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Geoff Johnson: Kids watch our actions more than our words

Colleague Shannon Corregan’s column last week about talking with and counselling kids about booze and drugs provoked, I hope, some serious thinking among parents, politicians, even teachers.

Colleague Shannon Corregan’s column last week about talking with and counselling kids about booze and drugs provoked, I hope, some serious thinking among parents, politicians, even teachers.

It certainly did for me, and in the interests of full disclosure, I’m no teetotaller.

When I began as a high-school teacher in 1966, binge drinking among kids was not anything we ever talked or even heard much about.

On the rare occasions it did occur, it was easier for school counsellors to work with the few kids who had taken to self-destructive drinking, which is a much more common problem now than it was 48 years ago.

But back in the day, parents did not host graduation “pasture parties” where a blind adult eye was turned to underage drinking and where well-meaning parents (“they have to be allowed to have a little fun”) picked up the pieces when things went too far.

Anybody who spends any time in high school hallways these days will hear the “man we really got blasted last night” conversation.

I hear young employees at the local grocery store having the same conversation in front of their customers.

The provincial government has just endorsed 73 recommendations, not yet passed into law, that will make beer and wine much more freely available.

If you think that does not mean more freely available to kids, you have not been around groups of adolescent kids in a while.

Adults on the way home after work will be able to take advantage of “happy hour” at the local watering hole, making it much easier to have two drinks for the price of one before getting back into a vehicle and heading out onto the roads.

True, kids will not be admitted to “happy hour” bars, but the message is clear — there’s nothing really wrong with downing a couple before getting behind the wheel.

And here’s the problem: Kids listen to what we say, but they watch, much more carefully, what we do, and drinking and driving can’t be that bad if dad or mom does it on Friday night before heading home.

Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente recently wrote a powerful, if unsympathetic, column about the sad, heroin-induced death of gifted actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

She quoted a number of addictions and mental-health experts who had launched into an op-ed frenzy excusing Hoffman’s death, claiming “it wasn’t Hoffman’s fault” and “it is a symptom and the fault of the ineffective treatment he received.”

The same could be said for alcohol.

“The disease model,” offered Wente in her piece, “implies the victim is helpless.”

In other words, drug, and by extension alcohol, abuse is not really the fault of the abuser.

Canadian courts on occasion have taken the “disease model” into account, particularly in cases where alcohol and drug abuse has been an evident factor in domestic and other forms of violence.

Getting drunk, smashed, plastered, sloshed, bombed might even result in judicial or political sympathy.

Why did Toronto Mayor Rob Ford behave so badly? “I was in one of my drunken stupors.”

So our kids learn that getting well and truly loaded pretty much relieves the individual of personal responsibilities — responsibilities to the people around them, parents and others, who have devoted a serious chunk of their own lives to making sure kids make it to adulthood safely.

In 2012, Statistics Canada reported that 17.4 per cent (five million) of Canadians ages 12 and over reported heavy drinking. Heavy drinking was reported among 24.3 per cent of males and 10.7 per cent of females.

A Canadian Public Health Association 2011 position paper called Too High a Cost reports that the World Health Organization’s study of disease indicates that alcohol ranks second (after tobacco) out of 26 risk factors causing death, disease and disability.

Social and recreational use of alcohol is here to stay, but, as Corregan pointed out, the price is a more serious responsibility for parents, educators, even politicians to “talk wisely to kids about this stuff” in the context of widespread social acceptance.


Geoff Johnson is a retired superintendent of schools.