At a parent-volunteer meeting at our elementary school, a mom reported that students at the nearby middle school had recently been given a survey about their alcohol use.
"Isn't sixth grade a little young for that?" she asked.
A few in the crowd murmured their agreement, so I had to speak up. "There are plenty of sixth graders who drink. Kids drank when I was in sixth grade," I said, recalling the infamous "boy-girl parties" that my friend Marcie Werner used to throw when we were that age -- parties that always involved a furtive raid on her dad's liquor cabinet.
A few moms gasped in response, others nodded. The woman sitting next to me leaned in close and whispered, "I started in seventh."
Talk turned to the prevalence of drugs and alcohol at our local high school. One mother relayed a conversation she'd had with a town cop. "He said there's heroin at the high school AND at the middle school. The police want to bring sniffer dogs in, but the school board won't let them."
More disturbing tales followed: hazing involving drug and alcohol on the high school sports teams; drug dealers freely roaming the campus; the discovery of a used syringe on the sidewalk of a family neighborhood.
"I just want to be in denial," said one mom, covering her face with her hands.
"You can't be in denial," someone said. "You have to communicate with your teenager."
The meeting started to break up, and I didn't get a chance to say what I was thinking: Don't wait to talk to your teenager. Talk to your child -- NOW -- while he or she will still listen.
Later, I was describing the meeting to a friend, and shared my concerns about widespread parental denial in our lovely suburb.
"I know I should talk to my kids about these things," my friend confessed, "but I don't know how to start."
My children are only 7, 8 and 9, but we're already a couple of years into an age-appropriate discussion of the dangers of drugs, alcohol and tobacco. My husband and I didn't plan it; the conversation evolved naturally. Too many people in my family have struggled with addiction, and I have shared some of those stories. For example, the kids know that my grandfather started smoking as a young farm league baseball player in the 1920s because the team supplied him with free cigarettes, an arrangement that would never be allowed now; he eventually died from emphysema. The fact that my kids love the taste of the communion wine at church, and would like to allowed to drink wine at home (!), has given us an opening to discuss the dangers of alcohol abuse. We have even done some role playing to give the kids practice in saying no to substances, the same way we practice our "polite party manners," or role play ways to brush off the taunts of a bully.
Are my husband and I doing it right, or are we saying too much too soon? I have no idea, but in my gut I feel it's better to say something now, however imperfectly, then to wait for the elusive perfect moment or perfect message. I want my children to know they can talk to us about any issue, and we can figure out the life's challenges together. That's why after that meeting, I awkwardly brought up that I'd heard that one of their third grade classmates had found a syringe on the sidewalk near his house. I had to explain what a syringe was, what it might have been used for, and why it could be dangerous. My kids were wide-eyed that anyone would ever give themselves a "shot" on purpose.
"If you ever find a needle like that, don't touch it," I said. "Call an adult for help."
Only time will tell.