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Why do parents make the decisions they do?

As many of you know I was in Europe for the past few weeks and some of you may have seen my Facebook posting re: the UK mother who had spent a ridiculous amount of money on her 11 year old daughter attending a primary school prom. The story attracted a great deal of attention in the UK with many of the comments focusing on what would motivate a parent (who quite clearly was not able to easily afford such a large amount of money – she had to take an extra cleaning job to pay for it!) to do such a thing. The girl was given a £200 dress, provided with three limos (what were they for?), a beautician and a stylist and of course, the obligatory fake-tan!

I’d love to be able to say that this only happens in the UK or the US but I have certainly been to schools where primary school proms are now held each year. It needs to be made clear that these are never organised by the school, it is the parents that are putting these on, with committees being set-up early each year to ensure that the event is perfect (you have to ask yourself perfect for who – the kids or the parents?). Formals are no longer just held at the end of Year 12, parents are putting them on at the end of Year 10 and I went to one school this year that was having a Year 7 formal to celebrate the end of the first year of high school! Why?

When it comes to this UK case, is it as simple as the mother wanting her daughter to have all the things she never had, or is she desperately trying to be regarded as a ‘best friend’? I’m more inclined to think that there is some type of pathology happening there but I’m no psychologist! Whatever it is that is going on, it got me to thinking once again, how do parents make the decisions they do, particularly when it comes to alcohol?

Some of my latest blog entries have looked at current practices such as the ‘sleepover’ and the ‘plus one parties’ and the problems associated with them, but for the most part it is some of the decisions around the provision of alcohol by parents I hear about that really blows my mind!

A couple of years ago I met a young man who came up to me after my presentation a little concerned about some of the information I had provided about alcohol’s effect on the developing brain. He was 16 years old and his parents had been regularly providing him alcohol to take to parties and to drink at family functions since he was 13 and he wanted to ask me what impact I thought it would have on him in the long-term.
I’ll repeat part of that last sentence, just in case you thought it was a mis-print! Yes, I did say that his parents had been giving him alcohol to take to parties since he was 13 years old!

At 13 he was regularly given 2 cans of beer to take to parties, that rose to 3 when he turned 14 and now that he was the ripe old age of 16 years he was now being given 6 cans by his parents … as I always say, I don’t have children but really, what are they thinking? Six cans of beer is a lot of alcohol for an adult, it’s just ridiculous for a 16 year old, no matter how responsible you think they are!

A paper by Gilligan and Kypri (2012) explored the experiences and attitudes of parents of teens around the provision of alcohol and included a number of really interesting quotes from the interviews that were conducted for the study. Some of these included the following:

  • “I would let them drink with a small group of friends … in a safe environment. I wouldn’t want them to be social outcasts from their peer group” (mother of a 15 year old boy and younger girl)
  • “Over the next two years we will be introducing him to alcohol. We don’t want him to be suddenly 18 and go on a rampage” (father of a 15 year old boy)
  • “My friend gave her 13 year old a sip … and my daughter looked at me and asked the question … I probably would have told her ‘no’ if she was on her own but I didn’t want her to feel left out” (mother of a 13 year old girl)
  • “I don’t want my child to miss out on things. We are teaching our children to be individuals but we, as parents have issues with peer pressure” (mother of a 13 year old boy and a 16 year old girl)

The authors found that parents, even those who reported that they were strict and monitored their children, were more likely to deviate from recommended guidelines around the provision of alcohol (i.e., delay, delay, delay) for a range of reasons. A couple of the more interesting ones were to prevent their children from being socially isolated and a sense of inevitability (i.e, they were powerless to stop them and had no influence so why put up a fight?). I totally get all of that – parenting is not easy, particularly in areas such as alcohol and parties – but if you believe that your son or daughter should not be drinking at 15 or 16, you should try your darndest to prevent it from happening!

Whatever decisions parents make around their children they need to be based on their own personal values as well as good quality information (if available), but most importantly, they have to be able to live with the consequences of those decisions if god forbid something goes wrong. Being pressured into making choices you don’t feel comfortable with is a recipe for disaster … I can tell you from experience, you will never be able to forgive yourself …

Reference: Gilligan, C. & Kypri, K. (2012). Parent attitudes, family dynamics and adolescent drinking: qualitative study of the Australian parenting guidelines for adolescent alcohol use. BMC Public Health 12: 491.

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