Field Guide To The American Teenager: A Parent's Companion

Field Guide To The American Teenager: A Parent's Companion


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780738205199
Publisher: Hachette Books
Publication date: 08/01/2001
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 0.75(w) x 6.00(h) x 9.00(d)

About the Author

Michael Riera, Ph.D., has worked in education since 1980. The author or co-author of four other popular parenting books including Field Guide to the American Teenager and Uncommon Sense for Parents of Teenagers, he is the family and adolescent correspondent on "The CBS Early Show." He has also appeared on "Oprah," "Today," "The View," and "48 Hours." He lives in Berkeley, California. Joseph Di Prisco, Ph.D., is an educator and writer who has taught for more than twenty years in public, independent, and Catholic schools, middle school through college. He lives in Berkeley, California.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Drinking and Driving

... when most adults look at their own lives, they place heavy emphasis on the combination of two factors ...: choice and chance. We do not tell our life stories as examples of determinism of any kind. What is the last memoir you read whose author sees himself as a hapless actor playing out the lines and stage directions encoded in his DNA? Or as a blank slate on which his parents drew the road map?

—Perri Klass

    Opposition is true Friendship.

—William Blake

The Undesignated Driver

- One -

Last summer King High School was rocked. A car full of teenagers, most under the influence, plowed into a telephone pole, an accident that took the life of the driver, who was twice the legal limit. Why didn't anybody take the keys? Why didn't one of the sober kids take the wheel? Why didn't somebody call home?

    At Josh's school across town, JFK, the faculty and administration stepped up alcohol-awareness programs. In addition, the Parents' Association resolved to reduce the chances of such an occurrence at their school. Most senior parents signed contracts not to allow drink to be served in their homes to teenagers. They also agreed that there would be no questions asked if their kids called for a ride home at any time. They didn't enjoy thinking that their kids were drinking on weekends and they didn't want to endorse it, but they were realistic, too. The seniors also signed contracts. They agreed to having a designated driver and pledged to call if they ever found themselves over their heads.

    It was weird, and largely unspoken, but some JFK parents might be forgiven for thinking that, awful as the accident had been, maybe their own kids would take it as a screeching wake-up call. No one would call that a silver lining. At the same time, maybe their kids would be more careful than ever before, and maybe their parents could sleep better at night.

- Two -

The three boys flipped coins, and Josh came up heads and the others tails, which made him the designated driver. Steve and Dex did not bother to fake disappointment. Of course, they were major stars on the party scene, while Josh, even though he was also a senior, was a newcomer—and, honestly, he didn't drink much. Still, he was resolved to try a few things at this late stage in his high school career, and going out with guys like Steve and Dex constituted a dramatic change. Besides, at school and in classes the three of them got along pretty well, and when they mentioned the party to him on Friday, Josh saw no reason not to go: his social calendar wasn't what anybody would call busy.

    Not long after the three arrived at the party, Josh was surprised for lots of reasons. For one thing, he found himself having a pretty good time. Being known as the designated driver was a kind of badge of honor—in a funny way. It certainly set him apart from most kids at the party. And yet it put him in with the other designated drivers, drinking Coke and watching the wheels come off the other kids as they drank and drank. It was like there were two different parties going on simultaneously. It was also, well, interesting to be stone sober and see how the other kids' true selves seemed to be coming out. True selves weren't always a pretty sight.

    All right, self-righteousness did come easy to him. At least that's what his big sister always seemed to mean when she was angry with him, which was quite often. "Josh, you can be such a jerk without even trying hard." He was glad she was away at college. If he went to a local college, maybe he could talk his parents into giving him her room, which was bigger and nicer than his. Then again, maybe she had the right idea, taking off for school.

    Several hours later, Josh was sipping mineral water and feeling superior when Dex stumbled over to him, eyes glazed and wearing a T-shirt he didn't have on when he came to the party.

    "Louie Louie, we gotta go, party sucks."

    "Really? It's early, it could get better." Not that he could testify from firsthand experience.

    "OK, give me the keys, then, you can stay if you want."

    "You're wasted, Dex."

    "Joshua! Don't be like you always are"

    "Still not giving you the keys" Josh did not know where he was getting the strength to stand up to Dex, but he couldn't stop doing it either. He looked for help from Steve, but he was dancing like a maniac with three girls, and it didn't look like anyone could get his attention. "We had an agreement" Josh said. "Don't do this, Dex."

    "Don't do this, Dex" Dex mimicked. "Hey, Designated, we friends or not?"

    "What's that got to do with anything?"

    "Friends trust each other. I can drive. Plus, it's my car."

