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Are You a Toxic Parent?

By Marc Fisher
Sunday, July 30, 2006; W10

True or False:

·Kids are going to drink anyway, so they might as well do it at home, under adult supervision

·Restricting teenagers makes no sense when they'll be on their own in college soon enough

·You'd rather be your child's friend than an authority figure

If you answered 'true' to any of the above, you are not alone.

But that doesn't mean you're right

Each fall, when Montgomery County high schools send home the list of families who have signed the Safe Home Pledge, Nancy Murray studies the document as if it were holy writ. "You better believe I examine it," says Murray, a Burtonsville mother of four. The families on the list have agreed to abide by these rules for their teenagers:

(1) I will supervise parties or gatherings in my home.

(2) I will welcome calls from other parents when my child is hosting a party or gathering.

(3) I will call the parents for a Safe Home confirmation when my child is attending a party or gathering.

(4) I will not allow or serve alcohol, tobacco or other drugs in my home or on my property.

Lots of parents sign the pledge, often because of peer pressure: If everyone else is signing, how would it look if your name were not on the list? Who opposes keeping kids safe? But it's something else entirely actually to pick up the phone and call other parents, especially when your kid is 15, 16, 17 years old.

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.

"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

parenting by saying, "Why should I pretend I have control over the kids when I know they're going off to college in a year?"

These two sets of parents rarely speak to one another. When they do, the results can be ugly.

Ginny Walter is a mother in Potomac whose two children are beyond high school but who found herself on the receiving end of a torrent of parental wrath back when her teenage daughter was going through a rough time with drinking and drugs. "There's this one-upmanship by parents who think they're better than you because their kids aren't in trouble," Walter says. The culminating

moment: "My daughter's best friend's mother called and said, 'My daughter can't be friends with your daughter ever again, can't ever talk to her again.' She found out something and decided my daughter was the one influencing her daughter. She wouldn't tell me why, wouldn't talk to me about it -- ever."

As a society, we not only seek to punish "bad" kids but to find the parents who produced them and hold those adults responsible. As of this month, a new law in Virginia makes parents liable for

allowing teens to consume alcohol in or near their homes. In Montgomery, police have established a squad of officers who do nothing but track down teenage bacchanals. The kids get cited and fined, but it's the parents who host the parties who are exposed to the harshest penalties. In Maryland, parents can be fined $1,000 for each underage drinker attending a party at their house.

For those who find pleasure in identifying toxic parents, the party patrol is a thrilling place to start.

GARY FINCH AND I ARE IN A POLICE SQUAD CAR, roaring up Interstate 270 late on a Saturday night. The radio has been crackling about a party in Germantown. High school kids, noise, drinking -- it's the holy trinity of the party police. Adrenaline pumping, we're off.

Finch, a former dot-commer who left the corporate marketing biz to become a police officer, is one of the youngest guys on party patrol (official name: Alcohol Enforcement Unit). He and his wife live in Hagerstown and have four boys, ranging in age from 1 to 11. Finch, 36, is under no illusion that the people whose Saturday nights he turns upside down are completely different from his own family. "I'm not going to sit here and say my kids will never do this," he says. "But there are parents who try to be responsible, and there are parents who choose to be blind to the whole thing."

Kids usually cooperate with the party busters. The trouble most often comes from parents, who are quick to blame one another. The party police frequently meet parents who barge onto the scene with their lawyer already on the cellphone, directing the kids not to give officers their address. Or the parents -- usually fathers -- confront the cops with the names of county bigwigs who are allegedly family friends. Many parents are miffed by the interruption of their evening. "A lot of these parents can't wait till their kids are 16 so the kids can drive and the parents can get their romantic lives back," Finch says.

And if the host parents are around when the other mothers and fathers arrive to fetch their drunken offspring, watch out. The party police busted one bash in Kentlands where the mother was in her bedroom, door shut, supposedly oblivious to the fact that in the bedroom at the end of the hall, six kids were well into an intimate evening with two 30-packs of Coors beer. After the police confronted the mother with the party down the hall -- she was cited by police for hosting an underage drinking affair -- the other parents arrived to pick up their teenagers. The police informed one mom that her daughter had been drinking and that, by the way, when the officers arrived, she was wearing only boxers and a bra. Hearing about her daughter's state of dress set off the mother. She turned to the party host and said: "What kind of mother are you? What the hell is wrong with you?"

Officers had to separate the women.

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 washingtonpost.com/liveonline.

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