Zero Tolerance for Teen Drinking
Mike and Molly throw the best keg parties in town. The beer flows as burly varsity football players collect car keys at the door. Teens mill around, shouting over the pounding music, hugging and "high-fiving" the couple. Mike and Molly are so popular they could have been voted Prom King and Queen.
The problem is, Mike and Molly graduated from high school 25 years ago, and this is their son's graduation party. And the family is planning a few more beer bashes during the summer.
"Some parents see drinking as a sign of an adulthood. 'Now that you're graduating, you're an adult.' But the kids are STILL under 21," stresses Richard Yoast, director of the American Medical Association's office of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse. "Some parents seek the approval of their teens and want to be looked up to. It astounds me that they think that as long as they are serving the alcohol, they can control their kids' and other kids' actions."
Carleton Kendrick, a Boston area family therapist explains, "These parents think they should be nominated for 'Parents of the Year.' They regard themselves as enlightened crusaders for their teens. They walk the walk and talk the talk. They're so desperate to be considered cool by their kids that they believe the law doesn't apply to them. They think they're wiser and better than the parents who won't provide alcohol."
When you add drinking to natural teenage curiosity and pleasure-seeking, the results can range from throwing up all over someone's carpet and saying something regrettable, to lowered self-esteem of a girl who had sex with several guys at a party, or to tragedies like diving into a shallow pond, or fighting and injuring or killing someone, Kendrick notes. "These parents know that kids are going to drink, but they've decided to be the responsible ones and supervise their drinking. Why not pass out condoms and foam and say, 'You're going to do this anyway so why not here? Go have some safe sex and have fun.'"
It comes as a shock to many parents that there are parents who feel they can be "buddies" with their teens if they let them drink. George Lesmes, an Evanston, Ill. resident and father of four teenagers, was amazed to discover that some parents serve kids alcohol. "Alcohol for teens is zero tolerance in our house," he says. "It's totally inappropriate. And our kids all know that they do not have our permission to drink at anyone's house."
"It's pretty pathetic if parents rely on their teen's definition of fun," says Leslie Cornis, a database account manager from Chicago, Ill. "Of course I liked to drink in high school and thought is was really cool when certain parents let us drink at their house." But now, at age 28, an older and wiser Cornis says, "I knew back then it was wrong. When I have kids, I won't appreciate it when other parents serve alcohol."
Your teen may whine, "You're the ONLY parent who won't let their kids drink when they're seniors." But the Princeton, New Jersey-based Robert Wood Johnson Foundation commissioned a study in 1998 and found that 96 percent of Americans view underage drinking as a significant problem and support measures that would reduce teen drinking. The study also showed that 83 percent of respondents favored punishment of adult providers.
Debby Hutter, a Wilmette, Ill. mother of four adolescents, says, "I feel like I would be ostracized if I said my daughters couldn't go to a prom or graduation party because there was drinking going on. My daughters say to me, 'Mom, you just don't get it.' But I don't get how parents -- even if they take away the car keys -- can justify serving 16-, 17- and 18-year-olds beer. Kids make bad choices, but what can you do when parents facilitate those choices?"
Parent-sponsored drinkfests make it harder for the kids who don't drink and parents who wont let their kids drink, says Kendrick. "It's almost an inherent challenge that these parents lay down by saying, 'I'm sponsoring this because I think your teen is mature enough to drink responsibly.' A teen who doesn't drink or whose parents say it's wrong thinks, 'What's wrong with me? Am I the only one who feels this way?' But there is a huge difference between kids experimenting with alcohol and kids drinking with adult approval."
Courtney Michna, 18, a high school senior, says, "Some kids don't want to drink. They want an out and their parents provide a good excuse If kids say 'Want some?' and they say, 'No, my parents will kill me,' most kids say, 'OK, that's cool, there's more for me!' But if parents are saying 'Go ahead, it's perfectly fine to drink,' then what out do they have?"