    He did have a point about the car: it was his. Still, Josh held his ground: "I'm not going anywhere, and you're not going anywhere, we had an agreement. I'm the designated driver."

    "Consider yourself undesignated. Give up the keys, now."


    "Don't make me come over there. You're not my jailer, and not my mom."

    "Just calm down, OK? Stay here, I'll get Steve and we can go, all right?"

    "I don't want to go anywhere with you. It's my car."

    "I can't give you the keys."

    "You're going to make me do something I don't want to do"

    "That's what I'm trying to stop you from doing."

    "You are such a donna." Then Dex took a swing at Josh but didn't even come close to grazing him. That's when everybody in the party rushed up and separated them. In all the commotion and shouting, Josh heard a few things from Dex he wished he hadn't heard, but in a minute they were dragging Dex outside to calm down.

    It all happened so fast that Josh didn't realize till after it was over that he was still shaking. Dex was a strong guy, and he tried to hit him and ...

    "Man, bummer" said Stacey, a girl Josh knew only from a safe distance in Physics class, where he used to watch her secretly most of the period when he wasn't contemplating gravity and the formula of 9.8 meters per second per second. She was somebody he yearned to talk with if she ever cut him a lucky break. Till now that moment had never arrived. "That wasn't right what Dex did" she said. "I know you were just trying to do the right thing." Her gravelly drawl made him feel itchy inside.

    "I was?" Then he added. "I was, I guess. He OK?"

    "Dex can get a little crazy at parties, is all. He'll be all right when he gets some fresh air. You'll see, he'll come back and give you a hug and apologize like mad, you wait. I'm glad you showed up at the party; I didn't expect you. Want this?"

    This? That would be the joint Stacey was offering him with a smile.

    "What?" Sure, he had tried it once before, but ...

    "It's pretty lightweight, go on. You deserve it, it'll calm you down."

    Josh rolled around in his mind those notions she had broached: he did deserve it after what happened, and it would calm him down. Time for changes, Josh, or what?

- Three -

After midnight, Josh, Steve, and Dex stood alongside the car. They kept their eyes on it, as if they were afraid it could spring to life and drive itself away. Dex was in a more malleable mood and in yet another T-shirt, Steve was still flying, and Josh was spacey after a couple of tiny hits a few hours ago.

    "Now what are we going to do?" Josh said out loud. He also wondered what happened to Stacey and if he had said or done something weird that accounted for her sudden disappearance tonight. Maybe Monday in class he might just look at her and tell by the look in her eyes if he was the dead meat he suspected he was.

    "What do you mean?" Dex fumed. "You're driving us home."


    "Was she there?"

    "Stacey—I think I might be a little stoned, a little."

    "Josh" Dex said, "the foot looks like it's on the other shoe now, Mister Designated."

    "Maybe I should just call my dad" Josh and his family had talked about alcohol, yes, and they had their agreements, but he wasn't completely sure those agreements transferred to smoking dope.

    "Maybe you can call your dad—no way I'm calling mine."

    "Or maybe," Josh wondered, "maybe I'll just throw these keys into the bushes and we can walk home." He'd seen something like that once in a movie, and he always fantasized about how a gesture like that would feel.

    "Let's not get carried away. Just drive. You're not that stoned, I can tell. Now Steve, he's that stoned. Besides, sometimes you can drive better if you're just a little stoned"

    "Maybe I'm not really all that stoned. I probably can drive."

    "Well," said Steve, "you can sure drive better than either of us."

    "That's not much to go on, is it?" For Josh it wasn't a rhetorical question.

    "I got to get home, Josh," said Steve. "I'm freezing."

    "What Steve means" Dex explained, "is he's got a one-o'clock curfew, no excuses."

Steve's Conversation with
His Math Teacher, Ms. Siegel

    —That's some story, Steve. I'm relieved you got home safely.

—Yeah, that would have been a bad ending to a good night. It was a great party. I had a great time. I think I was doing my rendition of the Whirling Dervish.

—Why are you telling me all this?

—Not really sure. You seem cool, I thought you'd understand.

—OK. Maybe you're telling me because you're concerned about Dex and Josh? Dex did take a swing at him.

—No big thing. Dex blows up and five minutes later he's your best friend, no big deal, especially when he's drinking.

—Well, in my book that's a problem, but then again I don't know Dex that well.

—Not many people really know Dex, but I do. He's been my best friend since eighth grade. He'd do anything for me.

—And you'd do the same for him.


—How about Josh? Do you feel like he let you down and put you in a cross by getting stoned?

