Teen drivers need tough love, not pals

  • Article by: SUZANNE ZIEGLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 28, 2010 - 3:44 PM

In wake of fatal accidents, advice to the parents of teen drivers: Be firm, aware and willing to say no.

The list of advice for parents of teen drivers is long.

Have a firm stance against alcohol, always know the other kids they're out with, don't let them drive with a car full of teens, have firm rules and expectations with consequences if they're broken, be a good role model.

But experts say it comes down to hands-on, tough parenting and fighting off a desire to want to be your teen's friend.

"Too often, parents want to give away their responsibility as parents to the schools," said Bruce Novak, superintendent of the Cambridge-Isanti School District, where three high school students died and one was injured in a fiery weekend crash that killed three others. "We're supposed to take care of all those issues and concerns that they're maybe uncomfortable with because they want to be the friend of their child. But our children need parents to guide them directly."

The community is reeling in wake of the crash, whose sole survivor, the 16-year-old driver of the students' car, had received her license three weeks earlier.

Authorities have said she could face criminal charges; she was driving after curfew and was carrying more passengers than allowed by law.

The accident has left parents and experts grappling with how to prevent another tragedy.

Parents, not pals

Novak said if teens aren't supposed to be out after 10 p.m., the parents should say, "'No, you're not supposed to be out.' And they can throw their little hissy fit and pout and go to their room and be mad. At what point in time do parents finally say: I'm going to be parent. I'm the responsible one."?

Bill Doherty, a professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota, said parents have become more laid-back, even indulgent. But this is not the time for "wishy-washy" parenting.

"But what you'll hear from some parents is that kids are kids. You can't police them and you want to keep open lines of communication and blah-blah. The thing is you have to have as firm a policy as you can have against alcohol use, against your child driving with other teens at night," said Doherty. "Know who their friends are and know if their friends drink and monitor, monitor, monitor."

Like Novak, Doherty, a parenting expert, dismisses the idea that the best parent is a best friend.

"Many parents want to be buddies with their kids and don't want to come down too hard on them," he said. "And many parents have this idea, 'Well, the kids are going to use alcohol anyway so why be the heavy, why talk about it that much?' What we know from the research is that teens who believe their parents are firmly against them drinking are less apt to drink. Our kids carry us in their brain and that's why [you need] a firm hand, that you're too young to drink and it's not acceptable to me as your parent that you drink at all, let alone drink and drive."

Instill values, keep vigilant

Parents also have to realize that just because their son or daughter is a reasonable, responsible young adult doesn't mean their teen is that way around other teens.

"This is what parents need to know: Whatever maturity level your teenager shows alone, you cut it in half if there are other teens in the car," he said. "The more teens present, add alcohol and you get the maturity level of a 6-year-old."

Society is still turning over keys to multi-ton vehicles to young adults whose brains aren't fully mature until they're 25. So what are parents to do? Besides knowing who they're with and what they're doing, instill their values in their teens.

"You can't fully control them, but you can influence them," Doherty said. "We can't fully protect them but we can reduce the odds that they'll be in that situation. That's what we're talking about."

Gordy Pehrson, youth alcohol and driving coordinator at the Office of Traffic Safety, agreed that teens, by their very nature, feel invincible and throw caution to the wind. Even when they're learning about driving laws, he said, it becomes just "noise" to them after a while.

"Teens know it's wrong to drink and drive, they know it's wrong to speed, they know it's wrong to not wear their seat belt -- but they do it anyway," he said. "So I can't emphasize enough the importance of parents, their roles in safe driving with their teens. We can't legislate it, we can't force it down people's throats."

According to Novak, schools have taken on a growing role when it comes to drug and alcohol awareness and even seat-belt safety, but he was quick to add that schools can't do it all.

"How much more can we do without being there with the child every minute of every day? For me, it is parent responsibility," he said.

Parents should know that they'll need to bite the bullet, said Pehrson. "Kids say that they hate you. It's really tough to make it through those years."

Novak believes that Sunday's accident was avoidable, but acknowledged that he doesn't know all the circumstances. "And I'm not blaming anyone. I'm simply saying that if the 16-year-old would have had someone say no, this would have been avoided."

And, as his community suffers in the aftermath, Novak said his advice is for parents to be vigilant about keeping their children safe and to be strong.

"In order to do that, we have to use the word no and be firm about the no. And to help the teen know that this is not to punish you, it is to protect you. And there's a big difference with that.

"We have to start taking the ownership of our children's safety to our hearts and homes. We can't say it. We have to start living it."

Suzanne Ziegler • 612-673-1707

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