There are opportunities for conversation and discussion at all corners, and the other morning was a prime example of such. Middle had to attend a theatre audition at an urban university and we took the opportunity to take the train since, if he does attend there, it will be the standard mode of travel. It was during the 70 minute trip that we encountered college students en route to Philadelphia for an early start to their long-awaited Saint Patrick’s Day Pub Crawl and their entry raised the parental question, how much do I reveal about my own youth?
The first indication of the Crawl was the entry of a half dozen people, a mixture of college and post-college adults. One of them carried a bag and they sat quietly and in a moment, a young man picked up his backpack and entered the vacant restroom. A moment later, the Kelly Green Power Ranger, replete with helmet, exited and returned to his seat amidst laughter from both his friends and other passengers. We noted that there then appeared green cans of beer to be quietly passed around amongst the crew. These were followed at the next station by another group of young adults, obviously in college. The students, primarily young women, were carrying convenience store coffee cups but it was the *clink* of a canvas bag carried by one of them that clued us to the fact that the cups had long since been emptied of coffee, if they’d ever carried coffee in the first place. The girls/women weren’t unduly loud but the next indication of the general condition came when the conductor stopped at the seats just ahead of us and asked the occupants for their tickets. One of the two seated ahead asked, giggling, Is this the Polar Express? The middle-aged conductor’s deadpan response was Would you like me to punch “believe” in your ticket? as he punched away. A moment later, I glanced over at Middle as we chatted and elbowed him, nodding for him to also glance over to see the two women across the aisle refilling their cups with Miller and Landshark respectively. At least one of them had a discriminating taste, although it wasn’t likely to mean squat in another six hours. Welcome to college was my sotto voce remark in Middle’s ear.
The two of us chuckled and quietly chatted as the topic turned to drinking. There’s no doubt that there’s going to be a serious amount of alcohol available, even more than is already available to high school students today, and all that I can do as a father is to find a consistent message and stay on it. My message has been that you’re simply going to be in situations in which it’s available and I hope – and expect – that you’ll remember that there are consequences to poor decisions. This was followed by two addendum: the first addendum being that if he ever needed a bad guy upon which to place responsibility or blame with his friends, he should feel free to use my name as liberally as necessary. The second addendum was that if he ever found himself in any situation, don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and call me immediately, and that included his friends as well. Middle is aware that many universities are taking a hard line towards alcohol and imposing penalties towards students who are found drinking and/or drunk in the dorms and this reminder was again passed along as well. One of his older buddies commented that he didn’t even make it through the first night on campus his freshman year before the campus police entered his dorm room and arrested the roommate for underaged drinking.
But it was in the next moment that Middle popped the question, Did you ever get drunk in college? and it’s a moment for which every father should be prepared as the kids grow. I’m fortunate that I could honestly say No, buzzed several times but never out-and-out drunk. I saw others drunk and hated the notion that if drunk, I was passing my judgment and responsibility for my own safety to others, who even if they weren’t drunk, might not necessarily be my friends and interested in my safety as much as their own entertainment. Four years at a university known even then for hard-drinking and I’d been privy to enough debauchery to detest being at another’s mercy and whim. As dangerous as that can be, it’s made worse decades later by the presence of smartphone cameras and social media, used to spread and memorialize the drunk’s embarrassment.
Drinking and drug usage are just later variants of the question, which is liable to cross your child’s lips even in preschool. So decide early on, how much are you willing to share? Do you prefer to downplay and distract them, if they’re young enough, with other topics (and that is certainly a possibility)? Do you choose to acknowledge misbehaviors – and we all have them – in a general sense or do you explore them when they’re old enough? Do you simply not respond and let the kids wonder? This last was my own father’s approach and the company line was that he was always on the straight and narrow. It was when I reached my own college years that he began to share stories from his own youth and I was flummoxed to find that there were periods when he couldn’t have followed the straight and narrow with a yardstick and a magnifying glass. Christ, compared to this guy, I’m a friggin’ saint…where did I go right and how much fun did I miss? When I asked him why he never revealed anything until I was in college, he grinned sheepishly and commented something to the effect that if I’d done some of his (mis)deeds, he probably would have killed me. His job as a father, he said, was to be an example.
And he was correct, the disingenuous bastard.
One friend is also an older father and has been very open with his own kids about his early years, which were far hairier than my own. But they also understand the ways in which things can go wrong by dint of Dad’s mistakes and he is secure enough to dissect his own situations with them, giving them a heads-up on their peers who don’t have the parental sharing. The technology base might change, but the youthful errors remain the same.
So take some time to think about how much of your own past you choose to share with the kids? Do you handle it as a novelist, ascribing some of your own experiences to a fictitious buddy that the kids can never meet because he-was-such-a-great-guy-it’s-a-damned-shame-that-he’s-dead and use the experiences to teach and entertain? Do you take my friend’s route and share the stories openly, using them as examples of how things can go wrong and what not to do? Or do you take my father’s route and go silent, talking to them but trusting that nothing stupid is going to happen? The questions will come and begin after the kids begin talking, so the sooner that you have your approach, the better off you’re going to be. Because the kids can sniff out hypocrisy like a hound looking for his favorite bone.