The New Year has begun under the shadow of darkness and destructiveness. As the New Year begins, we live with the execution of Saddam Hussein and the death of a local teenage girl due to a drunk driving incident. The alleged driver was only a teenager himself.
We also began the New Year with the death and burial of our 38th president, Gerald Ford, Jr. President Ford died at the age of ninety-three. He led our nation at a time in American history when respect for the presidency and our government was severely impaired. He never sought to be president, but he restored respect and dignity to the executive branch of our government. He was a man of honor, respect and common decency. He did not allow politics to interfere with the way in which he treated people.
At that time in our history, we needed a leader who would heal the nation - and that is exactly what he did. He restored confidence in our Democratic Republic and in our government. Although he was president, he never became full of himself or consumed with the power he held. He was always open and listened. In his brief twenty-nine months in office, he realigned the nation and set a course that still has influence today.
In our state, we have begun the New Year with a new leadership in Albany. We have a new governor who has promised to set us on a better course. This course is to be one that is more cost effective, more sensitive to the needs of seniors, more attentive to education and making education more affordable for the middle class and a whole list of other things that seem noble and positive.
Despite the continuing shadow of war and destructiveness in our midst, there is an air of cautious optimism afoot. People want to be hopeful that things will be better. We surely possess the tools to make things better. However, we need to be more attentive to some of the basic things that shape our everyday life.
Over the last couple of weeks, I've had a variety of conversations with parents of children of various ages. People always panic when someone close to home is killed senselessly due to recklessness, especially if the person is a young person.
The constant question that kept emerging is "Why do things seem so out of control?" I think there are two responses to that question. The first response suggests that things are not really out of control. Rather, there are a handful of young people who are reckless and out of control. To some, they are the heart of the problem. If we confront them and their parents, things will be better. That is an interesting response, but I think it is somewhat incomplete and does not totally capture the seriousness of what's happening around us.
The second response suggests that the problem is very serious and very pervasive among young people and families everywhere. There seems to be a level of denial that is infectious when it comes to teenage behavior. A growing number of parents are not willing to confront the truth and respond accordingly.
It is easier to make excuses or to explain behavior as a rite of teenage passage to adulthood, rather than face some of the destructive choices our teenagers are making on a regular basis.
Since January 1, 2007, there have been a series of circumstances that have taken young lives and/or put a number of young lives in serious jeopardy. Some of these tragic circumstances have made the local press and some have not. However, these tragic happenings have fueled a wide range of conversation among adults and teenagers alike.
Needless to say, many teenagers in our larger community are grieving the loss of a number of friends due to the reckless behavior of others. In almost every circumstance where a teenager was killed or seriously injured, alcohol and drugs were involved. The friends most closely associated with the victims and these tragic circumstances tend to minimize or negate the presence of alcohol or drugs. The constant response I've heard is that "they were really not that bad" or "they just had a few and they seemed fine."
In each circumstance, the victims were under twenty-one and the young people responsible for the tragic loss of life were underage as well. Upon further investigation, social drinking and smoking marijuana have become socially acceptable forms of teenage socializing.
Almost everyone from athletes to scholars to all students in between feel that as long as they are responsible and not reckless, what is the big deal! That attitude is further reinforced by many parents. In talking to parents about teenage drinking, I was surprised to see how many parents did not feel it was a big deal, even though it is against the law if you're under twenty-one.
Many parents felt that their teenagers were going to drink anyway, so their big concern was protection and not abstinence; social safety and not legal compliance. The parents I spoke to minimized the legal aspect. They made reference to their own teenage drinking, how they grew out of it and became successful members of our community.
In regard to smoking pot, many parents felt that it was part of the teenage passage to adulthood. And again, no big deal! Few parents wanted to face that the drinking and the smoking were not merely weekend social behaviors, but rather much more consistent and regularly bordering on reckless.
They also did not want to confront that our teenagers are not just smoking pot and drinking on the weekends, but are doing so much more. The use of prescribed medication as a means of getting high is escalating at an alarming rate. The accessibility and use of heroin is frightening. If the truth is told, prescribed drugs and heroin are readily available at most social gatherings where alcohol is being served to underage drinkers in all quarters of our community.
The other disturbing observation I made in reflecting on these various conversations is how many parents of high school coeds have no problem with teenagers socializing in large numbers in other people's homes with no supervision. To me, that scenario seems to be a formula for disaster. If history in our larger community is a reference point, it clearly supports my concern. Too many teenagers have lost their lives senselessly because of lack of supervision and the illegal use of drugs and alcohol.
The recent pride surveys that most of our local schools have taken underscore that we have a serious problem regarding teenage social behavior and their social choices. However, if we accept the content of the pride surveys as fact, the question to be raised is: what are we going to do to address these serious concerns?
We cannot place the burden of responsibility upon our schools. It must be the responsibility of each one of us as parents and members of the community. I don't believe the solution lies in creating new programs, establishing new laws or even becoming more punitive in our response when our teenagers are non-compliant.
If we really want to be effective, the change must take place within each of us. We need to change our attitudes, begin to move beyond our social blindness and accept some hard truths about teenage social behavior. We need to ask ourselves some hard questions. How are we parenting our children? Are we enabling their reckless behavior by our silence or our social indifference? Are we willing to risk straining our relationship with our teenagers to do what is right and safe or is it more important to be seen as a friend in their eyes?
These are hard questions to confront and truly reflect on. However, if we want this year to be safer and more life-giving than last year, we must face these questions. For the sake of our children and our larger community, we must be open to change and become more proactive in our parenting. No one wants to go to a teenage funeral caused by recklessness and irresponsibility.