Thursday, January 25, 2007


(News-Herald, January 25)There are folks who figure that finding the right words to say is the solution to whatever ill assails us.
But usually it’s not a new set of words that we need. More often, we just need to act as if we really mean the words we’ve already said.
Take, for instance, the Harrisburg crowd. They regularly present us with a new set of words about how to create property tax reform in the commonwealth. But if they could just once act as if they really intended to have property tax reform, we could all stop talking about it.
Instead, school boards find themselves forced to walk the plank, propelled by a law that claims to be voluntary, but is not, and claims to provide tax relief, and does not do so (except for a select few). The legislature and the Governor Smiling Ed say that they are giving local school districts an opportunity to choose a path to relief to their local taxpayers. But their actions say that they want to concoct a lame public relations stunt while simultaneously passing the buck for the inevitable fallout.
It is easy to talk a good game, to say that your kids come first, to announce your priorities in life. Talk is cheap. The challenge is to act as if you really believe it.
Politicians are not the only people to struggle with this issue.
We’ve heard a lot of noise locally over the past few years about drinking and drugs, and panels have convened, committees have formed, and action plans have been issued to clamp down on the problem. And most of all, we’ve had many many many conversations about what might possibly be the cause.
The usual culprits are cited. The region is suffering economically. There aren’t enough wholesome activities for young folks to keep them busy. Fluoride in the water makes young people unruly.
Then there are the newer culprits, like video games and evil internet influences.
And I don’t mean to suggest that modern technology is not part of the picture. Back in the day, a recalcitrant teen had to plan illicit rendezvous on the household phone and borrow the family car to get there. Today teens with their own cars and cell phones can make arrangements far from the most alert adult eyes and ears.
But before we get ready to rally the troops to put a stop to teen-age drinking once again, we might want to ask ourselves whether we really mean it or not. Because over the past few years, I’ve been suspecting that many of us don’t.
I think there are plenty of parents who know they’re supposed to disapprove of drinking. One of my wiser students last year observed that drinking peer pressure comes in two varieties—teens are pressured by their peers to drink, and parents are pressured by their peers to express disapproval.
So adults dutifully say, “Underage drinking is Bad.” But many of the actions suggest that for many parents, teen drinking isn’t really that big a deal. Yes, everyone would rather that teens didn’t drink and then drive. But beyond that, there doesn’t seem to be much consensus.
This weekend, there will be parties involving teenagers and (at least) alcohol. Some parents will know about these. Some parents will carefully avoid doing anything that might lead to finding out. Some parents will make no attempt to find out what sort of soiree their children are actually attending. In a few months, at prom time, there will be parents hosting drinking parties in their home. And on any given weekend, there will be teens staggering into homes without any fear that someone will be waiting to meet them.
I’m not suggesting these people are bad parents. There’s a lot of room for argument about the drinking age; plenty of countries elsewhere do just fine without one. And after years of teaching, I also know that parents can do everything right and the teenage train can still come off the tracks.
But for a large sector of the population, the words and the actions don’t match, and the message is that teen drinking is no big deal.
If we believe that underage drinking should be stopped, then let’s act like we believe it. And if we think that teen drinking is basically okay, let’s just say so. And if it bothers us to say so, let’s ask ourselves why.
“Just say No” struck many people as kind of silly because they understand that anyone can “just say” anything. It’s acting as if you mean it that’s the trick.

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