According to police, 16-year-old Kendal Balls of Lyman, Wyoming, went to bed at 10:30 p.m. on July 6 after his stepdad and a friend allegedly invited the teen to join them in alcohol consumption, giving him multiple shots of Fireball and Jack Daniel's whiskey over the course of two hours. The teen never woke up.
Their reasoning behind the tragic night of bingeing? The teen had been expressing a desire to drink since early adolescence, according to his mother, Paulette Richardson. Kendal's biological father is an alcoholic, and Paulette allegedly hoped that facilitating a bad alcohol experience with her son would keep him from the same fate. That's exactly what she and Joseph Richardson — Kendal's stepfather — did. By the time anyone realized anything was wrong, the teen had a blood alcohol level of 0.587, which constitutes a level that is more than seven times the legal limit for an adult in Wyoming, and the cause of this teen's death was determined to be complications from acute alcohol poisoning. Now his parents are facing charges of involuntary manslaughter, which carry a sentence of up to 20 years in jail.
This kind of tough love, reverse psychology parental punishment isn't new, but it is disturbing. It's like when a parent catches their kid smoking and then forces their child to smoke a pack of cigarettes until nausea and general misery are induced. Or when a mother bites her biting toddler to show them "how it feels."
Objectively, feeding your child alcohol or forcing them to smoke cigarettes is horrifying, but that doesn't keep people from lauding this particular style of punishment as "parents doing it right" or "old school." There's a sick little thread of "Yeah! You showed them!" that runs through discussions of this kind of discipline that ignores the shame, damage and risks these punishments inflict on kids. These are kids we're talking about. Children.
Feeding your child alcohol until they suffer extreme nausea as some sort of aversion therapy is disturbed. Doing it until they die is inexcusable. Cheering on the behavior is more than a little questionable. But most of all?
It doesn't even work.
It isn't irrational to worry about your teen drinking — 30 percent of kids report drinking alcohol before eighth grade, and 57 percent report being all-out drunk before graduation. About 5,000 deaths a year are related to underage drinking. So wanting to protect our children isn't parental panic — it's good sense. The thing is, there's a right way and a wrong way to do that. This was the wrong way, and this poor kid died because of it.
An overwhelming amount of research suggests that the way to develop a healthy attitude about alcohol in teens is multifaceted, with approximately zero of those facts being "force your child to drink until they're sick so they have a twisted relationship with alcohol and risk healthy adolescent physiological development."
Instead, it begins with parental modeling: Think about how you want your child to approach alcohol, and then model that for them. If you want your children to get wasted before dinner, then that's what you should show them. If you want them to show restraint in appropriate situations, try that instead.
Next, there's a conversational aspect. You need to establish boundaries early on and then keep talking about it. A surprisingly high number of kids — 80 percent — value their parents' opinions on alcohol consumption. The thing is, it has to be legitimate. You can't tell your kids, "Drinking four shots in three hours is dangerous and unacceptable" and then slam back your favorite liquor. Basically? Don't be a hypocrite.
The fear that a child may follow in an alcoholic parent's footsteps is real, but there are better ways to deter your children, and it includes educating yourself and them on the genetic predisposition that comes into play in a situation like this, and then advocating on behalf of your kids by staying involved.
Alcohol is not Satan incarnate, and using it as a stick to beat your kids with or as a bogeyman to terrify them with will ultimately do more damage in the long run. Understand and explain that there's a right and a wrong way to indulge, and then make sure your kids understand by talking, and talking and talking about it.
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