Don't Worry, Dad

TIM BAKER

November 01, 1993|By TIM BAKER

It's late Saturday night. Past midnight. I'm tired. I turn out the bedside light and lie there in the dark. But I can't sleep. I won't let myself.

My teen-ager is supposed to be home by one. Ten minutes to go. Five. I listen for the front door. Now it's five after one. Ten after. Where is he? Oh, God! Has he been drinking? My daughter hasn't come in yet either. Has she been drinking?

The phone rings.

I hate it when the phone rings late at night and my kids are out there somewhere. On the road. The phone rings. I'm scared to answer it.

Hello. ''Mr. Baker?'' Yes. ''This is Officer Murphy.'' No. ''Maryland State Police.'' No. ''I'm afraid I have some bad news for you.''

Noooooooo!

It's the only thing that truly terrifies me. If one of my children were killed, I don't know how I'd stand the pain.

My wife and I have endured these sleepless late-night hours since our elder daughter turned 16 and started to drive. She's 22 now. A sensible young woman. But we're still scared. She goes to parties. She drives home. Our son's 19. A freshman in college. Of course he goes out too. Does he drink?

Didn't you?

I started drinking when I was 16. So did most of my friends. We'd drink and drive. And never worried about it. None of us had ever heard of a ''designated driver.'' Neither had our parents. Today my mother is horrified by a joke she remembers from her own teen-age years: When the gang left the party and climbed into the roadster, they all decided Harry should drive because he was too drunk to sing.

Funny, huh?

Today we're wiser because none of us wants to be sadder. For six years my wife and I have agonized about our children drinking and driving. At first, we talked to other parents. What did they do? None of them had any satisfactory answers. There (( are no foolproof solutions.

But we've learned. Our kids must call us before they set out to drive home at night. Perhaps we can tell if they've been drinking. At least they know that at the end of the evening they'll have to be able to talk to us without slurring their words. If they sound tipsy, or just tired, we can insist that they stay right where they are.

They've been told, over and over again, that I'll come pick them up. Anywhere. They can call. Any time. No questions asked. No punishments.

''I won't even lecture you. I promise.''

Our principal line of defense, however, has been the battery of questions we ask before they leave the house for an evening out. Where are you going? Who will be there? Who's giving the party? Will the parents be home? Who's driving? Will he be drinking?

We insist on answers. He's got a date. The two of them are going out with another guy and his girl. They hope to meet up with some other kids. But he's not sure where or what they're going to do. Yes, he's heard there might be a party. But he's not sure where. Maybe at one of his friend's houses. No, he doesn't think the boy's parents have gone away for the weekend. But will they be home?

''I don't know, Dad.'' What's the boy's telephone number? ''Why? What are you going to do?'' I want to call his parents.

''DAD!!!''

We've learned total control is not a viable strategy. I think my children answer my questions honestly. But if I press too far or too hard, they will become evasive. Before long, I won't have any idea what they're really doing at night.

We've also tried straight-forward talk about the long-range dangers of alcohol. There's some alcoholism in most people's families. To some extent, drinking for anyone is playing Russian roulette with a hereditary disease.

I lecture. My kids listen. Do they hear? Does any of it sink in? I can see them thinking -- assuming.

''Don't worry, Dad. It'll never happen to me.''

That's the whole problem: they think they're immortal. Just as I did.

In fact, none of these precautions offers me much security. Ultimately, my children and yours must take responsibility for their own conduct. For their own lives. But good kids sometimes make bad choices. Fatal choices. And the easiest place for them to make a sudden, irrevocable, horrible mistake is behind the wheel of an automobile when they're been drinking.

That's the risk that terrifies me. So I've decided to offer my children a deal. I'll buy the beer as long as they agree to the following rules: (1) They and their friends must drink it all here in our house; (2) they must all surrender their car keys to me when they come in the door, and (3) all of them must spend the night.

Nobody drives. Anywhere.

It's not perfect. I'm uneasy about it. It's even illegal. I'll have to warn the other kids' parents about what I'm doing. They'll have to consent. I'll impose limits. Small parties. Very small.

And I'll tell the kids that after midnight they'll have to keep the music down. Because on the nights they're here, I'll be upstairs in bed, sound asleep.

Tim Baker's column appears on alternate Mondays.

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