Bella English

On drinking, parents need to just say no

By Bella English
May 16, 2010

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Every spring, Dr. John Knight starts having nightmares about prom and graduation parties.

“I know some kids are going to die, some are going to be terribly injured, and others are going to lose their future,’’ says Knight, founder and director of the Center for Adolescent Substance Abuse Research at Children’s Hospital. “It starts in late April or early May and goes through the whole summer.’’

In fact, two recent incidents in North Andover have kicked off the underage-drinking season. In April, police charged a high school senior’s parents with furnishing alcohol to minors after breaking up a party at their home. In early May, a 17-year-old girl was critically injured when she fell down the stairs at an underage drinking party hosted by members of the Merrimack College football team.

Underage drinking is a dangerous rite of passage for too many teens. Kids get spring fever and chase it with booze, parents are either indulgent or ignorant, and the combination can lead to disaster. Knight says that 20 to 25 percent of parents supply alcohol to their teens. Some of them say they’re well-intentioned, but they’re badly misinformed. “They’re going to drink anyway, so they might as well drink here,’’ is nonsense. Why make it easier for them to break the law and put themselves — and others — at risk?

Taking the car keys away does not work. What about the drunk kid who falls down the stairs? The one who leaves and drowns? The one who walks home and is hit by a car? The one who vomits and chokes to death? The one who finds his keys, after all?

“What parents don’t understand is that the reason we have a drinking age of 21 is not to deprive children, but to protect them,’’ says Knight, who lives in Milton. “Their brains are not fully developed, they respond differently to alcohol, and they’re at much greater risk.’’

Knight found his calling after the death of another Milton resident in 1998. Ryan Whitney was 19 when, after drinking with friends, he fell into Lyons Quarry in Quincy and drowned. When Knight, a pediatrician, saw the news on television, he decided to devote the rest of his career to adolescent substance abuse. Ryan had lived one street away, and his father, a cardiologist, was a professional colleague of Knight’s.

Since then, Knight has given hundreds of talks to parent groups at schools. But the sessions are poorly attended, and he feels he’s singing to the choir: The parents who show up are the ones who are already tuned in to the issue. “The ones who are the problem, they don’t show up,’’ he says.

If Mohammed won’t come to the mountain, the mountain must go to Mohammed, so the saying goes. In that spirit, Knight’s latest project is a website devoted to underage drinking, which launches today. It opens with an interview with Richard and Karen Whitney, who are funding the project from the Ryan Whitney Memorial Golf Tournament they’ve held the past two years.

The website,, will include the content Knight gives in his speeches, titled “Fifteen Minutes to Save Your Teen’s Life.’’ He discusses the neuroscience of teen drinking and what parents should — and should not — do if their child has a problem. There’s a Q and A, and it ends with a 10-question quiz for parents.

It is that quiz that will determine whether a Milton High School senior is allowed at the all-night graduation party June 4. Working with Knight, Milton school officials have decided to have parents read the website content and take the quiz as part of the final “check-out’’ process for their graduate. If they don’t hand in the finished quiz, their senior may not attend the party.

The move follows Milton High School’s decision this year to have every student attending the junior and senior proms take a Breathalyzer test on the way in. At the junior prom, everyone passed, says Milton High principal John Drottar. As for the quiz, he hasn’t yet decided the logistics of it, but he believes it’s a necessary weapon in his arsenal to prevent drinking tragedies. Last year, some students showed up at the senior prom drunk and were not allowed to attend graduation.

“We’ve been very fortunate in all these recent years that we haven’t had any tragedies,’’ says Drottar. “But we can’t think that the job’s over yet.’’

Superintendent Mary Gormley supports the efforts, including Knight’s quiz for parents. “There’s a very clear message at Milton High that, no, this [drinking] is not going to happen. The word I use is vigilance.’’

Knight’s top three bits of advice for parents: Never provide alcohol or condone drinking by your teenager; give a clear “no use’’ message; and provide a safe and sober alternative such as Milton’s supervised, all-night graduation party.

As for the Whitneys, they feel that the website is the perfect project to fund. “We’re thrilled that this is kicked off in the town we raised our son in,’’ says Karen Whitney, “and that maybe he can make a difference for kids who drink.’’

Globe columnist Bella English lives in Milton. She can be reached at

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