Tuesday, November 15, 2005 | If high school girls were asked to take off their shirts in a limo on their way to or from a school-sponsored dance, and they did it, who would be responsible – the girls who stripped, the boys who asked them to, the parents or the school?

A few weeks ago, two Torrey Pines High School parents filed a $1.5 million claim against the San Dieguito Union High School District for publishing photos of their daughter in the school’s literary magazine that they considered to be libelous, bordering on obscenity. The district, they claim, shirked its responsibility to protect their daughter by not having adult supervision at a photo shoot, even though it was another student’s personal art project and took place in a private photography studio off-campus.

According to the claim, the girl willingly removed her shirt, and provocative photos – with hair, signs and props discreetly positioned to cover up private parts – were taken with her consent. Her parents, who knew about the photo shoot in advance, apparently thought there would be an adult at the studio but neglected to confirm their assumption.

Since the literary magazine incident, dozens of parents have said they believe this girl’s parents should have been more involved from the start, investigating the situation before the photos were taken, not after the magazine was printed and distributed. It’s a matter for parents to verify assumptions and take responsibility for what happens to their kids at school functions, many have said, whether on campus during school hours or at off-campus events and activities.

Contrast this call for greater parental responsibility with many parents’ general disregard and apparent disinterest in student activities at proms and dances – or, more specifically, how the students get to and from the proms and dances. Parents, some of the same ones who condemned the litmag parents for being irresponsible, casually send their children off in unchaperoned limousines with hardly a second thought.

It’s mystifying how some of these same parents can so easily allow their high schoolers, especially the 9th- and 10th-graders, to travel all evening in a limo with 20 to 24 other kids, many of whom they don’t know, without batting an eye over the endless possibilities for accidental or deliberate, reckless behavior.

Granted, some of these parents are ambivalent about the limo scene and are not entirely indifferent. Though it doesn’t feel quite right and they may wring their hands over the situation, in the end they consent, sending their kids off into the night until the wee hours of the morning – some without even knowing where they plan to go or thinking to inspect the inside of the vehicle which sometimes comes equipped with a full bar.

Why is it so difficult to resist giving in to kids when they make unreasonable demands? We teach our children not to succumb to peer pressure, yet many parents find themselves under the spell of a sort of secondary peer pressure, acquiescing because “everyone else is doing it.”

These are parents who wouldn’t dream of sending their kids to an unchaperoned party at someone’s house. For these parties, many parents give their children clear, strict instructions – call, no questions asked, and we will rescue you if there is no responsible adult present or if there is alcohol, drugs, sex or violence.

Yet, off the kids go in a limo, as unchaperoned as they can be. And a limo is nothing more than a rolling party. Some could argue that the limo experience is actually more dangerous than a party at someone’s house, because limos are parties hurtling down the freeway at 70 miles per hour. At least a party at a house isn’t moving – unless someone spiked the punch.


Drivers also have been known on several occasions to pick up their underage passengers in limos stocked with hard alcohol, beer and wine. This is a fact, not a remote possibility. Drivers have also been known to abandon their designated waiting areas when they get hungry and drive off in search of something to eat, leaving minors stranded at pick-up spots wondering what to do.

“Nothing bad will happen.” Yet. When was the last time you were in a serious car accident, yet you always fasten your seatbelt, right? You take safety precautions to protect your well-being. But with limos, it seems to be a case of, “Keep your fingers crossed and hope for the best.”

“They are old enough and we have to let go.” More age yields more experience, and more experience hopefully produces better judgment. Once they are juniors, certainly when they are seniors, they should be given greater freedom to make choices on their own.

Until then, shouldn’t they gain more independence gradually, not all at once? Let’s give them time to accumulate some much-needed experience and common sense, and offer guidance along the way. Note the following relevant quotes –

– “Experience is what you get by not having it when you need it.”

“My child gets all A’s and is very smart. They will know what to do if something goes wrong.” Academic smarts have nothing to do with street smarts. The smartest kid in the class can do the dumbest things, just because they haven’t had the requisite number of years on this planet to amass enough life experiences yet.

Would your child know what to do if someone in the limo pulled out a hip flask or some pot? Would your child know what to do if a boy in the limo made unwanted sexual advances on a girl sitting next to him? Would your child know what to do if someone in the group was suddenly accosted by a passerby on the street? Would your child know what to do if one of the limo’s passengers began hurtling objects out the window at people on the sidewalk? Would your child know what to do if a fight broke out between two students and one of them had a weapon?

When they travel in large groups of 20 to 24 kids and not everyone knows each other, the possibilities for serious mischief are infinite. And, frankly, in potentially dangerous situations, I would trust the kids with street smarts to take better care of themselves than the ones with only book smarts.

“I trust my child. These are good kids.” I hear this one a lot. And it is true that most kids are good, decent, trustworthy children. But it is also true that there are a few who are not. And all it takes is one bad kid out of 24 to take the whole crowd down. It’s happened before.

“I’d rather have them make mistakes now when they are living at home, than later when they are off on their own.” This logic escapes me. Why not do our best to help them not make serious mistakes at all by providing safety nets so when they do fall, they won’t hurt themselves too badly? Let them learn gradually what not to do and help them generalize their small errors in judgment, so as they get older they can apply the lessons to more critical situations. Children are taught to swim not by throwing them in the deep end on their own but by starting first with an instructor in the shallow pool.

“We compromised. Instead of letting them staying out until 3:00 a.m., we agreed to a 2:00 a.m. curfew.” It hurts to be their parents instead of their friends. We want our kids to like us, to share their secrets with us, to laugh with us and cry with us. But are we doing our best for them if we abdicate our responsibilities as their parents by trying to be their friends?

A man who used to smoke marijuana with his son in high school and college did it so they could share something together and be pals. The boy went deeper into drugs in order to assert more independence and separate from his father. It wasn’t until his father assumed his role as an authority figure that the relationship healed.

“This is what they do at this age, in high school.” Kids are growing up faster than we did, it’s true. They are exposed to sex, drugs and alcohol at ever-earlier ages. They have Britney Spears while we had Joni Mitchell. “Father Knows Best” has now been replaced by Homer (“Dad is an idiot”) Simpson. Our music was subtle; theirs is often vulgar and blatant. They watch “Friends” and “Sex and the City,” while we watched “Gilligan’s Island” and “Happy Days.”

Still, do they really need to travel by themselves in a limo? Besides the ridiculous expense and pretentious display of privilege and materialism, what will they do to top this, as seniors, if they cruise around town shouting from limousine windows on Prospect Street in La Jolla when they are only 14?


How much of a limousine company’s business now comes from high school students? Promoting harmful products and needless services as essential is excessive manipulation of an easily influenced young market. Reminds me a bit of the cigarette commercials aimed at teens back in the 50s and 60s, when a Marlboro dangling from a cowboy’s lips was the ultimate macho symbol and Virginia Slims smoked by impossibly slender, willowy women were elegant.

As opulence battles common sense, parents are trapped in the middle – caught between a culture that has moved too fast to keep pace with moral values, and a need to establish boundaries that protect without limiting. The limo symbolizes the conflict, with its tantalizing allure and grown-up appeal. But the world behind the door of the stretch Hummer differs from what goes on behind that photography studio door only in its glitz and dazzle – neither door bars parents from entering.

Reprinted by permission – Carmel Valley News/Del Mar Village Voice/Rancho Santa Fe Review.


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