They’ll Drink To That

It’s no secret:  Westporters like to drink.

We boozed it up during Prohibition, when speakeasies flourished all around town.  (One of the most popular, in Saugatuck, was run by a blind man.)

We drank — heavily — in New Haven Railroad bar cars, coming home from Mad Men jobs in the 1950s and ’60s.

We drink today — in restaurants, on the beach, at our well-stocked basement bars — and so do our kids.

Staples yearbooks as far back as the 1940s feature drinking references.  In 1975 — when the legal age was 18 — there’s a photo of 7 guys in sports jerseys hoisting steins, surrounded by beer cans.

Teen drinking in Westport is no longer in the shadows.

So there was no lack of alcohol-related opinions Tuesday night, when the Westport Library sponsored a “Community Conversation on Underage Drinking.”

After brief remarks from Staples principal John Dodig — whose mantra has long been that the schools alone can’t deter teen drinking; the issue demands a town-wide response — that community work began.

The 100-plus participants came up with 12 topics.  Next, they formed small discussion groups — ranging in size from 3 to 20 — based on the subject that most interested them. 

At the end of the session, each group presented its most important points to everyone.  Here are the groups, and their main ideas:

Understanding the motives behind teen drinking

  • Teens drink because of peer pressure, “normality,” relaxation, stress relief, self-medication, Facebook, games, and thrills
  • High school students feel the need to drink because it offers an emotional connection, an unwritten rite of passage, and provides “liquid courage”
  • Solutions include stricter consequences, and open parent-child relationships

Parental enabling; choosing to be the parent and not a “friend”; parental involvement; parents who condone drinking and its implications

Ultimately, parents’ responsibility is to keep their kids safe.  They can do that by enforcing consequences (and “checking in” with teenagers when they get home); making expectations clear, and forming strong, early trust between parents and children.

External pressure/influence (media, peers, etc.)

  • Peer pressure is overrated
  • Parental influence can be positive or negative
  • There are mixed messages and hypocrisy, including adults not enforcing their own rules

The importance of a strong relationship between parents and kids

  • Building trust with parents is crucial
  • Dinners together — any time together, in fact — is also very important

Code of silence

There is a code of silence between parents, to “save their relationships with their kids.”  But parent-to-parent communication should include parents asking other parents if they allow drinking.

There is also a code of silence that comes from coaches, who ingrain a “we are family” dynamic beginning in elementary school.  Coaches also need to be part of a conversation, not only regarding loyalty but also moral behavior.

Strengthening teens’ self-esteem so they can say “no”

The top 3 ways:  parents provide healthy role models; parents show positive, trusting belief in their teenagers; parents support teenagers’ expecations and goals, rather than imposing their own.

Other ways:  giving a reason beyond just “no”; open communication; being able to call parents at any time; relaxed and trusting parents lead to better and healthier decisions by kids; physical affection, calmness and praise from parents; unconditional acceptance of teenagers; lack of comparison of one kid to another

Alternatives to drinking-based activities

  • Parks & Rec-sponsored day trips (skiing, concerts, Lake Compounce, hiking/rafting)
  • Explore why Newtown and Greenwich teen centers are reputed to work

Where are kids getting alcohol; methods of making it more difficult for teenagers to drink

Kids get alcohol in Bridgeport and Norwalk, with and without fake IDs.  They also get it from homes and parents (though “kids are drinking such large amounts of alcohol that it’s unlikely they are getting it all from parents”).

Making it more difficult to obtain would include having more immediate consequences, and more parental communication both with teenagers and other parents.

Education on drinking-related accidents beyond driving

Topics could include damage to reputation, and consequences due to intoxication; also consistent reinforcement of repercussions (“even with varsity athletes!”).

To what degree is the code of conduct for teams enforced?

  • Administration, faculty and coaches must be held responsible for enforcing the contract players and parents sign
  • Coach and parent denial implies tacit approval
  • Players have a general consensus that there will be no enforcement
  • Who will report the behavior?
  • What’s the point of a code of conduct if it’s not enforced?  And does this provide a “false sense of security”?

Preparing kids for life beyond high school

  • Teenagers need help developing a mature perspective before leaving high school
  • Parents need guidance for the transition too
  • There is a need to distinguish between “use” and “abuse”

That’s a ton of stuff to digest.  And it came from a relatively small group — parents who (it was noted) may be part of the “choir” to which the night was preaching; members of Staples’ Teen Awareness Group; a smattering of others. 

