I am the parent of a freshman at Mercer Island High School. I was appalled to read about the scavenger hunt in which over 100 senior and junior girls participated last month that included drinking, sexual behavior (with boys who did not chose to be involved) and tasteless pranks. What appalled me more than the activities by girls who are supposed to be leaders, is the dismissive and cavalier responses of so many of the parents. I am tired of hearing Island parents make excuses for these behaviors, “Oh they’re just kids. This happens everywhere” or “This is just a part of growing up. We can’t protect them from everything.”
What can I do as a parent, short of locking my freshman in her room, so she doesn’t grow up to think this behavior is acceptable, normal and especially so she won’t be inclined to degrade herself by participating in this when she’s a senior?
Appalled Freshman Mother
Because I received so many emails and calls about the scavenger hunt and it seems to have gone “viral” on local social media, I would like to take a slightly different approach this week. I will respond from a broader public health perspective and based on the science and local data. Nevertheless, I hope my comments will still take us “up river” and hit on some sensitive Island norms and traditions. Let me try to lay out an honest assessment of the issue while avoiding moral judgement or pointing any fingers. I hope this can be the start of a larger community conversation.
There are a few reactions to this situation that get my attention. There seem to be some parents reacting out of fear about the potential consequences for their daughters involved in the activity. They question the impact a tarnished “permanent record” will have on their daughter’s prospect for attending a “good school.” This fear can lead to protecting their children from the otherwise natural consequences that are also important for healthy development.
I also notice some parents and youth minimizing the real dangers of underage drinking and other risk-taking or sexually exploitative behaviors through comments like, “all kids take risks” or “all kids are going to drink.” The insinuation being that these types of activities are relatively harmless and the concern is way out of proportion. However, these messages really do have an impact and can fuel the dismissive and cavalier attitudes, and that can hurt our kids in the long run.
Others point out that teens benefit from such rituals or customs that strengthen bonds or build school spirit. Indeed, many institutional and community traditions involve initiation or organized activities that pass down customs, beliefs or values. High school clubs, for example, have traditions that reflect the stated values of the group’s mission. However, these traditions can veer off course and involve behaviors that can put youth at immediate risk as well as set a dangerous precedent for the next cohort of senior girls.
Looking at the behaviors involved with the recent scavenger hunt, it is important to point out that they are not the norm among Island teens, or specifically among senior girls. Most Island youth choose to not participate in sexualized or self-denigrating activities.
The scavenger hunt event has history, but it is NOT the kind of tradition to really define the Mercer Island youth culture. The scavenger hunt may be more accurately described as part of a small sub-culture within the Island community, because it is conducted by a small subset of Island youth and condoned by a small percentage of parents. For those who weren’t involved, the hunt activity is seen as an exclusive, peer-pressured activity proposed by a small minority of girls. But like so many other graphic or risky events, it tends to have a disproportionate influence on what the community perceives to be reflective of all youth — this just is not the case.
Consider that the norm among island teens is overwhelmingly to make healthy decisions. The majority do not drink alcohol nor do they condone non-consensual or exploitive sexual behavior. Many of the girls provided the scavenger hunt list, as well as individuals names on the list, were not happy to be included. Similarly, many parents were equally as appalled as you.
A public health approach evaluates such events based upon their relative risk and protective factors. So, looking at the scavenger hunt through this lens, what do we see? Excessive alcohol use in high school can lead to real short-term harm and increase likelihood of lifetime substance use disorders. Sexual exploitation can be not only illegal, but psychologically damaging. Team-building behavior and youth-led activities can build strong bonds for teens. Teens, even senior girls, still need help making sound decisions and learning from the consequences of their actions. And, we know that affluence alone, is not an effective protective factor.
AFM, as a parent, you have been and continue to be the number one influence on your child’s development. Parenting on Mercer Island means helping your child manage the strong focus on external measures of success and a “work hard-play hard attitude” that can be used to justify high risk behaviors.
Research supports an authoritative/assertive (not authoritarian) parenting style that sets and reinforces realistic expectations and consequences—then helping your child meet those expectations. It does not support being overly permissive and bending your rules or overly aggressive and (figuratively) locking your daughter in her room. Besides, most would agree, as do I, that there is simply too much that is great about growing up on Mercer Island to suggest over-protection. Since you asked, here are a few parenting tips that come to mind as we think about event like the scavenger hunt:
• Build strong family bonds at every age. Make sure your child feels your love and positive regard, even when they push away as teens.
• Start talking early, in age appropriate language, about drug and alcohol use. Include your and your family’s expectations regarding drinking and keep expectations in place until the brain is less vulnerable (after 24 years old).
• Give your child strategies and skills to get out of compromising situations without offending people such as a code word to text for assistance.
• Prepare and model how to deal with unexpected events. Talk about the bystander effect and remind your child about actual positive norms on Mercer Island — they are more likely to act as they understand a majority of their peers do.
• Let your child feel the natural legal and social consequences of their actions. Avoid rescuing your child (or “lawyering up”). It is better to experience consequences earlier when the stakes are not as high.
The Scavenger Hunt has been a difficult topic for many families. We need to stop judging the young people involved and their parents and start to look at this as an opportunity for dialogue. Maybe an honest review of parental and community attitudes and norms is in order. I envision a community where youth, parents and institutions alike have a dynamic and collaborative role in co-authoring safe norms and traditions that cement Island pride. I hope, as a community, we discuss this further.
At YFS, our Healthy Youth Initiative has parenting and other task forces grappling with many of these questions. Please contact YFS (www.mercergov.org) to get involved and help us look for further opportunities for taking back ownership of the events that shape Island norms.
Cindy Goodwin is the director of Mercer Island Youth and Family Services. The advice offered by YFS is intended for informational purposes only and to guide you in seeking further resources if needed. The answers to questions are not intended to replace or substitute for any professional, psychological, financial, medical, legal or other professional advice. If you have a question you would like to ask Cindy to answer in this column, or if you need additional professional resources, email firstname.lastname@example.org.