When it comes to their teen-age children, today's parents have lots to worry about, including sex and substance abuse.
But believing that forewarned is forearmed, a local group called Mothers of Youth (MOY) is holding monthly forums, with guest speakers, to provide parents with the knowledge and skills to deal with their teens.
"We're seven mothers of teens, tired of being reactive to the issues teens are faced with," said one of the group's founders, Patsy Mangas of Chantilly's Sutton Oaks community. "If we inform each other and talk to each other, we can be better equipped."
When her daughter, 16, was an eighth-grader, Mangas became interested in how teens cope with day-to-day problems. She began building a library to advise her child.
Then a serious issue arose. What made her want to start a group for parents, said Mangas, is that "I'd heard about oral sex going on at some local middle schools. I was hearing rumors about it, during last year's school year, from parents in my community [then Franklin Farm]. But it's going on everywhere."
Then, last winter, she saw a program on this topic on the "Oprah Winfrey" TV show, discussing its prevalence in middle schools across the country. It both startled and angered her.
"I have a 13-year-old son — a 7th-grader at St. Timothy," said Mangas. "And it made me mad that the girls [described in the TV show] didn't think more about themselves, and [now] I'd have to talk to my son about it."
He was 12 then, and they discussed it, one day, on the way to basketball practice. Said Mangas: "He knew what [oral sex] was, and he knew of one boy doing it."
Learning this information made her even more determined to form a group helping parents address these and other serious matters all teens face. "I think there's a need in the community," she said. "I want to do something about [this issue] before it comes to my doorstep, and I think we have to deal with it at a younger age [than we realized]."
Mangas began calling mothers of children at Franklin Middle School, Chantilly High, Paul VI High and St. Timothy. They formed MOY's core group, next adding Herndon Middle and Herndon High.
"Our goal is to enjoy the time we have with our teens, rather than being upset at what's coming down the road," said Mangas. "We want tools to better deal with and understand our teens."
Seven moms met in May to decide MOY's focus and how to spread the word to both public and private schools. The second meeting, in June, drew 125 parents from Centreville, Chantilly, Little Rocky Run, Vienna, Fairfax, Herndon and Reston. Patricia Hearsh, author of national bestseller, "A Tribe Apart" — documenting the sexual activities of eight middle- and high-schoolers — was guest speaker.
"She said that, often, we don't know what our kids are doing," said Mangas. "We need to write down who our children's friends are and meet their parents so we can work together. And we should have open dialogues with our children. [Hearsh] spoke common sense and re-energized the parents."
MOY's Kelly Witmer, a Franklin Farm mother of four boys, ages 4-13, also saw Oprah's show. "I thought it wasn't for real — and then they get into middle school, and it's real," she said. "It's scary. I don't want to be one of those mothers who say, 'Not my child, no way, not ever.' I want to make sure communication is open in this house."
She was amazed how much she learned at the first two MOY seminars and hopes other mothers will realize "anyone is susceptible to anything."
The next event will be Wednesday, Oct. 2, from 7-10 p.m., in the Paul VI auditorium; the public is welcome. The topic is "Parenting: The Biggest Job We'll Ever Have," based on the book by Laura and Malcolm Gauld, who've worked in the field of character education for 30 years.
This seminar is about raising children with character and integrity and helping them distinguish right from wrong when no one's looking. It's non-denominational and is open to parents of children of all ages; call Mary Moore at 703-715-0704.
"It's a $4,000 seminar for free," said Mangas. "Two national experts in these fields are flying in." Parenting is so important, she said, yet too few parents actually take the time to educate themselves about it or to get a barometer on where we are with our kids and where we're going."
Moore, of Oak Hill, has three teen-age boys. She says the book "changed our lives," and she wants others to learn about its parenting philosophy. The Gaulds work with families and believe children's character development starts at home and must be inspired by parents.
What affected her family so deeply, said Moore, was the book's notion of truth over harmony. "Many times, parents let things slide — not making a big deal about them — sacrificing truth and honesty for peace and harmony," she explained. "But if you do, it comes back to bite you because your kids aren't being held accountable for their actions."
Before reading the book, she said, the center of her family was "the kid causing the most trouble at the time, and we all reacted by pacifying and making peace. But we wanted principles to be the center, and now they are. We have respect, honesty and integrity, instead of a long list of rules that kids can get around."
Moore said rules seem to just be for kids, but principles are for everyone in the family: "There's no way to get around a principle — for example, either you're respectful [toward others] or not." She says this philosophy made her trust her teen-agers and got them to trust her motives. And it made her daughter, 6, realize that, if she's not ready for school when her carpool comes, she'll make others late — and that's not respecting them.
After Mangas also read this book, she and Moore discussed how parents of teens are isolated from each other, but really should work together and get more involved in their children's lives. That's why, said Moore, the Oct. 2 workshop "is really going to help families."
Another MOY mom, Cathy Muha of Oakton, has two children at St. Timothy and one at Paul VI. She's also a public-health educator by trade and chairman of the advisory board for the Safe and Drug-Free Youth section of Fairfax County Public Schools. She headed a drug task force at St. Timothy that put on anti-violence and substance-abuse programs for students, teachers and parents. This year, she holds that post at Paul VI.
The problems she sees in the area schools involve sex, alcohol and tobacco. "There's a lot of aberrant sexual behavior on the part of the middle-school students," she said. "We know through several incidents around the county that it's happening. I think [children] had probably heard about [oral sex], but I think — with all the publicity about the Bill Clinton incident, there was some experimentation."
As a health educator, said Muha, "My feeling is that maybe they're thinking it's safe sex or they won't get sexually transmitted diseases from it — which is erroneous. And it brings to light, even more, the need for education."
She doesn't believe anyone or any school — public or private — is immune to what's going on. And she believes some students are using tobacco and alcohol during school hours and at after-school functions. She said parents see and read about local youth making bad choices, so she's trying to give children the information to make wise decisions.
Instead of becoming less involved when their children become high-schoolers, she said, they should ask questions, set guidelines and not hesitate to look in their children's rooms. Said Muha: "We need to know what our kids are doing because the only thing that prevents a lot of these things from happening is close supervision."
MOY member Cathy Cahill of Franklin Glen agrees. She and her husband were dedicated parents with strong principles and "thought we were doing everything right. We thought we knew where [our daughter and her friends] were going and what they were up to." When she was proved wrong, she figured other parents might be in the same boat, so she attended lots of parenting seminars.
Now, she wants to learn about "Tough Love" and to offer other parents support. "Don't be afraid to ask other parents [questions or to] say no to your children," she said. "Take time to talk to your kids and know what's going on. Let them have a party — but bring food, so you'll have to keep going in."
As a mother of three teens — twins, 13, plus a daughter, 15 — Oak Hill's Janet Palmisano says anything to help her maintain perspective and be "re-inspired to be a calm, rational parent," would be appreciated. She joined MOY so she could "go in prepared" for the teen years.
"You never stop worrying and, for me, it would be really great to listen to parents of older teens and hear what they have to say," she said. "They have a different perspective. Once you've been through it, I think you see more clearly." For more information about MOY, call 703-679-9450.