Making it safe for kids to drink is a contradiction of terms, according to Shepherd Smith, president of the Washington, DC-based Institute for Youth Development. "We have laws regulating use by age because of the lack of physical maturity and psychological maturity. We've learned that people under the age of 21 have dramatically impaired judgement."
Jerry Elsner, executive director of the Illinois State Crime Commission asserts, "Adolescent males get a few drinks in them and soon they drop every barrier to civilized behavior. The more drinks they consume, the quicker they degenerate into base instincts. When you provide the beer, and those hormones are running wild, you have only yourself to blame!"
Louis Kraus, division head of child and adolescent psychiatry at Evanston Hospital in Evanston, Ill., recalls parents defending their actions with, "'They're going to college in a few months and they'll do what they want and I can't stop them, so why should I try now?' They forget that 70 to 80 percent of first time sexual encounters occur when kids are under the influence. They're also less likely to use a condom, because their decision making is totally impaired. Just one night and they can carry away an infection that lasts a lifetime."
The University of Minnesota's School of Public Health found that teens whose parents or friends' parents provided alcohol for parties were more likely to drink, get into traffic crashes, get involved in violence and participate in thefts. Robert Wood Johnson vice president Nancy Kaufman states, "Underage drinking is a factor in nearly half of all teen automobile crashes. It also contributes to suicides, homicides and fatal injuries, and is a factor in sexual assaults and date rapes." And Mothers Against Drunk Driving surveys estimate that when parents "bargain" with their kids and let them drink as long as they promise not to drive, teens are more likely to drive after drinking or be in a car with someone who is drinking.
Drinking can be fatal even without getting into a car with a driver who has been consuming alcohol. Atlanta-based National Family Partnership spokesperson Milton Creagh reminds parents that too many drinks ingested either accidently or intentionally can result in alcohol poisoning, which can result in death. "Alcohol is a drug that numbs the brain. If too much is used, it paralyzes the nerve center in the brain and puts the brain to sleep. When the brain slows down, so does the respiratory system," says Creagh. "When the lungs and heart stop sending oxygen to the brain, breathing stops. Are you going to monitor every teen at your party to make sure there's no binge drinking going on?"
A study done recently at The University of Michigan, reveals that 82 percent of 12th graders admitted drinking during the past year, and the Centers for Disease Control reports that 32 percent of high schoolers are binge-drinkers. Yet a poll conducted by the group Drug Strategies showed that only three percent of parents thought their teens had indulged in binge-drinking in the past month.
In 1997, a 16-year-old Orland Park, Ill. girl won an $80 bet by chugging a quart of 107-proof alcohol at a party. The Sandburg High School sophomore had been drinking with her best friend for six hours before they returned to her friend's house at 2 a.m. and fell asleep on the bed. They found her dead the next day. Her blood alcohol level was .381.
Smith urges parents to rethink just what "responsible drinking" is for someone under the age of 18. "Parents think they did it, so their kids can do it too. After all, parents don't want to say what they did as teens was all wrong."
What to do if you find out that your teen is going to a party where parents are serving alcohol? "You can say, 'You can't go,' or you can call the parents and remind them in a non-confrontational way that when neighbors call the police and their children are arrested, it's embarrassing and legally costly to parents," says Smith. "When police come to break up a party, everyone is arrested, even those who are not drinking. Some parents even call the police and ask them to call the parents and remind them what the consequences could be."
Adults who serve alcohol are playing economic Russian Roulette, Creagh says. "I say to them, 'If you can't dig deep and find the moral backbone to refuse to serve alcohol to your teenagers and their friends, then at least look at the legal ramifications that could cost you all your money. Maybe that will pound some sense into your head.'"
"Parents are supposed to have arrived at maturity, while kids are supposed to be passing through adolescence on the way to adulthood. You can empathize, but you don't have to join your teen," Kendrick says. "They need you to point them in the right direction and keep them safe. You're supposed to give them wisdom, not a keg party in the basement."