Want to Put the Kibosh on Spring Break?

by Dr. Ann L. Engelland

(March 13, 2008) It’s upon us - that time of year when college kids (and even some high school seniors) begin to ask about (or announce) their plans for spring break. Most parents have heard nightmare stories about spring break bacchanals in warm, sunny locations where the legal drinking age is “no problem, mon.”

What’s a parent to do? Start with figuring out how you feel and what you think about spring break. If you are resisting, where is your resistance coming from? What are you afraid of? What does your spouse say?

Key issues include:

• Who pays? If it’s your child, is this the best use of summer savings or bar mitzvah money?

• Where are you comfortable having them go? If plans include international travel, are you concerned about security or about health, safety and drinking?

• How is your child doing in school? Does s/he “deserve” a break, as your child is wont to plead?

• Do you have an alternative to propose? Can you lure them home with the promise of homemade chicken soup and theater tickets? Or maybe a family vacation? How about a rest and a good book? Or maybe a job or internship?

• Do you trust your child to navigate alone abroad or even out of state?

• Are you just perturbed about how much vacation they get and how hard you work to raise the $40K per year for some 30 odd weeks of class time?

Increasingly there are alternatives to a spring break fling. Just a few include:

The Clinton Global Initiative: Yup, Bill is organizing a trip to New Orleans in March to keep himself out of trouble.

The Student Conservation Association: for the price of an air ticket you can join a group in the Grand Canyon (also warm and sunny in March). This is a great organization that also supports work at many US national park sites in the summer.

The Alternative Break Connection: a web site with numerous community service possibilities.

Cross Cultural Solutions, based in New Rochelle and growing all the time, organizes weeklong service trips to many areas, including Brazil, Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Russia.

• And more and more colleges are sponsoring alternatives to spring break, some more meaningful than others.

If, in the end, your child chooses Atlantis, all is not lost. There is still something to say. And that might be NO. However, even if you are willing or the decision is out of your control, a few parental words of wisdom are in order. Kids often report that they hear their parents’ little voice when they are misbehaving or heading for trouble. And sometimes they even listen to what the voice is saying.

A Bit of Advice

The following advice was gathered from conversations with patients, their parents, and, most importantly, my own kids, some of whom are “beyond” spring break age and are now watching out for their younger siblings (and saying they would not “allow” their teenage daughter to go!)

Tell your children that you expect them to be law abiding and safe, arriving back home sound with good memories and experiences. Remind them that they may be in a place that is warm and sunny but poor, and their perceived wealth can be an object of scorn. Talk about their role as ambassadors from their school and their country. Ask them to consider how they as individuals might repair our image abroad.

Suggest a buddy system at all times. Although this might be especially true for girls, my own sons tell stories of being mugged in broad daylight in Italy and rescued by friends. Consider carrying pepper spray when out and about. Contrary to what a parent might think, a group of traveling students is probably safer if it’s co-ed rather than young women alone. They are less likely to be seen as potential prey.

Taxi drivers may be particularly worrisome. Often they will take unsuspecting or impaired Americans on a long ride, or worse. And to make matters further complicated, the police may well be in cahoots with the locals who profit from teenage tourists.

On the subject of drinking and drugs: US kids figure, often incorrectly, that they can drink however they want when abroad. It is wise to remind them of trouble with potential assault; unwanted and unprotected sexual experiences when under the influence; and risks of alcohol poisoning and dehydration in a country that may have substandard emergency medical help. An effective and committed buddy system is a way to help ensure safety.

US kids need to know that the laws about possession of marijuana may be harsh and dutifully enforced in many warm, sunny places. Dad and Mom can’t necessarily call their law school buddies and get the bail paid the way they might in Florida.

Accept NO pills that are not dispensed by a pharmacy. Rules about avoiding mixed drinks also need to be observed.

Remind your child about the importance of hydration and sunscreen. When they party until 4 am and sleep until 11, the first thing they do is go lie in the sun and emerge hours later with second or third degree sunburns on one side only.

It’s okay to insist on a check-in call or email at least once during the vacation. Be sure to have a number or two to contact parents of fellow travelers while they are away.

If all of this just seems too scary and risky or not in keeping with your family’s values, try once more to suggest helping foot the bill for a hiking trip to Joshua Tree National Forest, a sail-powered kayak trip in the Everglades, a scuba course in the Florida Keys; or a last minute ski trip to the Rockies. Sure, those who are inclined to get into trouble may find opportunities wherever they go, but the wholesome factor might stand a chance of prevailing in the end.

And you never know. They might surprise you. Prompted to think outside the usual box, your children might just take you up on one of your suggestions.

Dr. Engelland has a practice in Mamaroneck devoted to Adolescent Primary Care. She now accepts Aetna and Hudson Health Plan. Dr. Engelland can be reached at 698-5544 or AnnEngellandMD.com