Sunday, August 12, 2007

American Teens and Drinking: Should the Legal Drinking Age be Lowered?

Parade magazine's cover story today is entitled "What to Do about Underage Drinking," and asks, should the drinking age be lowered? In light of yesterday's post and last night's family activity, I feel compelled to comment.

Here's what I wrote to Parade magazine -- and what was rejected because it was too long (and probably too rambling and verbose):

We have four kids ages 17 to 23, so this is a topic we deal with quite a bit.

Our biggest issue regarding drinking is SAFETY. My almost-18-year-old twins get no sympathy from me if they spend a Saturday night hanging their heads over a toilet, because that's the price they pay for over-indulging -- which under-agers tend to do because, as my daughter puts it, "you have to chug if you don't want to get caught. We can't ever 'casually sip' like you can because we have to worry about getting caught..."

Scary? You bet!

I believe that the Germans have the right idea: they grow up with a sip of beer here and there, and beer and wine can be legally consumed by teens, so it doesn't carry the glorified (or illegal) status that it has here. The big deal in America, and what contributes significantly to the underage drinking problem seems to be the exact situation that leads to my daughter's statement about "chugging."

I believe that the group Choose Responsibility has the right idea: they promote intensive education and drinking licenses for 18-year-olds, akin to learner’s permits for young drivers. Get caught drinking before 18 or break any of the strict rules after that, and the license is gone. Just as we must teach our kids to drive responsibly, we must also teach our kids to drink responsibly. Both a drink and a car, in the hands of those who haven't learned about safety and responsibility, can cause great harm... especially when used together!

My husband and I might take a "serves you right" attitude about our hung-over teen feeling rotten all day on Sunday, but our rule about NEVER, EVER mixing alcohol with a vehicle is absolutely steadfast. It is our main "law" as parents of older teens and young adults, in fact, and our kids know that if they ever drive drunk or with someone who's drunk at the wheel, that's it. No more license, no more trust, no more "liberal parenting." It's a huge price to pay for them, especially since they've heard all their lives that, as parents, our "default setting" is trust; we trust them completely and totally until and unless they give us reason not to.

Communication is essential. We know our kids drink on occasion, and we talk about it often as a family. Just say no doesn't work -- regarding drugs OR alcohol. But "let's talk about last night," when done without repercussion and blame, and instead with a strong communicative connection and words of wisdom, can work. I'm not crazy about what I hear sometimes, but our kids certainly feel free to share their experiences as well as their feelings about alcohol with us -- and their sentences do often end with, "No Mom, no one got near a car..."

Many of our kids' friends, especially those with "if-I-ever-catch-you..." parents, keep their drinking a secret, and as a consequence they sometimes end up driving home drunk to meet a curfew. Sends shivers up my spine.

Last weeks family activity was going to a Seattle Sounders game. This week's activity was going to the home brew store, buying materials to make our own home brew, and spending the evening doing just that -- parents and young adult (17 - 23) kids, together. (And guess what? Buying all the materials to make beer is totally legal at any age!) We'll sip the beer we made together, probably at a big family dinner in a couple of months (because that's how long it takes the beer to do whatever it has to do).

And another rule: This is OUR beer to share among our family in our home. No sharing with underage friends allowed -- which is motivated partly by greed and partly to cover ourselves legally.

So far, this trust, communication and openness about drinking has worked for us. Our kids are all successful students and professionals who are learning to drink responsibly and are very open with us about the process. And unless we're convinced that our approach is any more dangerous or stupid or naive than the alternative, we'll just keep listening, keep talking and keep hoping that teens will be encouraged to learn to drink responsibly instead of "chugging so as not to get caught."

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Maria said...

I love reading your blog, and I can only hope that I turn out to be half the parent you describe yourself as here. Seriously...

Anonymous said...

Carol, I couldn't have possibly said it better. This is EXACTLY how I brought up my boys - I will trust you until you prove me wrong. As a matter of fact, that is the same way my mother raised me. It worked out well for all of us; my "boys" are now responsible, loving adults with children of their own.
There was only one time my younger son got into trouble in regards to "drinking". He was at a party where everyone was drinking but he and volunteered to drive his friends home. He got caught going 5 miles over the speed limit and got a ticket and a lecture from the cop. I think a warning and a "good boy for watching out for your friends" would have been much more appropriate.
Like you said, they do it so much better in Germany. Take the thrill of the illegality out of it seems to lessen the problems of underage drinking. And, of course, the penalties for drinking and driving are severe for all ages. That is another problem in this country, the slap on the wrist when caught driving drunk.

