My oldest child is 12 years old. He’s a typical middle-schooler, bored by his parents barking at him to wear his bike helmet. He spends his spare time on the soccer field or playing Fortnite. He rolls his eyes and walks away when I remind him to do his homework. He has both feet set in childhood but has begun taking steps into the universe of adulthood.
The day of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing with Christine Blasey Ford and Judge Brett Kavanaugh, my son entered my husband’s and my orbit and joined us on the sofa as we watched TV.
He saw a defiant and indignant Kavanaugh say, “I liked beer. I still like beer.” He saw the judge, who is seeking a seat on the Supreme Court, turn a question from Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) back on her like an unruly schoolboy and ask her if she ever experienced blackouts. My son saw Kavanaugh pull a similar move with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), asking, “Senator, what do you like to drink?”
My son took all this in. We all did.
The exasperated Kavanaugh was suggesting that he was no different from anyone else in high school. He played football. He went to parties. He drank beer. Everyone did. Some Kavanaugh supporters, such as Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), went so far as to suggest that drinking and adolescence excuse bad behavior.
Statistics have been swirling in my head. Ninety percent of sexual assaults in the U.S. are committed by men. Teenage drinking often leads to risky behavior, and boys are more likely to sexually assault someone while drunk. Twenty-nine percent of American 12th-graders have engaged in binge drinking, according to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Sharing these warnings now, before my son enters high school, feels urgent. But where do I start?
The morning after the hearings, my son listened to a recap on the radio as he got out a box of Cheerios. The story had his attention, and I realized I had a responsibility to do what no one else could do for me: I had to make this a teachable moment.
As my son poured cereal into his bowl, the radio replayed Kavanaugh’s quote, “I like beer.”
I said out loud, “None of this is about liking beer. It’s about having empathy for someone else.” My son nodded. He hadn’t walked away; he hadn’t rolled his eyes.
We don’t usually have time to eat breakfast together, but we sat down at the table. “I drank in high school too, even though I hated the taste of beer.” He looked up at me. This, too, had gotten his attention.
“Why, then?” he asked.
“I drank because it was against the rules. I drank to feel lightheaded. To fit in. To feel like someone else.” And probably a thousand other reasons.
Then I told him something I remembered from one of the high school parties I attended in the 1980s: My friend had passed out. She was thin, and alcohol hit her hard. I remember the one boy who sat by her side to make sure she would get through the night OK. Luckily, she did. He was just a teenager, but he took on the responsibility for the health and safety of his friend when so many of us went on drinking. He was always that person. In elementary school he refused to sign a mean-spirited “scrapbook” someone had compiled about another student.
I want my son to be like that boy. I don’t know if I can prevent my son from drinking beer in high school, but I want him to understand that being drunk doesn’t excuse your actions. I want him to be confident in himself enough to stand up to peer pressure and to always show compassion for other people — boys and girls, men and women — no matter what.
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) said, “I’ve been really troubled by the excuse offered by too many that this was a high school incident and boys will be boys. To me, that’s just far too low a standard for the conduct of men and boys in our country.”
But the question nagging me is, do I have the tools to teach my child to stand up against a culture that sees beer drinking and partying as American as football practice and rewards young men for sexual prowess over empathy?
Psychologist Michael Thompson suggests giving boys opportunities to practice empathy by caring for younger siblings or working as a camp counselor. Organizations such as the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, Harvard University’s HelpGuide and RAINN urge parents to start the dialogue about drinking and sexual assault early. They advise asking open-ended questions, listening without interrupting and using the news as a conversation starter.
The Kavanaugh hearing helped me start the dialogue. The only thing I know for sure is that the conversation isn’t over.