Dixon: Teens must not be deceptive about alcohol use

December 09, 2003|By SUSAN REIMER

WHEN THE leaders of nine private schools in the Baltimore area launched a campaign against teen drinking with a strong letter to parents last month, one signature was conspicuously missing.

McDonogh School headmaster W. Boulton Dixon declined to sign the letter, saying it was redundant of his own letters home.

"People are trying to read something into my not signing," said Dixon. "But this was no act of civil disobedience. I support what the letter says."

But, as Dixon said in his letter of explanation to parents, he feared that "I can also beat the same drum so much that both students and adults tune out."

Nevertheless, the anti-alcohol campaign begun by the heads of Roland Park Country School, Friends, Garrison Forest, Gilman, Park and others gave Dixon the opportunity to restate his deeply felt conviction that a corrosive culture of deceit lies at the heart of teen drinking.

"The violation of the honor and integrity of a relationship is more serious to me than a young person's indiscretions regarding alcohol and drugs," he wrote to parents.

A long conversation with Dixon reveals a kind of hopelessness on the subject of teen drinking. He's been a headmaster for 27 years and of necessity has tracked the problem closely.

"And I don't think any program that I have seen has worked."

He has witnessed the devastation that the alcohol-related death of a student can do to a school and seen the renewed determination to stop the drinking.

And he has watched with dismay as students and parents quickly returned to business as usual.

"It takes about six weeks, and then everybody forgets," Dixon said.

The alcohol industry, he said, has successfully inculcated our kids with the message that drinking is a big part of the passage into adulthood.

"It's the way you have a good time, the way you have relationships, become popular, become an adult. It all happens through alcohol."

This message, delivered through commercials, is swamping the 13- and 14-year-olds who are ready to make decisions about alcohol: You can't make it to the next tier without a drink in your hand.

Dixon has chosen to focus on the fact that teens who drink lie to their parents about it. That kind of deceit in a relationship between people who love each other is poisonous, he said.

"Teen-agers have created large amounts of time and space for themselves by lying to their parents and covering for each other," he said.

"Essentially, they can spend two days every week being wherever they want to be, with whomever they want to be, doing whatever they want to do.

"And this freedom comes from relationships that are built on lies and half-truths.

"This is an issue we have some chance to talk about. If you really care about each other, it is important to build a relationship that is based on trust and truth."

And when Dixon has students and parents in his office over misdeeds, that is what he demands - not confession, but truth for the sake of those who love each other.

"What I say, and what I try hard to talk to parents about, is this: `I can handle anything you tell me as long as it is the truth.'"

He understands that it takes tremendous courage for teens to be honest with their parents, a teacher or a girlfriend. Lying is easier than the strong reaction the truth can elicit.

But in return for the truth, he tells parents they must promise not to overreact to what they hear.

"If the parents go nuts, the kids won't do it again," he said. "Both sides have to understand that being honest might mean disappointment, disagreement, even anger.

"But at least you are talking."

Dixon tells parents that they should seize any "moment of truth" and praise their child for his honesty and tell him that they know how much courage it took.

Likewise, he said, instead of punishing a teen caught in a lie, take time to write a letter telling her how much it breaks your heart to know that lying and deceit are creeping into a relationship you cherish so deeply.

"Spend four hours writing the letter. Tell her how much you love her. Tell her this is tearing your heart out. Take the hours to make it right because it is the starting point to get to a place that is infinitely better than where you are."

Will this kind of truth-telling keep your teen from drinking? Dixon isn't hopeful. He considers the problem intractable.

But if your teen is no longer lying to you about the use of alcohol - and if you are no longer lying to yourself about what is going on - you have a chance to present the case against drinking illegally or binge drinking or drinking and driving.

Better yet, you are on your way to creating an honest relationship with your child. And he or she will grow into adulthood knowing what an honest relationship looks like.

"Take every opportunity and, little by little, you can create a healthy relationship," Dixon said.

"And I think the gift of how to build good relationships with people you care about is the greatest gift you can give anybody."

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