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The question

I'm a physician and a generally responsible dad. A few weeks ago, on a Friday night, my son (usually an upstanding teen) decided to have some buddies over to watch a game. My spouse was away on business and I decided to go out with a friend. Meanwhile, my son decided to pop open some vodka (brought by his sister, a university student). Soon thereafter, all three were intoxicated. One made it home; my son and his other friend left a helluva mess (read bodily fluids) and he could not hide the incident. The next morning, he showed contrition and helped me to clean the mess. He wanted me to keep the story from my spouse and from the parents of the friends. Both of the kids came by the next day and implored me to seal this story in the vault. I'm no angel; I left them unsupervised. No one ended up on dialysis. What would you do?

The answer

I love this question, even though the part about "bodily fluids" is a little grossenating. (I know, I know, that's not a real word. It's funny, when I think about it, that of my top three favourite words – brainiac, grossenating and interlard – only one is real.)

Part of what I love about it is you had the humility to say, "I'm no angel," and admit you might have made a mistake. Here at Damage Control HQ, we have numerous mottoes. But if we had to choose just one to carve above the door of our fortified bunker's secret entrance, it would probably be: "Be humble, human and admit your mistakes."

Oh, and work hard. And for the kids: Stay in school. Now, as is so often the case, I wish I had just a smidge more detail to go on. You call your son a "teen," but as I know from having three myself – ages 13, 16 and 19 – each year of teenager-dom makes a huge difference. Obviously my advice is going to be different if we're talking about a 19-year-old or a 13-year-old.

But assuming your kid is somewhere in the middle, I'd say – well, first of all, teens and alcohol is a complex issue. You want to urge moderation on them ultimately, but it's not unusual for early experimentation to be a blowout (both metaphorical and, as you have seen, quite literal).

I remember my first time vividly. I was 15, I think, and it was Colt 45 malt liquor – to this day I can't look at the cans without feeling a little ill – with my rural cousin Steve at a state fair in Minnesota. I wound up literally laying with the beasts in a pile of straw.

Like I say, moderation is the goal. I've always tried to be moderate, precisely so I don't have to give it up entirely. It's a big deal, for me, to have that Scotch at the end of a writing day, as I begin chopping stuff up for dinner. It's a reward, certainly, and a sign that – if not a time to relax, exactly, since there is no rest for the wicked, especially when the wicked guy has three teenage kids – but a different type of work has begun.

That said, I do try to keep it in a box, so I don't wind up living in a box, chugging it out of a box.

But as my mother-in-law points out, "alcohol is insidious," and obviously, for some (e.g., Rob Lowe, who hasn't drunk a drop in, like, 30 years), life is better if you never touch the stuff.

It might seem premature, but in your shoes I'd lay some version of these thoughts on your son (and his friends, if they're in earshot and inclined to listen; otherwise leave the lecturing to their parents). Give him the big picture. So far, it has worked for our family. My oldest, legal now, is extremely moderate. Thanks to my guidance? One can never be sure, but either way I'm proud of him on that score.

As to whether to keep it a secret from your spouse: no. Nix that to the max! Are you kidding? If your spouse is anything like mine, and she finds out you kept that under your hat, a) she will be furious, b) she will assume you have ulterior motives (i.e. to cover up your own complicity) and c) she will be furious.

Physician, listen to thyself! You need to come clean to your wife, posthaste.

As to whether you should rat yourself and the other kids out to their parents, that's a little more ticklish. Discuss this, too, with your wife. But I'd be inclined to tell them. You were in loco parentis after all, and it's information they would certainly like to know.

They might not be crazy about it. But if they're normal, reasonable parents, they will forgive you and focus on the task at hand: having their own discussion with their kids.

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