Parents serving beer and wine to their teens seem to be the new rage in parenting. This is mind-boggling on several levels.
To begin with the obvious, teaching kids to drink at 14 guarantees they’ll be drinking for the rest of their lives. You can’t raise a responsible drinker without first raising a drinker. The “responsible” part is sheer supposition. Is that really the most important thing we need to be teaching teens—the difference between single malt and blended? That it’s OK to have one drink with mom and dad, but don’t drink when we’re not at home? That drinking is the mark of adulthood and something to aspire to?
Then there’s the question of how irresponsible parents can teach their children to do anything responsibly. Because what is being taught isn’t how to drink responsibly, but how to break the law, and it’s being taught in mom and dad’s house. If you can drink “responsibly” at 14 why can’t you also smoke dope responsibly, snort cocaine responsibly, and take un-prescribed pain pills responsibly even though they too are against the law? In a teen’s brain, of course you can. The line between legal and illegal has already been erased.
Here are the facts: The younger you are when you start drinking, the greater your chance of becoming addicted to alcohol at some point in your life. More than four in 10 people who begin drinking before age 15 eventually become alcoholics. So what a “responsible” parent is really doing is greatly increasing the odds of their child becoming an alcoholic.
A parent is saying, “Son, I love you so I’m going to introduce you to a substance that can make walking difficult, blur your vision, slur your speech, slow your reaction time, impair your memory, paralyze your nerves, make learning harder, increase your risk of liver disease, and can lead to vomiting, irregular breathing, and really stupid decisions (more than 19% of drivers ages 16 to 20 who die in motor vehicle crashes last year had been drinking alcohol). This is how much I love you.”
Time was when a 16-year-old would have to go through a lot of trouble and expense to buy just a six-pack of beer. That could involve a fake ID, asking some guy at a liquor store to buy beer for you, or, failing that, trying to steal a sip or two of something from the parent’s liquor cabinet. Now, according to U.S. Government surveys, many kids just ask their parents for it. Last month over 300,000 middle schoolers got alcohol at home and over 100,000 were handed their drinks by a parent or guardian.
Some parents maintain that if they don’t teach their kids how to drink, they will learn on their own in clubs and private parties. Here’s breaking news: they’re going to drink there too. I think what these parents are really saying is, “I hate being the bad guy. Parenting is too tough a job already to deal with teen drinking. Plus I like to drink so I feel better about drinking in front of the kids if they are drinking too.”
One of my most vivid memories of parenting was learning of the tragic death our high school’s drill team captain, killed when her drunk star quarterback boyfriend plowed into a tree. They were leaving a party where his mom supplied alcohol to the kids, thinking if she took the car keys she was being responsible.
Is all this parenting about drinking really necessary? The August 26, 2008 issue of Slate reported that the federal study “Monitoring the Future” found that after Mothers Against Drunk Driving successfully lobbied for a national law requiring persons to be 21 years or older to buy alcohol, “underage drinking dropped instantly. From 1977 to 2007, the percentage of 12th graders drinking at least monthly fell from 70 percent to 45 percent—almost immediately after the law was enacted, and lastingly. Fatal car crashes involving drunk young adults dipped 32 percent, resulting in 1,000 fewer lives lost per year. Impressively, this decrease occurred despite minimal efforts at enforcement; the mere presence of the law was protective. Today, all major public health authorities, including the American Medical Association, Centers for Disease Control, National Highway Traffic Safety Board, and Surgeon General, support the higher drinking age.” Yet some parents don’t.
So here’s the bottom line about teen drinking. Yes, there pressures to do it. But you’re the parent, for God’s sake. Act like it. Communicate your expectations. Hold your kids accountable for their actions. Maybe you model how to nurse one drink all night in front of your kids, or maybe do something extreme like give up drinking while there are teens in the house, so drinking doesn’t seem like “adult behavior.” Talk to your kids often about choices and pressure and—just between us parents—realize they probably will experiment. But it’s one thing to drink at a party believing you won’t get in that much trouble, because the night before you and dad shared a beer, and it’s a whole other thing to drink worrying that hell will fall on your head. That concern makes the whole enterprise much less enjoyable.