judge parents who seem checked out know that we are more alone than we'd like to be in handling these problems," McClain says. "We'd all feel better if we had more company.

We'd all like it if someone came up with an ingenious plan to distract kids from Beach Week." The prospect of the popular unchaperoned senior trips to a teen fantasy world of boys and girls gone wild is enough to rattle any parent. Activist parents struggle to concoct ways to occupy their kids after the formal festivities on prom night, but Beach Week stymies even some of the most controlling parents.

McClain suggests that many parents' positions aren't nearly as hardened as the helicopter or toxic labels imply. Rather, he sees a mushy continuum; parenting, after all, is improvisation. "I've had friends who went from a 10th grade position of keeping the kids away from drinking or anything dangerous to an 11th grade position of, 'Well, they need to know how to handle it and get it in perspective.'

"You see it in attitudes toward Beach Week -- let them go or say no? You see parents who are tired of fighting, and they create this trade-off with their kids: We're going to preserve our relationship by me not probing what you do. It's the wanting-to-be-friends approach to parenting. When what they should be saying is, 'We're concerned, we're keeping an eye on what you do, and we're going to be outspoken about pointing out the dangers you face.'"

Instead, teachers and administrators say, they see parents who cannot fill McClain's prescription for a blend of firmness and flexibility. The trick, McClain believes, is to give kids enough room to make some of their own mistakes while also accepting that being a parent sometimes means being absolutist and resented.

Some parents, says John Randall, a guidance counselor at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, know their children need limits but are incapable of imposing them. "They come to us pleading for help, but it's not, 'Teach me how to manage my child,' it's, 'You manage my child.'"

Many educators collect stories about parents who simply refuse to play their part. When a couple of 14-year-olds were caught engaged in a sex act in a stairwell at Richard Montgomery, the parents were summoned to school. The response from the girl's mother: She was aware that her daughter had been having sex. Thanks for the call, bye-bye.

"Kids want boundaries," says Richard Montgomery's principal, Moreno Carrasco. "They want structure. But too many parents feel a battle between being loved and wanting to be the parent."

WHAT RARELY COMES UP IN THE HAND-WRINGING ABOUT TOXIC PARENTS is just what the kids make of all this. As you might expect of people who are busy honing their ability to gauge who's up and who's down, whom to hang with and whom to avoid, teenagers are keenly aware of distinctions and divisions among parents. Kids know that some of their friends seem to answer to no one, while others have parents you would never tell what's really going on, and still others have parents who are perfectly fine to talk to, whether they are strict or permissive.

Kids were on to helicopter parents long before adults named the phenomenon: "It's the hovering, the need to know every detail, that gets to me," says Adam Clemons, a senior I met in a group of students at Richard Montgomery this spring. "The less I tell them, the less they're on my back."

"My mom has to know where I am, who I'm with, how many people are there," says senior Anna Leonard. "That thoroughness makes me want to lie, even if I'm not doing anything wrong."

On the other side of the divide, kids have seen checked-out parents in all their glory. "I sleep over at my friend's house, and his parents don't even know I'm there," says senior Edward Schmiedel. "They don't know who he hangs out with."

One girl tells me about her friends' parents who "are really naive and just stay upstairs whenever kids are over" or even "buy their kids the liquor 'cause they think teenagers will be teenagers." Some of these parents are so eager to be considered cool that they drink with the kids. "God, get your own friends," this girl says.

What many kids value is parents who search for a middle course. "The best parents have high expectations but allow your independence to start to develop," says senior David Stone. "I have a friend whose parents allow them to get drunk, and their friends can come, too, if their parents say it's okay. But I can't go over there; my mom won't let me. And, really, I don't agree with what goes on there because they do it every single weekend. I can understand trying it once, but I don't need it every week."

And Adam, who bristles at his mother's restrictions, nonetheless argues that more lenient parents only encourage more dangerous behavior. "Every parent that allows such and such, whatever it is, the kid will do it a little more. That's how it works."

A few weeks later, I got together with some of these same students for a no-names session where they could more openly discuss what their parents don't know about their lives. But even with a grant of anonymity, the stories they told about their own behavior were not especially shocking. Some drinking, some pot smoking.

With or without names attached, however, the students made a persuasive plea for parents who set clear boundaries. What really set them off was the bad behavior of mothers and fathers who drink with kids, who supply alcohol, who seem oblivious to their children's problems. "I have less respect for those parents," said one boy. "They think they're the cool parents. But they're not responsible."

What some parents don't get, several kids said, is that "nobody cares if the parents are cool." What they do crave is parents who act like parents.

A senior girl spoke of attending a New Year's party where more than 100 high school kids showed up, drank heavily and tore the place apart right in front of the father of the house. "It was freaky," she says. "I didn't have any respect for him. He was in the room the whole time, and he just let it all happen. I would never allow that kind of party in my house. He's supposed to be the parent."

Marc Fisher is a Metro section columnist. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at noon at

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