—Who am I to judge? We got home safely, and that's all that matters. Right?

—OK, but it seems to me that there was a problem when you guys decided how you were getting home.

—Yeah, they kind of got into it all over again.

    —They got into it again? What about you?

—What do you mean, what about me? They were the ones getting into it with each other. And Josh was the one who got stoned.

—Funny, I see all three of you in the same boat. You had to get home too.

    —Well, yeah, but it wasn't my boat and I wasn't the designated driver.

—Right, you were just an innocent bystander. Though if things had turned out differently maybe you would have been an innocent victim.

—It was between those two guys, and besides, I don't get in the middle of other people's problems. Why are you looking at me like that?

—Now I get it.

—Get what?

—Now I know why you're telling me all this.

—You do?

—I think when you thought about it afterwards is when you got scared. You were standing on the sidelines while your two friends decided your fate.

—It was a freaky way to end the night, and I don't want to go home that way ever again.

—And the reason you're telling me this is, you're worried you might do the same thing next time.


—Which kind of probably? Probably you're worried or probably you might do the same thing?

—Probably both.

Notes Home

The Good News, the Bad News, and Some of the In-Between

Nothing arouses our anxieties quite like the car. Of course, the importance of the car to a teenager is impossible to overestimate. It is a safe haven, a ticket to fun and friendship, an apartment on wheels, a magic carpet that needs only half a tank of gas. It is a vehicle to an alternative world—games, parties, dating—places where the standards, the values, are nothing like home. And this is what scares us most, especially when alcohol is part of the equation. It is a fact, however, that most of our teenagers will, sooner or later, make potentially life-and-death decisions pertaining to driving and drinking. Alarmingly, "alcohol is the single biggest factor behind the leading cause of death among teenagers—traffic accidents."

    In a recent study of teenage drinking, the American Academy of Pediatrics concluded that "more than half of the youths ages 16-19 said they drank during the preceding month, but nearly two-thirds said they always appointed a designated driver." The study also reported, however, that 80 percent of those surveyed thought it was fine to drink as long as there was a designated driver. And that's not all: nearly half thought designated drivers were still able to drink. Most parents who stumbled across the bulletin in their morning papers probably felt their stomachs take a roller coaster ride as they calculated the good news/bad news content of those mixed messages.

    When it comes to teenagers, we as parents need to try to adjust to hearing less than 100 percent good news. That won't ever be easy, of course. But maybe those categories themselves are a little simplistic. And maybe theirs is a reality that stubbornly resists either/or categorizations.

    Speaking of the story of Josh and friends, can we derive any good news? Of course: sometimes Josh did the right thing and somehow (as we find out through Steve's meeting with his teacher) they all got home safely. Is there bad news? Plenty. It is a possibility, verging upon a certainty, that somebody who was impaired drove that car home.

    Let us cut to the heart of the parental hopes and anxiety generated by this narrative: Is there anything those boys' parents could have done to guarantee that they would not drive off in a state of diminished capacity? No. None of their curfews and agreements and contracts and conversations will necessarily preclude the teenager's making a serious error in judgment. And there's nothing you will find in this book, or in any responsible book, that will offer such vain assurance. The worst indeed does happen to normal kids like Josh, Dex, and Steve. Those arrest and accident statistics are haunting and depressing and real.

    Now let's ask the hard question in a more pragmatic way. If the parents could not have ensured that their children would do the right thing, is there anything they could have done that would have improved the chances of their making a wiser choice, such as calling home or catching a cab or walking? (Or staying sober in the first place?) Yes. To explain why this is so, we will examine adolescent logic and decisionmaking, discuss parental influence during adolescence, and then spell out the best approaches for parents.

Are Teenagers Scared Straight?

When the nearby King High School suffered its tragedy, many parents at JFK believed that maybe their own kids would hear a wake-up call. But how useful are such cautionary lessons? In the short term, certainly, they can have an impact. If you are like most people, after you pass a gruesome car wreck on the highway, you drive very cautiously for a while and you solemnly resolve to keep within the speed limit and drive defensively. But how many of us forget that resolution within the week?

    Not one of the teenagers in this story gives any indication of being "scared straight." Tonight, in the moment, those recollections of contracts and community meetings and alcohol education seem to be a million miles away from Josh and friends, and seem downright irrelevant to the problems at hand. Perversely, awareness of that other tragedy could even embolden some teenagers. They hear that that the driver who perished was totally drunk, and, really, all they've had is a few beers or a couple of hits. In other words, that experience has nothing to do with them, finally. Their case is unique. What's more, the community has suffered one tragedy this year, and there's no way a second one can occur. And besides, nothing really terrible can happen to them: they've got big plans for college and the whole world eagerly awaits their arrival.

