Teaching kids to drink protects them.


The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, March 5, 2008. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's Addiction in Society blog at PsychologyToday.com.

Who Should Teach Your Child to Drink?

Research shows that there are fewer alcohol-related car accidents with a drinking age of 21. But America’s 21-year-old threshold – which no European country emulates – certainly does not guarantee safe drinking. Indeed, in some ways it seems to create more dangers.

Consider the 21st birthday celebration – and death – of Amanda Jax in Mankato, MN. To celebrate her birthday, Ms. Jax had two beers at home before going to a bar and consuming a pitcher of Long Island Ice Tea, five shots, a couple more beers, and a mix of cherry vodka and energy drink. Jax passed out and threw up several times in her sleep before friends found her dead in the morning.

Last week the young woman’s family sued the bar and Ms. Jax’s friends for causing her death.

When the tragedy occurred last November, Minnesota State University Mankato officials rushed into action a plan to combat underage drinking on campus. This is the predictable reaction whenever such a death occurs. Unfortunately, this plan has several obvious drawbacks which undermine its likely effectiveness – even in the case that prompted it. First, Ms. Jax was not a current student. If we are to take away anything from her situation, it is that school involvement can diminish the worst kind of unrestrained drinking, since students have daily obligations like attending classes and studying.

The recommendation based on this aspect of Ms. Jax’s case is to encourage young people to maintain goals and to actively pursue them – to the extent that their lives are untethered and purposeless, they leave themselves open to alcoholic and other excesses.

The second problem with the University’s plan to combat the massive underage drinking that occurs on campuses around the country is even simpler – Ms. Jax was not underage. In fact, it was to celebrate achieving the age of alcohol maturity that she drank herself to death.

What will prevent young people from giddily overimbibing when they can do so legally? No policy can remove the symbolic importance surrounding such an event and the desire many young people have to get drunk when they officially become drinkers.

What could retire the 21st birthday bash would be to allow young people to drink before they reach this age. But America has decided, alone among Western countries, to forbid this.

It thus remains for parents to deal with drinking before sending their children off to college – or even earlier, since most high school kids have gotten drunk. The questions for parents to pose to themselves are: “Where and when will my child first drink?” and “Who will teach them to drink?” If the answer to the first question is, at a teenage or fraternity drinking party, and to the second, other kids or fraternity or sorority members, parents should be alarmed. These are not Chablis-sipping casual encounters with the substance.

American youth do learn to drink somehow, since by age 21 ninety percent will consume alcohol. To say how it should not take place without specifying a method for it actually to occur is not good parenting.

The suit by Ms. Jax’s parents suggests we leave education about life-and-death issues to bars and to our children’s friends. But isn’t this the height of parental irresponsibility?