Los Angeles Times

Hansen: Are we driving kids to drink?

Laguna Beach parents recently got an email from the PTA asking to "show your support" for the social host ordinance that went before the City Council this week.

The ordinance basically tells parents that it's wrong to serve kids alcohol — as if.

Following the state PTA resolution passed in 2009, the local action is somewhat ceremonial except for one thing: It reminds parents that alcohol causes everything from sexual assault to death.

That's what the flier says. Actually, it lists quite a bit more deviant behavior.

"Surveys conducted by the school district and Mission Hospital have shown that alcohol use by young people is a serious problem in our city, contributing significantly to the incidence of adolescent crime, addiction, sexual assault, truancy, driving under the influence of alcohol, and motor vehicle crashes involving alcohol that cause injury and/or death," it says.

When did we become so crotchety? We're like the Grumpy Old Man on"Saturday Night Live."

"In my day … we didn't have blueberry cosmos; we had moonshine, and it made your teeth rot and you died."

Seriously, we need another resolution?

A similar thing happened in Pop Warner football last fall. The league decided that it needed to "show its support" for breast cancer awareness, so it forced all the 12-year-old boys to wear pink socks. It wasn't an option.

Make no mistake: It's not the drinking issue, it's the tacit coercion.

Do I really need the school PTA telling me my table manners?

I recoil at the thought of it — and it doesn't matter what the issue is. It could be a perfectly good issue, but when it's pushed on you like a pink sock, I resist, just out of instinct.

Which is exactly what young teens, say 16, 17 or 18, do when they're told they can't do something.

Look, I know drinking and driving is very bad news but maybe there are better ways to tackle it than a punitive, check-box mentality.

Besides, I'm not convinced that Americans, with our famously puritanical heritage, have a monopoly on the truth here. Just as many surveys endorse the European model, which does not demonize alcohol.

According to the libertarian Reason magazine, which likes to debunk these types of issues, we have it all wrong.

"American teenagers had a higher rate of intoxication than their counterparts in half of the European countries," the magazine said. "When compared to teenagers in Southern Europe, which has very liberal views regarding alcohol, American teens were more likely to have been drunk in the last 30 days (21% vs. 13%).

"And while more than half of the American teenagers who drank reported getting drunk, less than a fourth of young Southern European drinkers said they had been intoxicated."

As a father to teen boys, one almost driving, I'm not taking this lightly, but I'm not overreacting either.

The balance rests in my own belief and confidence that I've taught my sons well and trust their judgment. Will I be disappointed at some point? Probably.

I asked the Laguna Beach School Supt. Sherine Smith her opinion. Smith, who used to be the principal at Capistrano Valley High School, knows a little bit about theory versus reality and could appreciate "limited government and all of that."

An earlier version incorrectly said Smith used to be principal of Laguna Beach High School.

"We have a concern in this community because we have a high usage of drugs and alcohol by students compared to other communities," she said. "And that's of great concern to us and part of the milieu of the city may be that it's acceptable for young people to party in private homes, to use drugs and alcohol in private homes; the parents either actively allow it or passively allow it."

Smith acknowledged that Laguna "tends to be pretty libertarian or pretty liberal, although we have a very strong conservative element also. But it's kind of like, 'don't pass a lot of rules here because we don't like that.' But at the same time, we have an obligation to the young people."

In Smith's view, that obligation means keeping them away from alcohol as long as possible.

"We're trying to raise the awareness and decrease the opportunities, so we can either reduce kids' drug use or alcohol use or eliminate it," she said. "But certainly the longer you can defer usage by young people the better off they are. The younger they start using drugs and alcohol the more bleak their future is."

Smith is a straight talker, which is great. I'm sure she does a wonderful job at those basketball auditorium lectures, telling students about the dangers of drugs and alcohol.

But I just wonder how many students are really listening. Have we invoked the boogie man too many times?

Let's face it, I think they're still telling the story that pot leads to heroin.

I'm not naïve. I know that a 16-year-old behind the wheel is the deadliest combination on the planet. Add alcohol and the gory stats are astronomical.

That's not the point.

The point is, I have a drawer of pink socks and a young teen who resented it.

I wonder if we are the ones driving them to drink.

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at davidhansen@yahoo.com.

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