Feature: A parent trap for underage drinking

By NATHALIE LAGERFELD, UPI Correspondent   |   Aug. 19, 2004 at 3:52 PM
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WASHINGTON, Aug. 19 (UPI) -- "Just say no." "Too smart to start." "My anti-drug." Most students from elementary school onward can rattle off a litany of anti-drug slogans and propaganda, fed to them through school programs and public-service announcements. But a new campaign against underage drinking is also targeting the most effective propagandists of all: parents.

"Parents can make a difference," said Susan Molinari, chairman of the Century Council, a not-for-profit organization funded by several American distillers that fights drunk driving and underage drinking.

The council partnered with the kid's entertainment company Nickelodeon to develop the new campaign, called "Ask, Listen, Learn" -- ALL -- to "facilitate an ongoing dialogue between yourself and your children," said Molinari. Parents, she said, have more sway with their children than advertisements or school lessons.

Sixty-five percent of adolescents say parents are the biggest influence on their decision whether to not to drink, according to a 2003 TRU Omnibuzz survey.

The ALL campaign has separate Web sites, booklets and television advertisements for parents and their 9- to 12-year-old children, so-called tweens.

The parental Web site provides pat answers to children's common questions, such as, "Since adults drink, why can't I?" and tips for making children feel comfortable when talking with their parents about alcohol.

"We want to not have the thing where the kid says something and the parent says, 'How could you do that? After all these years!' instead of 'oh, that's interesting,'" said clinical psychologist Dr. Anthony Wolf.

Both booklets and both Web sites have a copy of "The Pledge," an agreement for parent and child to sign with rules like "I will be honest and expect you to be honest in return" and "I will not say that you are too old/young to understand."

The tween years may be many parents' last chance to stop their children from using alcohol. The average age for the first use of alcohol is only 12, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Thirteen-year-old Wade Peterson of Alexandria, Va., said that he knows a few kids his age who drink and that other kids "don't care."

The age is also vital because tweens listen to their parents more than teenagers do.

"Before they tune you out, talk to your kids about drinking," ALL's adult television ad suggests. In the ad, a mother and father talk to a tween daughter about a school project, but their words become meaningless "blah blah blahs" when their teenage son comes into the room.

Even if they do try to talk, parents may have trouble getting their point to stick. Seventy-six percent of parents say that they have talked about alcohol with their children, but only 36 percent of children remember talking to their parents, according to the ALL Web site.

The key is an ongoing dialogue instead of a lecture, according to Wolf.

"If I have my one big talk planned, that's not the way to do it," he said. "I have to be willing to come back again."

Parents are helped by tweens' natural curiosity about alcohol. "The funny thing about kids is that they're really interested in this stuff. They want really specific information," Wolf said.

ALL provides just that. The children's Web site and booklet feature a cartoon boy with detailed explanations of how alcohol affects each of his body parts. Colorful trading cards printed with facts about alcohol use can be cut out of the booklet, and interactive games will soon be available.

The children's booklet will be bound into this month's Nickelodeon Magazine, and the adult booklet will be in Nick Jr. Magazine, which targets parents. The two booklets will reach 11.2 million readers altogether.

Underage drinking has actually declined over the past 10 years. Annual use of alcohol declined 18 percent from 1993 to 2003 for eighth graders and 7 percent for tenth graders.

Betty Straub of the Century Council, ALL's project manager, attributes the drop to "so many comprehensive and effective programs across the country" targeting underage drinking.

One remaining problem is that parents do not take a strong enough stand against drinking, according to National Middle School Association President-elect Patti Kinney, who is also a middle school principal in Oregon.

"Because of the emotional ups and downs of that age, we think, 'Let's just let them get through it -- they'll come out the other side and be fine,'" she said. "But when I see kids whose parents take the stance that all kids do it, they'll get through it and get over it -- then that doesn't happen."

Scott Peterson, father of 13-year-old Wade, said that he talks to Wade and his older brother regularly about alcohol and makes it clear that it is not acceptable. Punishments for drinking alcohol could include suspension of computer or driving privileges. Peterson said that he drinks himself, but only moderately.

"You've got to be a role model for them," Peterson told UPI.

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(Please send comments to nationaldesk@upi.com.)

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