“The woods is a dangerous place,” croons Prince Charming to the Baker’s Wife. Indeed, with the recent film release of Into the Woods, I can’t help but dwell on the timeless metaphor of a journey through the forest as approximating ordeals and temptations in the lives of intrepid teenagers.
My husband and I are raising our teenage daughters in a small New England town. We live at the foot of 7,000 acres of wooded reservation land with a chain of 22 hills of hiking trails. Here, “The Woods” is code for a teen hangout not far from the elementary school my girls attended. The spot has been around so long that many parents raised here reminisce about it, often over drinks.
Going into the woods is a coming-of-age right of passage for local teenagers. The “woods” could easily be replaced with any number of terms depending on where you live: the docks, speedway, quarry, fields or lake. To venture off into dark places away from the eyes of authority is like a spell cast over every 13-year-old born unto us. They are marking territory.
Many grown-ups hold memories of intrepid forays into the dark. When we look back, some of us (myself included) wonder how in the world did we ever survive.
Where I grew up in western Connecticut, we drove across to New York State line, where the drinking age remained at 18 and seat belt laws were yet to be passed. If we didn’t drive, we’d hop a ride. It was the upper classmen or friends with older brothers or sisters who used fake IDs to buy kegs of beer while other kids would bring firewood and flashlights to the end of a dirt road. We’d build a bonfire and stand round it in our fisherman sweaters and scarves all staring at the sparkles in the flames. I vividly remember one ride in the back of a station wagon reciting Hail Marys all the way home.
My mother had no clue where I was. My father had been long gone and likely would’ve cared less. But now I am a mother and I have two teenage girls. I know where my girls are most of the time and a network of parents seem to keep their eyes open and cell phones in hand. On the whole, parents do seem to hover more.
Even so, it came a shock to me one night driving home with another mother from a local event. I had received a text from my 16-year-old daughter explaining to me that she had decided to go to her boyfriend’s house. Her friends were going to The Woods, which were off limits to her. She proposed that the “better choice” was to hang out with her relatively new boyfriend at his house. Of course, this didn’t sit too well, as I did not yet have a good read on the boy or his family.
But at least I knew where my daughter was.
In the same moment, my friend was texting her daughter about a pick up time at The Woods. Buckling up, I asked: “What do you mean ‘pick her up from the woods?'” She explained that she had dropped her daughter off at The Woods before we had left.
At least she knew where her daughter was.
Two mothers driving home to collect their daughters: one from a new boyfriend’s house and the other from the edge of the woods. No doubt our vivid maternal imaginations left us uncomfortable. I remained quiet.
Parents, as it turned out, were regularly dropping off and picking up their teens at The Woods. When I asked about this “trend,” the storyline went like this: If we drop our teens off at The Woods we know where they are; the town police know where they and at least they are not driving. Some of these parents also subjected their kids to breathalyzer tests and marijuana kits. What a twist on helicopter parenting.
What a confusing message.
The truth is that accidents and unintentional injuries are the primary cause of death among teenagers, with alcohol-related car crashes as the main culprit. It’s no wonder that the parents I know don’t want their kids driving after hanging out at The Woods. It is a wonder that parents are willing to drive their kids at all. Over a decade of neuroscience research confirms that substance use negatively affects the developing teen brain, including memory, decision making and self-control. Alcohol and drugs put vulnerable teens at risk for addiction.
Let’s imagine our teens in a small group of friends as we consider some numbers. The annual Youth Risk Behavior Survey (2013) found that among the high school students surveyed about underage drinking in the past 30 days:
- 35% (1 in 3) drank some amount of alcohol
- 21% (1 in 5) binge drank
- 22% (1 in 5) rode with a driver who had been drinking alcohol
- 10% (1 in 10) drove after drinking alcohol
If parents are chauffeuring their kids to the local drinking hole, the full awareness of substance use risks in teens just isn’t sticking. It’s not only about drunk driving. Driving kids to The Woods is a close cousin to hosting a teen party with alcohol. This is to say, it’s not a good idea. The Partnership for a Drug Free America states:
It’s NOT advisable to host teen parties where alcohol is available (and thus, condone underage drinking.) Also, contrary to popular belief, there is NO evidence that parents can “teach their children to drink responsibly.” Quite the opposite is true — the more exposure to drinking in adolescence and parental acceptance of substance use, the higher the risk of later problem with alcohol and other drugs.
My girls know that if they ever got caught going to The Woods that they would be grounded for at least a month, if not two. My girls lament, “Mom, don’t you trust us?” My answer: “I trust you wholeheartedly but I don’t trust teenagers in a crowd.” For many teens, the consequences of not fitting in has higher emotional stakes than breaking house rules. After all, parents are stuck with their teens, but friends can drop your teen in a split second.
My younger daughter, all but 14, went to The Woods, an annual tradition on the eve of high school. I found out two months later, of course, as the last to know. It was the final summer sleep over. I should have known. The host parent should have known. I was not pleased. It was not a great way to start 9th grade. She had to earn our trust back.
Nothing good happens in the woods.
A news story a number of years ago broke my heart. A high school girl had been partying with her friends after a homecoming game out at a marshy area. She drank too much. Her friends assumed that she had gone home early. But no. The girl froze to death where she fell.
The girl could have been anyone’s child.
Admittedly, it’s difficult to stop teens from experimenting. It’s almost impossible keep them from potentially being at the wrong place at the wrong time. As parents we can wish, hope and pray for our child’s safety. We can try to control their experiences, track them with GPS apps, and make them pee in a cup.
But there is another way. We can also be present with them in everyday ordinary moments. We can try out conversations no matter how awkward or serious — over and over again. Above all, we can be clear on our expectations, consistent in the implementation of consequences and loving in our acceptance of our children’s growing pains. Most certainly we can role model for them the very attitudes and behaviors we want to see in them.
Maybe it’s time to come out of the dark.
A shorter version of this post is on Huffington Post Parent, published Jan 5, 2015. I welcome comments!