Parents worry, kids party on spring break

March 21, 2006|By SUSAN REIMER | SUSAN REIMER,SUN COLUMNIST

Spring break has become more than a rite of passage for college students. It has become a right.

Tens of thousands will be heading to warmer climates this month for a week of sun and fun they believe is somehow owed to them after the rigors of a winter hitting the books.

For most of these kids, it is their first vacation away from parents or other relatives. And for many it is a vacation out of the country, in a place where the legal drinking age is 18, not 21. One travel industry estimate has 100,000 college kids heading for Mexico.

These students may pack the sunscreen, but many are leaving their common sense at home, according to Child Trends, a research group that focuses on children and youths.

"A substantial proportion of teens are engaging in sexual intercourse but few are using condoms consistently," stated a timely report from the think tank.

Half of our teens report having had sex before age 18, and more than half of the guys and almost three-quarters of the girls report "seldom" or "never" using condoms, according to Child Trends.

Considering the consequences of unprotected sex -- from sexually transmitted diseases to pregnancy and AIDS -- this is lousy decision-making, to say the least. And the boozy, all-bets-are-off nature of spring break only makes it more likely that these young people will behave recklessly.

According to the American Medical Association, 97 percent of college students over age 21 say they are likely to drink on spring break while -- get this -- the same percentage of underage students say they are likely to drink.

Further, the average male will have 18 drinks a day on spring break, while the average female will have 10, according to the Journal of American College Health.

My informal research revealed 100 percent of parents worry while their children are on spring break.

But Jennifer Manlove, a sociologist and a senior research associate at Child Trends, says we can do more than fret.

Parents have a role here, even if our children are carrying passports and getting on planes and flying far away from our supervision.

"This is a good time to reinforce your expectations," she said. "Set some ground rules."

One of the greatest predictors of responsible decision-making in teens is the monitoring role of the parents, whether they are there on the beach or not.

If parents are in touch and aware of their students' plans and activities, it is a governor of sorts on recklessness.

"If you do not want them to have sex, parents need to communicate their disapproval of sex," said Manlove, "but also their disapproval of unsafe sex.

"Kids can handle the dual message: abstain, but if you are not going to abstain, use condoms."

Parents can take an even stronger stand.

"Either don't let them go on spring break or go with them," she said.

It is not an outrageous suggestion. We are still the parents. We are still in charge.

Short of that, make your expectations for their behavior -- regarding alcohol and sex, not to mention personal safety -- absolutely clear.

"Most kids want their parents around," said Manlove, restating research that parents, for some reason, refuse to believe.

"They want the stability of a household," she said.

But during spring break, they may be without that structure for perhaps the first time in their lives.

We can still be the voice in their heads. Even if that voice isn't coming from the next room.

susan.reimer@baltsun.com

To hear audio clips of selected Susan Reimer columns, go to baltimoresun.com/reimer.

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