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?