Trusting our children

My oldest daughter graduated from high school earlier this week.  The original plan was to buy her a multi-gear bicycle for use at the college she will be attending in Portland, Oregon this fall (given Charleston’s flat terrain, a one-speed cruiser has been sufficient so far).  When my parents indicated their desire to buy her a bicycle for graduation, this freed me up to find a different gift. Thus, she received:

Many folks might question the wisdom of giving an eighteen year old a hip flask: it encourages an activity that is potentially destructive and is, for her, illegal in the United States for another 2 ½ years.  Yet, knowing my daughter as I do, I think the gift make sense on multiple levels.  My daughter’s never wanted nice jewelry and thus I’ve never bought her what I would consider an heirloom item.  This flask was manufactured in London in 1866 and its elaborate engraving and solid silver construction makes it a quintessential heirloom item, something that she might keep until she is old and then pass down to a daughter, granddaughter or niece.  Since my daughter, like most older teenagers, consumes alcohol, it’s a useful item for her.  Further, she’s expressed a concern about having to drink cheap alcohol in college and one of the best ways to avoid drinking cheap alcohol is to carry your own (it’s also a great way to avoid having someone put adulterants–e.g. roofies–in one’s drink).  I’ll also admit that, as the father of a college-student-to-be, I like the idea of the flask being small; unless she’s carrying everclear in it, she can’t get blottoed merely by downing the flask’s contents.

Yet it’s the final message this gift conveys that prompts this blog: a message of trust.  I would note that in most of the post-industrial world, my daughter would be allowed to consume alcohol legally and expected to consume alcohol responsibly.  She’s gotten through high school without causing her parents any real grief.   My wife and I have had none of the worries over things that typically make parents of teenager girls lose sleep: no criminal law involvement; no school discipline or academic issues; no MIA nights; no horrible boyfriends; no substance abuse issues. This isn’t surprising–neither of her parents were wild teenagers and she’s grown up in relative stability–but the accomplishment still deserves recognition and acknowledgment.  Further, while my wife and I know she consumes alcohol, neither of us have ever seen her inebriated: she appears to consume responsibly.

Having practiced family law for 17 ½ years, I’ve observed a number of poorly behaved or out of control teenagers but I’ve observed even more poorly behaved or out of control parents.  I sometimes interview prospective freshman for my alma mater and have watched my daughter’s cohort of the high school class of 2011 grow up.  What I see are basically good young adults, whose parents have every right to be proud and who make me hopeful for the future.

Yet the world they are growing up in is so much less trustful of teenagers than the world I grew up in.  Youthful hijinks that might have landed me in the principal’s office in the 1970s, land today’s teens in livability court, with the attendant criminal law involvement.  I carried a Swiss army knife to high school and it wasn’t an issue.  In 2011 an eighth grader at my younger daughter’s school won’t be able to attend his middle school graduation because he brought a miniature Swiss army knife on a field trip–and this is despite the student noticing his error and providing the knife to his teacher for carrying during the remainder of the field trip.

Throughout history, natural philosophers have recognized that people rise or fall to the level of the expectations others have for them.  The less trust and benefit of the doubt our culture gives others–especially those who have done nothing to deserve distrust–the less we can expect others to be trustworthy.  In the past forty years we have increasingly developed a culture of mistrust.  We have gone from a rehabilitative model of criminal law to an almost purely punitive model of criminal law.  We have gone from a culture that trusts our leaders, our spouses and our children to one in which we assume the worst.  We have gone beyond Ronald Reagan’s motto regarding arm’s control with our existential rivals–“trust, but verify”–to a culture in which the most outrageous claims about those with whom we disagree are treated as acceptable, even valid.  While we claim to believe in “innocent until proven guilty,” much of our contemporary culture indicates the opposite.  We act as though this cynicism is merely being “realistic,” but my own experience is that people are basically decent and try to do good–and I practice family law, where I see folks at their worst.  A culture that trusts people to generally “do the right thing” more accurately reflects reality than our contemporary cynical culture.

Those natural philosophers who understood that people often rise or fall to the level of others’ expectations would not be surprised by the problems our culture is now having.  On a more individual level, many of the parents of teenagers who tell me that their daughters won’t date or consume alcohol until they turn age 18 (or 21) (or 25) are often the parents who end up with “girls gone wild.”  Distrusting those one professes to love is so exhausting and counterproductive.

So I prefer to trust a daughter who has given me no reason to distrust her.  I hope my gift communicates that I trust her, that I expect her adult years will provide her adult pleasures (such as alcohol) that she will partake of wisely and in moderation, and that she is worthy of beauty in her life.  Any graduating member of the class of 2011 heading off to college or productive employment deserves no less from his or her parents.


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