Cheers! An Argument For Underage Drinking

I recently read Kathy Radigan’s Open Letter to Her Teenage Son About Drinking and felt compelled to respond. Now, admittedly, my twin daughters are not even 7 yet, so their ages don’t even “add up” to a teenager- Kathy has a serious head start in terms of time spent thinking about this subject.

That being said, “underage drinking” is something I have thought quite a lot about, in part because I am not yet so far removed from my youth as to forget how I felt, and in part because I recall observing friends (especially girls) who went into college from very restrictive, sheltered homes, where I saw first-hand the dangerous situations they put themselves in as a result of their naiveté.

I’ll begin by saying that I think the drinking age in the United States should be lower. We are an outlier in our laws relative to the nations we think of as “in our cohort.” In most cases, the drinking age is usually 18 (coinciding with legal adulthood) and in many cases, 16. Perhaps it’s a cliche, but I buy into the idea that if you are old enough to fight & die for your country, you are old enough to drink. There are a few countries that wait as long as we do, including  Pakistan and Tajikistan, but I wouldn’t consider their laws and social mores for young men and women the standards that we wish to aspire to. In short, I think a drinking age of 21 is dumb.

But, like arguing that some speed limits should be higher, advocating for a lower national drinking age is not high on any politicians list; whereas I might argue that it should be. Having a drinking age of 21, sets up young adults for dangerous situations and delays their ability to develop good judgment and experience in a safe environment. It also largely eliminates a parent’s ability to model and teach their children how to drink responsibly without causing the parent to participate in violating the law. I think a lower drinking age would make young adults safer, not the opposite.

We all know that young women in particular, are vulnerable when they learn to drink in college (or just post-high school). A 19 or 20 year old woman is a legal adult, able (and encouraged) to be in school or have a job, live on her own, pay her own bills, etc., and yet, if she follows the law, she’ll be learning about drinking when she is not supported by the safety net of her family and family friends; but instead, when she’ll be responsible for getting home on her own, or when she has to rely on newly formed friendships, or worst of all, on someone she’s just met at a party.

I also think it’s important for parents and teens to engage in conversations that are more sophisticated than “it’s the law, so follow it.” I don’t do that and I don’t want them to. That’s not to say I don’t follow the law, it’s just that I never want my children to abandon critical thinking in favor of blind devotion.

Developing good judgment, learning about consequences, weighing choices, and understanding moderation are all important parts of moving into adulthood. To oversimplify right and wrong, by suggesting that the difference between the two is always clear, is a choice that many parents make out of a desire to protect their children. I think this is a mistake- many choices, even seemingly simple ones, can take a lot of wrestling with- and even then, the answer may not be “right” but rather “the best option among many.”

Another important aspect in this discussion is drugs. There is a huge difference between drinking a beer and taking an unknown pill or doing a line of cocaine. I want them to understand that alcohol and drugs are vastly different and that the risk/reward equation for meth or coke or some kid’s prescription Adderall is so far out of balance as to make the decision a no-brainer. It’s harder to have a mature conversation about the dangers of drugs when you include alcohol, a substance that becomes “acceptable” just by virtue of your age.

I am not suggesting that we’ll be the parents that host parties with alcohol- we certainly won’t be. First off, drinking alcohol should not only be associated with parties, and secondly, we are already teaching and modeling that we must respect the rules and customs of other families. If my daughter’s friend does not eat pork, or watch PG-13 movies, or stay up past 8pm, then they sure as heck won’t be doing any of those things at our house. That’s just parent to parent respect.

But in our house, drinking in moderation, as part of a meal or as part of enjoying an evening with family or friends is not just acceptable, but fun, and (dare I say) healthy. I don’t yet know at what age we’ll be broaching this subject with our daughters- I assume we’ll start talking about it in mid-teens and then it will be “rubber meets the road time” when they approach 18, but I might even go so far as to say that I may be the first person to hand my daughters a beer.

Alcohol, like anything, is dangerous when abused. As the daughter of an alcoholic, I know this better than most, and for many years my “relationship” with alcohol was a strained one because I was so fearful of becoming like my mom, an amazing woman devastated by a terrible addiction. I learned, through sometimes painful trial and error what a healthy relationship with alcohol means and I still respect the danger it can pose.

