The Island is a unique place to raise children, who are exposed to incredible opportunities for learning skills, earning income at an early age and gaining independence through these experiences. This acquired independence presents challenging and unique opportunities for our children. While we may not have malls or mountains for skiing or bowling allies, our kids have limitless opportunities to keep themselves active and drug and alcohol-free. Sadly, we see that the kids, who are working hard here in our community, are thrown prematurely into the world of heavy partying and emulating the behavior of the college students and adults who are enjoying the Vineyard life. Faced with this party-hearty atmosphere of summer and the stresses placed on teenagers and their families to make it through the long winter months, alcohol and other drugs serve as a means to join the summer fun and avoid the boredom of the off-season.
For Vineyard kids, it can be confusing. In the summer they are less supervised for a variety of reasons and off-Island kids that they are hanging out with are on vacation, so the rules for those families may be loose. In the summer the Island experiences a huge influx of college students, and year-round high school youth get jobs working with them. This naturally leads to friendships and after-work, late-night beach parties where these high schoolers are exposed to alcohol and pot smoking. In summer, the parents of these same Island children are often working long hours, capitalizing on opportunities to make enough money to support their families, in turn leaving their children with less parental supervision than during the off-season. These are a few examples of how Island children are at risk.
Vineyard kids have been getting clear messages that partying is an acceptable practice, even if it involves underage drinking. In the off-season, the college kids leave, but the partying does not stop. Information collected by the Youth Task Force shows that students here are strategic about their partying — Friday and Saturday nights are the party nights with Sunday nights earmarked for homework. Many of these hard partiers are high-achieving kids — they have their strategy, but that strategy doesn’t work for everyone. For the most part these kids escape immediate, tangible negative consequences. This makes it hard to convince students and their parents that the risks that they are exposing themselves to are dramatic. Putting aside the obvious risks such as injury, alcohol poisoning and motor vehicle accidents, alcohol consumption before 21 has recently been proven to have a profound impact on brain development and a person’s likelihood of becoming an alcoholic. Research now tells us that the frontal lobe of the brain, the part which controls decision-making skills, planning and ability to form ideas, continues to develop well into the 20s. Substance abuse during this developing time can cause permanent damage to this area of the brain. Additionally, kids who use alcohol before the age of 15 are five times more likely to develop a substance abuse problem later in life.
These are pretty compelling reasons to protect our children from this dramatic risk, yet parents continue to feel guilty or powerless. Underage drinking is a rite of passage: kids will be kids, we did it when we were young — these are the common refrains. The truth is if we looked at this issue for our kids with the same enthusiasm that we as a community commit to such things as nutrition and organic foods, academic and athletic achievements, we could potentially make a difference.
Vineyard kids grow up in a tight-knit community of elementary schools. They grow up knowing and being known by their immediate neighbors. When they graduate from eighth grade, they go to the high school and form friendships with kids from other towns. They have more independence and they are making new friends. It is a brand new world. Parents may feel that they have done their job and are on the home stretch when it comes to active involvement in their children’s lives. This is a time when parents must be encouraged to continue to hold the line and set good boundaries. Despite what your child may say, you are not the only parent who calls to check with other parents about parties or enforce clear rules in your house. This is a time when parents need to stick together and support one another.
Since 1999, data has been collected on the Vineyard every two years about alcohol and drug use rates for kids from seventh through 12th grade. The data is a reliable indicator of the issues kids are facing. In 2004 the Youth Task Force began to examine that data and develop strategies to mitigate the problems. The 2007 Vineyard survey showed that average alcohol use among high school students exceeded state and national averages; more than half the high school population was drinking. Since that time, the task force has been building strong relationships with key people in the community, including law enforcement, school administration and personnel, parents, students and health care professionals. This coalition of about 50 extremely committed people is focused on examining the problem for our kids, why it is a problem here, what resources or strategies can we provide and who can we work with in the community to pool efforts and meet this issue head on?
Due to the close-knit nature of the Island community, people are reluctant to invade the privacy of others, and may hesitate to call if they think someone’s kid is in trouble. The irony is that we take away the natural protective factor of living in a small community when we resist the impulse to report something that is concerning to another parent.
Progress is painfully slow, but it is happening. The Youth Task Force continues to develop new strategies to address this issue that is of such vital concern in our community. According to our surveys, alcohol use rates for our kids are coming down and is now in line with state and national levels, which is good news, but we still have a long way to go. Police are working hard to limit access by conducting compliance checks, helping liquor stores obtain more sophisticated equipment for checking IDs, and obtaining new training to address youth substance use and safe party dispersal. The schools are investing time and resources in a revised health curriculum. Parents are attending information dinners with educational speakers to gain knowledge and support, and more confidence as parents of teenagers.
These are just a few ways that the Vineyard is directly attacking this issue, but we need to continue to do more. We need to ask ourselves if we have been clear to our children that we do not approve of underage drinking or drug use at any age. As parents and community members, we are bombarded with opportunities to help our children navigate this risky time in their lives; we should not waste those opportunities. Ask yourself, have we walked our talk? Did I let Mr. and Mrs. X know that I am concerned about the stories I am hearing about their son or daughter?
When your teenager suggests to you that there is nothing else to do but party on the Vineyard, use that opportunity to talk to them about your fears, beliefs and rules. If you feel unsure about how to handle a situation, reach out to someone — another parent, police or school staff, or the Youth Task Force. Working together is how we will improve our kids’ lives. It is their job to test the boundaries and limits as they grow; it is our role as adults to stand firm and be parents, not pals.
Bill Jones is a former longtime guidance counselor at the Oak Bluffs School, now retired, and cochairman of the Youth Task Force coalition.