But — if this is to be a true “community conversation” — then more voices must join in. 

Click the “Comments” link — and please be respectful.

14 responses to “They’ll Drink To That

  1. I think this is a great start and Westport could do more to provide positive alternative activities for teens. Many of the at-risk youth I worked with cited boredom as a chief reason for drinking and using drugs.
    I’d be interested to hear more about the teen centers in surrounding towns as a potential model. Also I’d be curious about the role of community service in creating a positive influence to curb boredom.
    Since I missed this meeting maybe someone can share: When’s the next meeting? What are the next steps?

  2. I don’t drink alcohol–and didn’t back in the day. For one thing, I just really disliked the taste. And, I am happy to report that no one ever really hassled or pressured me about not drinking–not even in college (when the drinking age was 18, and kegs were ubiquitous at mixers). Back at Staples, there was a strict athletic code with respect to drinking and, except for one instance, I never saw anyone from my 1970 soccer team break those rules at the various parties we went to during the soccer season our senior year. So, I can attest that it is possible to go out and have a good time without drinking. On the other hand, for those who choose to drink, my biggest concern is the mix of drinking and driving. I would hope there would be a designated driver–a role that I took on occasion back in the day. I do think there should be much more stringent drunk driving laws in this country and more rigid enforcement of existing laws. I also think the drinking age should be lowered to 18. If you’re old enough to vote and to serve in the military, I think it makes a mockery of our laws to say that you are not legally entitled to drink until you are 21.

    • The Dude Abides

      Fred: It might be a mockery of our laws but they did drop the drinking age to 18 with disastrous results and many more traffic deaths. The federal government, under pressure from the insurance companies, finally told the states that if they didn’t raise back the law to 21, there would be no more assistance for their roads. You are in a dream world if you don’t think Staples athletes of the 60’s & 70’s weren’t drinking.

  3. Such an important and timely topic. Thanks so much for covering it Dan. As always, you are a blessing.

  4. From Atlanta, GA, Amy Pettee Dempsey, Staples 1984, responded back to her father as follows: “I am going to forward this to every single friend I have with children. Very good stuff!”

  5. I went to school in Greenwich for several years and know a lot of people there who went/go to the teen center. Several times I have heard stories about drinking there or have driven by while people were noticeably drunk. I don’t think the teen center is much of an improvement from house parties.

  6. Max Stampa-Brown

    were any youngsters present at this community conversation?

    • Lots of TAG (Teen Awareness Group) members — they made sure there was at least one TAG person in each small group. Also, a couple of random non-TAG students were there.

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  8. The Dude Abides

    Legalize marijuana!!! End of problem.

  9. Dude, I have to side with Fred re in-season drinking, etc by Staples athletes during the early-mid-60s. I can honestly say that I knew no one in any sport, boys or girls, who broke training rules, including me — and I certainly did more than my share of out-of-season partying, as you know. The late 60s, however, were a different story, as were the 70s. What occured during that time span, by all reports, made our restraint a quaint relic of another time. As a father of two teenage girls who are high school athletes in NYC on successful teams I can attest to the reality that there now seem no training rules whatsoever. My first brush with the future in this regard came very early. During my very first day as a walk-on grunt football player at a Div. I college in Texas in the fall of ’66 I walked into the rec room in the athletic dorm and everyone there had a cigarette hanging from his mouth. Drinking was rampant. Periodically, asst coaches would roust violators from their dorm beds at 5 AM and force them to run stadium steps until they puked, but that was about all that could be done, even at a church-affiliated college. And that was then. I can’t imagine what it’s like now.

  10. The Dude Abides

    I think drinking on campus and in real society took a breather in the 80’s with MADD making a huge impact on drunk driving in every state. But I do believe hard liquor has made a comeback. A local distributor tells me that alcohol sales are up because of hard liquor. Certainly drinking is back in vogue on campuses. I don’t remember “in season” or “out of season” made much difference and Coach Lane reminded me of that last weekend. The Port Chester runs were a year long voyage.

  11. Anonymous Student

    Hi Dan,
    I wanted to let you know something about TAG that you referenced earlier. There Facebook photos of several TAG members drinking. While TAG is making an effort to discourage drinking at Staples, they themselves must lead by example. I can attest to the fact that drinking is very prevalent here at Staples. I agree with your idea that better parent-student relationships are an important step necessary to stop the drinking problem here at Staples, and also in other communities. I know that the student body at Staples is a very talented group, and I’d hate to see students lose their potential due to something as stupid as drinking.