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Public discourse in America about controversial subjects is increasingly polarized. Little room is made for shades of gray as we strive to overstate our case and work to undermine and demonize the opposition. Complex public problems are reduced to simplistic policy nostrums that allow little room for nuance and the complications of human behavior.
Such is the case now in our national discussion about the “epidemic” of youthful drinking and the role of parents. Increasingly we see parents demonized for providing alcohol to their children. Political jurisdictions are enacting social host ordinances to hold parents criminally and civilly liable for hosting parties at which alcohol is served. Newspaper headlines trumpet, “Parents warned they may be liable for kids’ drinking,” as we continue to criminalize everything alcohol- and drug-related.
Parents who knowingly allow a person under the age of 21, other than their own child, to remain in their home or on their property while consuming or possessing alcohol can face sentences of one year in jail and/or a $4,000 fine. Parents may also be held responsible even if they’re not home when underage drinking occurs. In addition they may be held responsible if underage drinking takes place anywhere on their property. Social host liability laws often extend to parents who fail to take sufficient measures to prevent underage drinking in their homes or on their property.
Public education materials from federal agencies and national alcohol prevention programs almost never distinguish between such unwise or irresponsible parenting and the practice in many families of parents choosing to introduce their children to social drinking before the age of 21. Twenty-three states permit parents and legal guardians to provide alcohol to their minor children or wards, and the few studies available indicate that somewhere between 15–30% of parents choose to teach their kids to drink. According to the American Medical Association 26% of parents with children agree that teens should be able to drink at home with their parents present.
Federal agencies and national alcohol prevention programs have adopted a “don’t ask … don’t tell” approach to the issue. The overwhelming majority of information aimed at parents concerning youth alcohol use focuses on damage to developing brains, fatality rates, date rape, unwanted pregnancy and other worst-case scenarios. Much of this material is nested in erroneous assumptions about the ability of parents to actually control late-adolescent behavior, and omits any acknowledgment that alcohol experimentation (like driving, military service or partner intimacy) is, for many, an integral element in the transition to adulthood.
The logic of current prevention strategies seems to be: 1) provide massive amounts of public education about the negative consequences of alcohol use before the age of 21; criminalize and shame any youth or adult behavior that supports alcohol use before the age of 21; 3) expect that after turning 21 young adults will be able to quickly learn to use alcohol responsibly and be problem-free because the onset of use has been postponed. “A child who reaches age 21 without smoking, abusing alcohol or using drugs is virtually certain never to do so,” according to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.
Parents who make an effort to teach drinking to their children remove the excitement, rebellion and novelty that often surround secretive and excessive drinking. According to a survey of 6,245 adolescents from 242 communities, conducted as part of the National Evaluation of the Enforcing Underage Drinking Laws Program,“drinking with parents also appears to have a protective effect on general drinking trends.” The research, conducted by Dr. Kristie Long Foley of Wake Forest University concludes with the observation,
Based on the findings from our study, it is insufficient to argue that parental approval of underage drinking necessarily leads to adolescents’ greater alcohol consumption. There may be some contexts in which parents “teach” responsible drinking behavior within a protected environment, thus sheltering teenagers from risky experimentation and alcohol abuse.
David Hanson, Professor Emeritus at SUNY Potsdam, recommends,
Permit parents to serve alcohol to their offspring of any age, not only in the home, but in restaurants, parks and other locations, under their direct supervision. If parents wish their children to abstain as adults, they need to serve as appropriate role models and teach them the attitudes and skills they will need in a predominately drinking society. However, if they wish their children to be able to drink in moderation as adults, then they, too, need to serve as appropriate role models and teach their children pertinent attitudes and skills for drinking in moderation.
So as Crosby, Stills and Nash sang to the Woodstock generation … teach your children well.
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