"I was shocked. My Jeremy told me about a friend from school whose parents let him drink. Not only that, but the kid has parties at his house where there's drinking. His parents willingly facilitate it!"
Underage drinking is a contentious issue. Parents agonize over whether it's okay - even beneficial - to allow teenagers to drink at parties at their house. While some parents do all they can to block their teens' access, others will even supply the alcohol.
"We feel that by allowing our son to drink in our home and with us, there's a better chance he'll develop a more moderate, responsible approach to drinking - rather than drinking becoming this wild, rebellious thing. By the time he is of legal age - if he chooses to drink - he will better able to handle it in a more mature manner."
Some of these more liberal parents want to establish a safer drinking environment, not just for their child but for their child's friends as well.
"We feel that drinking in a controlled environment - we are always in the house - minimizes the risk of out-of-control drinking and the risks of kids driving drunk. We either drive them home, or they can sleep at our house. We feel strongly that this is the safer alternative to them drinking on their own with no adult presence whatsoever."
My take? I'm not a fan of parents being in any way supportive of their or anyone else's teenage children drinking. (I'm not talking about drinking as part of home religious services.) It clearly is not okay to create a drinking haven for other people's children. You are allowing children - not your own - to do something illegal that potentially puts them at risk. And you open yourself to risk as well, since you'll be liable should any harm result. In no way is it a good idea.
In terms of letting your own child drink at home, parents wonder whether it can lead to safer and more responsible drinking behaviour. Can parental approval and presence inoculate teens from having problems with drinking later on?
The U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has a clear position on this matter. In a 2010 publication, it stated that "according to most studies, this [benefits from allowing children to drink in the home]does not appear to be the case." In the same report, NIAAA cites a 1997 article from the Journal of Substance Abuse that says that starting to drink earlier increases the chances of developing alcohol problems. Study results have varied, but the overall trend seems clear.
But beyond research findings, I think there are some very straightforward reasons as to why I am not a fan of allowing anybody's children to drink prior to the legal drinking age.
I am in no hurry to have kids drink. For one, alcohol is not good for brains, especially still-developing teenage brains. More importantly, alcohol is a powerful substance. It affects how you feel. And for most people that feeling is positive, and that positive feeling makes you want to do it again and again.
Having alcohol as part of your life opens you to the possibility that you will have problems in your life due to alcohol. Problems that would not exist if alcohol were not a part of your life. Flat out, drinking alcohol is far riskier than abstaining. Why would I want to support such an activity for my teenager? It might be different if it was clear that somehow drinking earlier made you more responsible, and less vulnerable to drinking problems later in life. That simply is not the case.
For many teens who drink, alcohol becomes a required ingredient of having fun. A pattern is set - looking forward to fun becomes synonymous with looking forward to drinking. And what can happen is that teens do not experience, do not learn how to and do not understand that it is possible to have fun without drinking.
So what should a parent do? Given that most teenagers do drink, the reality is that parental control over whether a given teen will drink is limited. But you should talk to your kids. Tell them as honestly as you can what you think about their alcohol consumption. And where you can, keep them away from situations where you know drinking will occur.
Clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of six parenting books.
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