Thursday, July 28, 2005

Editorial: Parents: Get involved

Published in the Current

(July 28, 2005): When police officers have to work harder to get parents more involved in their children’s safety, there’s a problem.

But that’s where we are. As we see on Page 1, local police officers and law enforcement agencies around the state have banded together in a couple of efforts to help keep teens safe. One program will let parents know when kids are driving badly, and the other asks parents to grant advance permission for police to enter their homes if kids are left home alone and hold parties or cause other disturbances.

Our communities, Scarborough, Cape Elizabeth and South Portland, have already had similar practices in place for a while. In Cape Elizabeth and Scarborough, for example, many of the officers call parents when a teen driver is stopped for a violation.

But South Portland has never had a program for parents to register a home when a teen is left there alone for several days. And Cape’s program like that has never gotten widespread involvement, though some parents do take advantage of it.

Few South Portland parents have used the “How’s my driving?” bumper-sticker effort, perhaps because teens share the car and the adults don’t want to hear the feedback on their own actions.

Police are effectively challenging parents to participate more, by coming up with new ideas – and taking on more work for themselves, like calling parents – to help keep teens safe.

We can be sure it’s not because they want more work. Actually, they want to keep kids safe, and reduce their own workload in the future. By stopping problems when kids are young and the challenges are relatively small, police hope they can prevent more trouble in the future, including more serious crimes and bad car crashes.

Parents need to reciprocate the cops’ efforts, seeking out information from the police on how their children are behaving, and acting on what they learn.

There’s an axiom about parenting: The main job is to get the child to age 18, safe and healthy; anything more than that is a bonus. While there’s more to parenting than that, it’s certainly a place to start.

At the paper we hear stories from time to time about how one parent or another yelled at a police officer calling to talk about a teen’s wrongdoing. That sort of response is not appropriate. If there is a stern talking-to to be doled out, it’s not to the officer who caught the kid.

Parents need to understand how their actions affect their children, even beyond the teenage years.

Studies show that parents’ driving habits influence teen drivers’ habits more than any other source. If kids are learning from the people who run red lights – as happens at nearly every local intersection all day, every day – we’re all in a lot of danger out on the roads.

Parents also need to get real. Studies keep showing that parents are in denial about their children’s behavior, including how often they drink – or whether they drink at all.

Few teens resist the chance to drink or experiment with other risky behavior. That was the case when I was a kid, when my parents were kids, and when my grandparents were kids.

The same types of temptations exist now as have ever existed. Somewhere between their own teenage years and their children's, as part of growing up, people come to believe they are doing something different – that they, as parents, are changing the circumstances around their children to be something other than their own childhoods.

And many do, in many ways making their children's lives better. But the world outside the house has not changed so much, and believing – even knowing – your kids have it better than you should not extend to believing your kids act differently than kids ever have in the face of peer pressure, temptation and curiosity.

Parents who are planning to go out of town and leave their kids in charge of the house should let the local police know. Even if the kid doesn’t throw a party intentionally, friends who find out about an adult-free house have been known to show up and create a party where none might have existed before.

Parents should allow police into their homes to break up parties, no matter their cause. And they should make sure they find out what kind of driving habits their children are learning and practicing on the roads of our communities. Getting involved is the only way to make a difference.

Jeff Inglis, editor