Drawing a Line on Drinking

October 10, 1991

Harford County teen-agers call them "field parties." Elsewhere, they're "house parties." Just plain "parties" gets the message across to other teens. Creative hosts charge admission to offset the cost of drinks, but the more entrepreneurial seek a profit, too. And in this age of teens with sophistication beyond their years and money beyond what their parents had at the same age, parties at times occur in motel rooms.

These events can be small and friendly. "Boisterous" is a common description. But they also can spin out-of-control. "Cruising" teens see a party going on and crash it. Just this summer, some 35 teens were arrested in a Severna Park house on charges of underage drinking. The hostess was 16; police, who estimated the attendance to be between 75 and 100 youngsters, said they found beer in almost every room. That's extreme. Brian Ball's widely publicized death after a Salisbury drinking party was the ultimate extreme.

Too often, however, teens get "wasted" (a cool goal for some), houses get "trashed" (an appropriate word), cars get stolen, and friends and neighbors can get really angry. The trouble is, far too many parents, relatives and neighbors say little and do nothing. It's not uncommon for some parents to buy the alcoholic beverages, rationalizing that they're helping the kids learn to drink responsibly.

Rick Sampson, head of the state's substance abuse agency, recently noted a statistical upswing in alcohol problems for Maryland teen-agers. So common is teen drinking in many Baltimore-area communities, the problem is cropping up among middle-school kids. That scary fact needs acknowledgment where it counts most, at home.

The best bet for parents to avoid having their kids get in such trouble, Mr. Sampson says, is to "be there for them, be there with them" -- at all age levels. Be it school, athletics, the outdoors, science, theater, music, churches, scouting, other activities, or blends of things to do, the shared experiences of children with parents and responsible adults over time is superb preventive medicine.

Mr. Sampson is not alone among professionals who work with young people when he says: "There comes a point when parents have to draw the line.

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