Be your own kid's parole officer

February 11, 1997|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- So this is Morning in America, circa 1997: Mom is making breakfast and hurrying 15-year-old Joanna through the before-school ritual: ''Honey, don't forget to brush your teeth and take your drug test.''

Dad jumps up at dawn Saturday to run a pop urine quiz on 17-year-old Johnny for any substance leftovers from last night's party. He accompanies his son into the, uh, collection room with a small plastic vial.

These warmhearted little scenes of modern family life may soon become domestic docudramas. At long last and to great public acclaim, the FDA has approved a sample collection kit called ''Dr. Brown's Home Drug Testing System.'' For a mere $30 a pop, or a pee, parents will have the marvelous opportunity to become their own child's parole officer.

This product was created out of a chemical mix of parental anxiety, politics and marketing savvy.

Last fall, a Georgia mother named Sunny Cloud was prevented from marketing a similar home test by the FDA. This reticence created an uproar from politicians. It ended up as part of the family-values debate.

The FDA eventually found a product it could approve and before spring, Dr. Brown will be making house calls. We'll have a mail-order drug test for marijuana, PCP, amphetamines, cocaine, heroin, codeine and morphine. And a test case for that other ingredient in family life called trust.

Trust and teens? Teens and trust? I am told these words go together like mustard and strawberries. I know the statistics that have parents panicking. Some 22 percent of all 12- to 17-year-olds have at least tried marijuana.

There are parents who have reason to be suspicious. For them, Dr. Brown is a mother's little helper. But what happens to family relationships when every teen-ager becomes a suspect? How do kids feel, and indeed behave, when they are presumed guilty?

Americans have always been uneasy about adolescents. But today we have simultaneously let these young people drift out of our line of vision, and ordered a crackdown. In the cities, we have begun to impose curfews. In the schools, we have the right to inspect lockers. In the car, we install a speed monitor advertised as ''The Teen-ager's Nightmare'' to tattletale on how fast they were driving. We even have beepers to keep track of their whereabouts.

What next? If we can conduct weekly tests for drugs, why not monthly tests for teen pregnancy? Why not have hidden cameras or electronic anklets? Does anyone remember when reading a child's diary was considered a violation of privacy? Or when time and talk were the tools that we depended on to keep tabs?

What parents forget

I wonder if Dr. Brown's market share of parents has lost more faith in themselves than in their kids. Baby-boomer parents may have forgotten how much we wanted our parents to trust us, and remember only those times we were untrustworthy.

Twenty years ago, high school seniors were twice as likely to smoke marijuana daily as they are now. How many parents have forgotten they survived and remember they were at risk?

Today parents are more likely to be at work and less likely to be at home. There are newer, scarier pressures. When we feel out of touch, we reach for some remote control. Instead of parental supervision, we are tempted by the tools of surveillance.

The irony is that kids in deepest trouble are least likely to volunteer the evidence into their parents' plastic vial. And they are most likely to be estranged.

Every one of us crosses the time zone of our kids' adolescence with eyes open and fingers crossed. We want to keep them safe and get them out on their own. They want to be emancipated and protected. There's no trickier time. But if there's any hedge against trouble, it's in building a relationship of trust -- not blind trust but reasonable trust. And when it's broken, rebuilding it.

Ask teen-agers what they want and when you get through the flak, they want adults who connect, grown-ups who believe in them. They want parents, not parole officers. That is the real home test.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 2/11/97

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