Dixie said...

The law in Germany currently is that the alcohol limit for the first year of driving is 0.0. If you're in your first year of driving there's no drinking.

And a couple weeks ago I heard that it's being considered to have the alcohol limit at 0.0 for everyone. If you have so much as one drink, no driving - doesn't matter if you're 18 or 80. I think that would be perfect. As far as I'm concerned there's no reason to ever drive after having consumed any alcohol.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with Dixie. I am pro education, and I am all about letting my kids make their own mistakes and reaping their own consequences. The problem I have with this begins with a 16 yr old who has "chugged" a beer. Has a valid Drivers license yes, know better than to drive after drinking, yes. Will he / she do it? That is a big question. The frontal cortex of the brain used in reasoning and decision making is not fully developed until 20-22. So now we have a 16 yr old with a car that has a hard time thinking through desicions normally behind the wheel. If there were never anyone else on the road, I would say rock on, go smash yourself into a pole. But the truth is, people are killed everyday by "responsible" adults drinking, giving that to teens doesn't sound very smart. The other BIG problem I have in comparing our laws to Germans, is that no one drives in Europe!! People walk and take public transportation. Go take a look at one of those schools for troubled teens. Ask the kids there about the things that happened when they were drunk. Bottom line is, that agency is great, as long as it doesn't put others safety in jeopardy.

Carol said...

I agree with both you and Dixie. The problem I have with drinking -- anyone's drinking, regardless of age -- is the "driving" possibility associated with it. I think drinking and driving should NEVER be allowed, for anyone, ever. Maybe if we make the consequences apply to everyone, they won't be ignored as often (by teens and adults alike).

Regarding a 17-year-old not being able to reason as well as a 21-year-old that maybe it's not a great idea to get into that car after having a few, I say "hogwash!"


Anonymous said...

No one drives in Germany? This might have been true 20 years ago. While I agree that there are still people taking public transportation, everyone in my family and all my acquaintences over there have cars. Having a car is the norm and their traffic jams are just about as bad as ours.

Anonymous said...

At this point, it's not even an issue for us. Athough we will most likely handle it similar to you when the time comes (which could be sooner than we think!) I guess dh and I should chat about this soon.

Jen said...

I can't agree more. Having had 5 exchange students in our home over the years, I feel Germany and other countries have it RIGHT - TEACH the children how to drink under the CARE of their parents. Then let them drink on their own for a couple of years and THEN let them drive a car. AND... make the driver's license really expensive and make them study and study and study for it! SHEESH, we can be so backwards about some things. said...

Australia has 18 as the legal age to consume alcohol. Most States are now in the process of introducing zero as the level of alcohol in the blood, to legally drive for the first 2 years for new drivers. Commerical drivers also have zero as the level. Blood alcohol of 0.05 or 0.08 [varies between states]is the level for experienced drivers.
With 4 kids, all were pretty good as alcohol uses - youngest was admanant about no underage drinking will at parties; even known to come home when it was happening. Like other commenters, we also allowed and introduced allowing a small glass of wine at meals, and low strength beer.
Our kids were all first class swimmers, and staying off alcohol was important to them to allow them to compete well. Same as smoking [ugh ugh]. Now as 20+ year old adults, all are modest drinkers, mostly enjoying a glass of wine at meals and relatively small to negible amounts at other times.

Only one [to our knowledge]has suffered "badly" through over indulgence, at around 17.5 yrs of age. But......never again.

I really have to pose the question...does one need alcohol to have a good time?

Enjoying a glass of wine with a meal and the general conviviality of "breaking bread" with friends is a very pleasant way to enjoy alcohol, and the complexities
of the wine. More so than stuffing it down your throat in huge quantities!

Anonymous said...

i think changing the drinking law to 18 would be a really a lot better because so many people when they get out of high school want to drink and go to parties to celebrate their graduation and get drunk and get into accident because they couldn't "sip", they ha to chug. and got drunk really quick!!

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