As our children grow, we face a thousand different choices and have already spent many hours making decisions about vaccines (yes, of course), screen time (limited), nail polish (no), makeup (no), pierced ears (when they are 10), Harry Potter (yes), and short hair (yes, but not too short). It’s impossible to make all the right decisions, but we can try to apply consistent reasoning and judgment, and hope that our children learn from our words and above all- our actions.

So now that we’ve got that out of the way, shall we talk about teenagers and sex?

 

About jenlocati

JENNIE LOCATI started her blog, WYS Words as a way to share her experiences as a professional woman, wife, mother, and irrepressible “do-gooder”. Her diverse life experiences have taken her to Kenya as a Peace Corps volunteer, the trading floors of Wall Street, to PATH, and most recently back to Microsoft, where she works in Executive Communications. Jennie shares her many misadventures, occasional insights, and unique perspectives in a voice that is self-deprecating, honest, and authentic. Read more at www.wyswords.com

Posted on July 24, 2014, in Big Ideas and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. I agree with you, in so many ways. I grew up drinking sips of beer out of a Dixie cup – solving puzzles on the under-caps of beer bottles, and partaking in grandma’s ‘special’ Christmas punch. As I got older, my dad offered the safe-haven of our home for my best friend and I, if we wanted to drink he said he would mix the drinks – this was never an opportunity I took advantage of, because it was not the ‘forbidden fruit’ many households made it out to be.

    I am now older, I have a son who is 25 and a daughter 18. My son was indeed serving our country before he was old enough to drink. He spend his 21st birthday, hunkered down avoiding captivity by enemy forces. Prior to him turning the legal drinking age, if he wanted to have a hard cider, I let him, with the caveat that he gave up his keys for the night. I am the same way with my daughter now; although we are heading to Mexico soon and I am sure she will have a tequila experience, she will not likely want to repeat, but hey, this is how we learn. I would rather be with my children as they spread their wings and learn the specific consequences of their actions, then to have them go out into the world unknowing – I am certain, my children will not be part of the next ‘…gone wild’ video series.

    I do also instill the importance of not drinking and driving. Even on my ‘ladies nights out’ we give our children an over-exuberant amount of gas money to get us to and from our functions safe and sound.

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    • Great point about drinking and driving. As Brene Brown, among other “wise people who study this stuff,” has said, modeling healthy behavior is the best way to teach it to your kids. If you take responsibility, they will take responsibility. If you practice kindness and forgiveness, they will practice kindness and forgiveness. It also makes parents “walk the walk,” which actually pushes us to make better decisions about our actions too. Thanks! Jennie

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  2. Jennie, I’ll drink to that!

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  3. I appreciate your opinion and in fact I’m not sure that the drinking laws in our country are right. i also see your point that you can fight for your country but not have a beer. I agree that is crazy. I would argue though that if we as a society feel you can’t make a reasonable choice about alcohol till one is 21, then 18 is too young to be fighting in a war. But that opens up a whole other can of worms.

    The fact is, the law right now in the US is 21. And when the age was raised, accidents due to drunk driving decreased.

    Now your kids are only 7, so I’m not sure what they learned in school yet, but my kids have been learning about the dangers of smoking, drinking and drugs since they have been in kindergarten. My point has been that if the schools are teaching that it’s not a healthy choice, and that if the law says you have to be 21 then I don’t feel I’m doing my job as a parent if I turn a blind eye, or say, don’t do it,on one hand but, I know you will anyway, with the other..

    I enjoyed your post. This is a tough issue and I think it’s great that people are talking about it. Thanks.

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    • Agree! I love having positive dialogue and appreciate your point about sending young soldiers to war, but as you say- that’s a WHOLE different story! Above all, I’m excited that we are encouraging parents to have discussions with each other, with their kids, and within their communities about these complex issues. Thanks so much for sharing you thoughts and would love to exchange perspectives on other thorny issues down the road. -Jennie

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  4. Thank you for this post, JL. A great topic. I’m a father of 3 boys, a teen, a post-teen, and a pre-teen.

    This is a hard topic for parents, but in the end, I think the best argument for educating teens in our homes about these topics is that education = protection. Knowing how alcohol affects you, without the allure of a taboo, will prevent risky behavior, in most cases.

    That said, I’m not sure in-home education is incompatible with laws which prevent teens from buying or publicly consuming. Perhaps strictness in the public realm sends the right massage about the risks of this powerful drug?

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