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There’s danger in thinking your kid’s perfect

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Updated: November 27, 2011 1:22PM

In the mythical Lake Wobegon, it’s said all the children are above average.

The so-called Lake Wobegon effect is apparently alive and well. A new study — the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health from the University of Michigan — shows that the vast majority of parents think a lot of other teens are using drugs or alcohol. Just not their own kids.

According to the latest annual Monitoring the Future study (this unrelated study also was conducted using University of Michigan researchers), 52 percent of high school sophomores in a nationally representative sample said they drank alcohol in the last year. And 28 percent of sophomores reported using pot.

But the National Poll on Children’s Health found that parents overestimate what other kids are up to, and to believe that some 60 percent of teens used alcohol in the last year and 40 percent used pot. Yet when it came to their own precious darlings? Well, only 10 percent of parents believe their teens have used alcohol in the last year, and 5 percent used marijuana.

Garrison Keillor, call your office.

Dr. Bernard Biermann is a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the University of Michigan and the lead co-investigator for the National Poll on Children’s Health. He told me: “Parents need to be aware of the possibility, even the probability, that their teens have experimented with drugs or alcohol. If parents don’t believe that, they’re missing an opportunity to talk to their child about something very important.”

Fair enough, but the issue here is much bigger.

I’ve written before about what I think is willful parental ignorance — for instance, when it comes to bullying. Every parent I know is worried about his or her child being a victim of it. Cyberbullying is the latest hot topic, and it’s a serious one. Parents are given copious information from schools on how to recognize if their child is being bullied. Hello — do the math. Somebody somewhere is doing the bullying, and it might be your child or mine. Really. (Some of the best evidence, not to mention common sense, suggests that the typical child both bullies and is bullied.)

So the larger issue that these studies reveal — again — may simply be a truth that is hard for human beings to bear: that we are all capable of some pretty awful stuff. Think about it. How often do we say something like, “I was just so tired when I lost my temper — that wasn’t the real me!” Well, no. It’s actually when our defenses are down that the “real us” lets loose. It’s often not a pretty picture at all.

I think our tendency to want to tie up our egos in our child’s performance is part of that often-unattractive human tableau.

Instead, it’s the wise person, the wise parent, who “is always saddened by sin, but never surprised by it,” as I’ve heard theologians put it.

In fact, seeing our children as the real, wonderful, but flawed creatures they are will better help us as parents reach their hearts and characters and help train them in the way they should go.

So wake up, Mom and Dad. If your child is human, he or she certainly could, and given the opportunity, maybe would, “fill-in-the-blank.” It’s not poor parenting for us to recognize that truth. It’s only poor parenting when we don’t.

Scripps Howard News Service

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