By: Mike Wellman
I haven't had a drink in over 15 years. Before that I had too many, starting when I was a teenager.I ran a saloon for a long time, too, and sold a lot of booze to a lot of people - sometimes, unavoidably, too much at a time; sometimes, unwittingly, to people too young [although I'll never forget the angry mother who called to complain because her 21-year-old wasn't served at my pub one Thanksgiving Eve].Now I'm a parent of three kids at different stages of passage through the jagged straits of teen society.
I've looked at the issue of underage drinking from a lot of angles over the years. It's still hard to get a clear view of it.But that doesn't stop folks from having and voicing strong opinions when a high-profile attorney who is married to the chief justice of the Iowa Supreme Court gets caught seemingly hosting a bonfire/cocktail party with an exclusively teenaged guest list.It's not for me to comment on that specific case. Let it run its legal course. But whatever the disposition of all the charges filed in the matter, the nagging question of what to do about teen drinking will remain nagging.
There seems to be a growing school of thought in the parental ranks these days that since drinking is as natural a part of the teenage years as acne, the best that can be achieved is some measure of containment. This attitude results in tactics that amount to appeasement, e.g., providing alcohol at private, chaperoned events and thereby - so the thinking goes - preventing the real bogeymen, drunken driving and/or drugs, from crashing the party.
Both personal and professional experience have taught me that controlled drinking is as mythical as a centaur; equal parts red herring and pink elephant.While it may be impossible for parents to enforce a rule of total abstinence from alcohol by their minor children, it is absolutely within their power to disapprove of underage drinking and refuse to facilitate it. They are also empowered to impose their own consequences, and allow others ranging from hangovers to loss of school privileges to take their toll in reasonable hope of deterring the sort of binge drinking that has always been commonplace among young people - even the vast majority who are not wired to become chronic problem drinkers.
True, forbidden drinking is more likely to be taken to the streets where dangers lurk that aren't present at the backyard fire pit with parents on duty as designated drivers. But when I was a teenager I would rather have been out and about teetotaling with my friends than stuck at home social drinking under parental supervision. Maybe that's changed over the years. Lots of other things certainly have.The parents who provide their kids with kegs and limo rides in celebration of the senior prom are the same ones who started the silliness of graduation ceremonies at the grade-school level and can't see that their prodigies have more gear than game as they charge blindly through the forest of youth sports.
Here's a question for the event planners who recklessly tiptoe through the minefield of chaperoned underage drinking: What makes you think you'll have any more luck teaching kids how to drink than you would teaching them not to do it at all?Odds probably are that our three kids will all succumb to the natural curiosity about alcohol before they're old enough to drink legally without our permission. If/when they do, it will be with their parents' understanding but not with our approval, and certainly not with our cooperation.
There's a reason the fine print on all the alcohol marketing in our culture says "please" drink responsibly. It's because responsible drinking can't be made mandatory, especially for teenagers. Not even yours.
MIKE WELLMAN lives in Des Moines. He is the author of "Far From the Trees: The Troubled Sons of an American Neighborhood." Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org • July 23, 2009