Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!

My youngest is on a rather tame ‘schoolies’ break at the south coast, and I’ve just finished reading him the riot act to get back to Canberra — on the bus!

Bliss! Dawn! Heaven? Not for mums. Unfortunately, I know a fair bit about schoolies week. My eldest son Brendan wrote a book, The Secret Life of the Gold Coast, in which he tells of teens so oblivious to their own mortality they dare one another to jump off the balconies of high-rises into the pool. And it isn’t just the Gold Coast. Now Aussie ‘youth culcha’ has invaded Bali and Fiji, with Byron Bay for ‘posh schoolies’. Presumably a posh schoolie only gets drunk on champagne and vodka, not beer or alcopops.

After schoolies, the weary parent cannot look forward to any let-up in the festivities — or the costs — as the end-of-school ritual goes on. And on.

First is the ‘formal’, with all the compulsory drinking and the cost and carry-on of strange rituals which for some reason parents feel they have to indulge, like the pre-dance movie-star reception where huge crowds gather out front as the school leavers arrive, star-like, in their stretch limos or stretch Hummers. Recently one of these crowds, numbering 1,000 or so, blocked Constitution Avenue in Canberra, despite two police cars and assorted rozzers trying to restrain the ‘fans’.

Teachers are understandably fed up with having to cart kids to the hospital after the dance with alcohol poisoning, so some schools are trying to tone down the proceedings and have hit upon the brilliant (and exorbitantly expensive) scheme of having parents come along, too, thereby solving both the supervision and hospitalisation problem, with a nice bit of extra fundraising on the side.

Of course no self-respecting teenager is outfitted in their older sister’s cut-down frock anymore. So with the evening dresses costing at least $1,000, the hairdo at about $150 and tickets of at least $100 per person, (now three of them, because parents have to go) and the limo, parents easily find themselves forking out more than $2,000 just on the dance — and that is aside from the week-long holiday, which can easily cost another $2,000.

But wait. Just when you think you are safe from any more of these interminable and infantile rites of passage, hoping they’ll get a job or start thinking about university, the infant Nero starts agitating for a ‘gap year’. A gap? From what? Stress-free ‘progressive’ Canberra doesn’t even have a public exam.

The widely accepted obligation is to cosset the poor little overworked dears with the fulfilment of more and more demands. Schoolies is not just a manifestation of the boozy end-of-year Christmas culture. Australian summers have always been like that, and the fact that Christmas, summer and the end of school coincide is great fun. But schoolies is a relatively new phenomenon, an altogether rougher type of saturnalia; permission to orgiastic riot. It became the thing to do in the Eighties and by the Nineties it was everywhere. Now there are even younger kids from 13 up called ‘foolies’ — and older apprentices called ‘toolies’. Worse are the much older ‘droolies’, those who prey on schoolies and foolies.

Our kids are spoiled. Parents often fund these outrageous trips, even buying the booze. Why do they feel too intimidated to say: ‘No, I won’t let you go and drink yourself stupid on the Gold Coast, fall off a balcony, overdose, or be raped. Or go and get blinded in Bali’?

Nobody should expect adolescent kids not to get drunk or do stupid things. That is the nature of adolescence. I have lost count of how many times I have had to empty the bucket of bleach at four in the morning. But until the recent past those things didn’t happen with parental consent. To allow this is an abrogation of parental responsibility. But the media is fixated on the ‘economic benefits’ of schoolies weeks while at the same time decrying the lack of supervision: such callous humbug beside the pictures of dead children staring at us from the newspaper. The media also seem to be operating under some unwritten rule that says, ‘don’t blame the parents’.

Surely it’s time we parents stopped giving official and parental imprimatur to excess for the sake of it.

Yet for too many families the colt has bolted. Late adolescence is a time of damage control. The schoolies phenomenon is probably the most extreme example of how modern upbringing can go wrong and raising children in a benign, over-protective bubble with no criticism, curbing or punishment can harm them in the long run. Over-protected middle-class Australian kids, with their parents hovering in the background, end up with very little sense of personal responsibility, and virtually no resilience.

Nor have they been taught self-denial. They always expect to get, and really don’t understand if they don’t. ‘No’ isn’t in the lexicon. As they get bigger and more assertive, parents become afraid to say ‘no’ to them. So the demands become self-fulfilling. Suddenly an 18-year-old child in an adult body is given legal status and the right to drink, and it’s ‘off you go to schoolies for a bit of harmless fun.’ Subtext: ‘Where we know you’ll get blotto and have as much sex as you like, but we’ll be there to rescue you.’ This is a self-fulfilling disaster scenario. Cosseted 17- and 18-year-olds have no armour to face the brutalising hedonism of their world.

We in wonderfully free Australia have never had to have revolutions for our freedom, but we have had destructive social revolutions. Now we need a counter-revolution of family life, under which parents are no longer afraid. For more than 40 years the family with strong parental authority, particularly paternal authority, has been portrayed as an obstruction to self-fulfilment. The word ‘no’ was always about the negative for my generation, an obstacle to freedom. But it is time parents reclaimed the right to say ‘no’ to their children from an early age, because ‘no’ is also a positive. It can help children to be free. And that really is bliss.

Angela Shanahan is a columnist with the Australian and a mother of nine.