    The decision to use (or to refrain from using, for that matter) is complex. The allure it holds for a teenager can transfix them. Never underestimate the complexity of your teenager's social existence and private desires. Remember the antidrug campaign of some years ago, Just Say No? It's a strong and clear message, no doubt about it, and it may prove fairly effective for younger children. But the appeal of the idea for teenagers can be decidedly mixed. Nevertheless, parents may believe that memorizing this mantra will protect their teenagers from temptation and opportunity. Adolescents simply don't function that way, however. They don't automatically rally to a slogan predicated upon negation and a battle cry whose essence is denial. Madison Avenue lives off the susceptibilities of teenagers, but no company is going to cash in on Just Don't Do It. Affirmation of their individual selves and their personal values—that is what teenagers need and it does not easily reduce to sloganizing.

Living in the Moment

Probably none of those involved in this story started the night with the intention of getting into trouble, or at least into more trouble than they could deal with. What's more, if each had been individually interviewed by his parents before leaving the front door, each would likely have said nothing to inspire unease. "Yes," we can hear them pledging, "we'll be careful and we'll drive safely. We've got a designated driver." And yet before the night is through things will happen that would cause parents sheer dread and terror if they knew.

    So how did they get to the point of taking such risks? This is not easy to analyze because every one of them in the course of the evening makes complicated decisions that are, though ultimately questionable, defensible in the moment. And in the moment is teenagers' home base.

    Begin by putting yourself in Josh's place and Dex's place and Steve's place. If you think that any of them had a simple choice to make and that sensible alternatives, like calling home, were irresistible, reconsider. In their individual ways, each is trying to do the best thing possible under the circumstances. Josh, for instance, admirably stood up to Dex when he demanded the keys but then did a wrong thing when he smoked the joint, effectively undesignating himself. It's clear why in the second instance he might have been swayed to do exactly the thing he would never have expected himself to do. A temptation offered by a girl he is attracted to is hard, if not impossible, to pass up. Dex was generous with the car from the outset, and he invited Josh as a friend to come along, but then he got out of control after drinking. Stacey was kind and supportive of Josh, and of Dex, even as she was unintentionally derailing Josh and rationalizing Dex's pugnaciousness.

    Steve, in a way, is the most complicated case of the three. He is a good friend and a good companion for a party, but he appears passive, even when his safety is at stake. But that's not quite it. He's all too ready to let Josh and Dex work out the situation, not because he is passive but because he is their friend and wants to pay them the respect friendship entails. He is the one who is later haunted by the experience of the night, so much so that he talks with Ms. Siegel, for reasons he cannot really articulate. Eventually, he concludes, with prompting, that he is very, very lucky he is very, very lucky he is alive to tell the tale. As we overhear his conversation with his teacher, we detect him in the act of growing up. Steve is gradually coming to terms with the role he played that night, as well as the more challenging role he declined. As a result, he has an invaluable opportunity to reflect on real friendship and responsibility. And that's something that deeply shakes him up, as it should—and as his teacher intends.


Excerpted from Field Guide to The American Teenager by JOSEPH DI PRISCO, PH.D. MICHAEL RIERA, PH.D.. Copyright © 2000 by Joseph Di Prisco and Michael Riera. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

Foreword by Joan RyanXIII
1 Drinking and Driving The Undesignated Driver1
2 Motivation and Success Participate in Your Own Experience21
3 Date Rape Sex, the Prom, and Other Misunderstandings39
4 Integrity Be Prepared53
5 Drugs and the Family Fear and Loathing in the Parking Lot67
6 Race and Adolescence There's No "I" in Team85
7 Eating Disorders Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall103
8 Learning Abilities and Learning Disabilities What's Up
with Russell?121
9 Freedom and Responsibility Party at Franny's!139
10 Divorce It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Ex-Mas157
11 Weapon on Campus? Miles to Go Before I Sleep173
12 Being Gay, Coming Out Wherever You Are, There You Go191
13 Making Decisions I Quit, I Think
14 The Breakup Endless Love225
15 Distress, Depression, and Danger This Is Not a Test243
16 Romance and the Classroom What Stars Are For259
17 Death and Rebirth Enormous Changes at the Last Minute273
Appendix A: Where Am I? Being 14-15 Means 285
Appendix B: Who Am I? Being 15-16 Means 288
Appendix C: What Are You Looking At? Being 16-17 Means 291
Appendix D: Where Am I Going & Where Have I Been? Being 17-18
Means 293

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