Friday, March 26, 2010

Parents think their kids are dummies

[don't click... it's just a sceen cap. Link below.]

In January or February of 1983, my buddy Harry and I were standing in a field, up to our knees in snow. Looking around nervously, we took a stubby brown bottle out of his Adidas bag. But we'd forgotten to bring an opener.

Twenty minutes later, we were back in the field and happy to find our stash still safe under a bush. We opened the bottle, and dared each other to take the first sip. It tasted horrible, and I had to choke back the bubbles. But damn it, we drank a beer. Then we were on our way to meet the rest of our friends from Grade 7 at a chaperoned party.

Sound familiar? You may have been older or younger than 12, but if you're an adult who drinks alcohol, I'd be surprised if you waited until you were legal age to try it.

This is not to say that teen drinking is hunky-dory. Alcohol poisoning, liver damage, impaired driving, unsafe or unwanted sex, and all sorts of dangers are lurking in that bottle.

But as a parent, I haven't forgotten what teens get up to. I have a few more years before my son gets there, but I have no doubt he'll try whatever interests him — with or without my blessing.

Which is why I'm of two minds on these American ads from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (click this link to see them — the videos are unfortunately locked inside the otherwise social media friendly site)

The TV creative is quite good. The parents talk about their kids as if they're little angels, and the reveal shows that they're not talking about real kids at all — they're mannequins. I like what this says about parents' ability to be in denial about what their kids are exposed to.

The print also does a good job of being honest, and taking the tried-and-true approach of getting parents to at least talk to their kids about the issue:

And the web site has some decent messaging:
"If you don't talk about it, you're saying something.

What you say to your child about alcohol use is up to you. But remember, if you don't say anything to your child about drinking, you might give the impression that underage drinking is acceptable."

(Reminds me of when I tell clients that, in social media, not joining in an uncomfortable online conversation about your brand is as good as an admission of guilt.)

My problem with this campaign is strictly personal. My own opinion about teenage drinking is that it needs to be approached responsibly. Hell, I intend to be one of those parents who offers his kid a glass of wine at holiday dinners once he hits puberty.

And this is the problem. As a government initiative, the "Talk Early. Talk Often. Get others involved." campaign is still, at the end of the day, a "just say no" approach. The page with conversation tips has the following:
"Why do you drink?
Explain to your child your reasons for drinking – whether it's to enhance a meal, share good times with friends, or celebrate a special occasion. Point out that if you choose to drink, it's always in moderation. Tell your child that some people shouldn't drink at all, including children who are underage."

Would that have convinced you, as a kid whose self-image was 15-going-on-21?

This one, fortunately, is a little better:

"Did you drink when you were a child?
If you drank as a teenager, experts recommend that you give an honest answer.1 Explain why you were tempted to try alcohol and why underage drinking is dangerous. You could even give your child an example of an embarrassing or painful moment that occurred because of your drinking."

But hey... at least the American government is telling parents to be (somewhat) realistic about a social issue that affects almost everyone. However, as long as the bottom line is "it's bad for you because it's illegal" the argument has a built-in fail.

After all, this is a country that will let an adult go to jail, or go to war for up to three years before they consider them old enough to have a beer.

1 comment:

  1. OK,

    1. Yes, "it's bad because it's illegal" is a popular framing (I'd say more popular in paternalistic Canada than in rugged individualist US) that should ALWAYS be challenged as begging the question.

    2. The countries where drinking is viewed as a hugely taboo activity have far greater incidence of alcohol-related deaths and the lesser problems associated with drinking than those countries where drinking alcohol is like drinking coffee-as something you grow into gradually.

    3. Just my personal experience. I grew up in Ontario and turned 19 just at the end of Grade 13. By that point, I and all my friends drank to some extent, both wine at family dinners and occassionally to excess at other events. Were there embarrassing moments that I could recount to today's youth as cautionary tales? Absolutely. But for the most part, no one got seriously hurt, no one was ever in serious danger, and no one died. (I think this is in part because of the the province's superb anti-drinking and driving campaigns from the 80's--remember those framed pictures shattering to the sound of screeching tires?)
    I went to university in New York having been "of age" in Ontario for two months, and suddenly found myself underage again. This seemed silly to me, but wasn't that big a deal. What did seem like a big deal was the prevailing attitude among my fellow students about alcohol. Most of them had not grown up with a glass of wine at dinner, but rather with an absolute prohibition on drinking at all. Freed of the restraints of daily adult supervision, these students imposed no restraint of their own, but approached drinking as a competitive sport. A party wasn't a place where you got together with friends and drank what you brought yourself--it was a place to go because someone was supplying alcohol, where you drank as much as you could as fast as you could, and left when the alcohol ran out. Thank God it was a small and physically enclosed campus, where essentially all traffic was pedestrian.
    In general, I think it's safe to say that a gradual introduction is safer and more enjoyable than volleying between extremes.