By BETSY HART
Scripps Howard News Service
November 22, 2005
It's long been the belief in certain quarters that children and teens who "learn to drink responsibly in the home," supposedly what goes on with our European counterparts, will be less likely to drink outside the home. (The study, "Youth drinking rates and problems: A comparison of European countries and the United States," was sponsored by the U.S. Justice Department.)
Is such thinking why fully one in four U.S. parents of teenagers says teens should be able to drink at home with their moms and dads present?
This isn't just about being able to use alcohol at, say, religious celebrations. (Serving alcohol to one's own children in one's home is generally legal.) Many of these parents are referring to the increasingly common notion that if they allow their children and their children's friends to illegally consume quantities of alcohol in their home, "at least they are doing it where the parents can keep an eye on them." Where they can take a teen's car keys, for instance, if they've had too much to drink. (Yeah - and if these parents are too intimidated by these kids to say "no" to underage beer parties in their own home, how many are going to have the guts to swipe an angry kid's keys?)
Anyway, this view is why one in four teens, according to a survey by the American Medical Association, reports being at teen parties where the teens were drinking in front of parents.
What is wrong with these people?
For the record, I am no teetotaler. I enjoy a glass of wine. Red. Usually cabernet. (I refuse merlot on principle; it seems to me merlots can't decide what they want to be when they grow up, and I'm not sure why vintners even bother making whites.) But what is completely OK for adults can be downright wrong for children and teens. I have no problem communicating that to my kids.
This is not just about the legality of the issue, either. Like so many behaviors, learning to use alcohol appropriately doesn't come with experience, it's a function of maturity. And new brain studies clearly show that the gray matter is still not fully developed in adolescents. Um, duh.
My son's middle school just sent home a newsletter that said the new understanding is that brains are "not mature, until well into the 20s. ... The part of the brain in charge of executive functions ... making sound judgments, prioritizing, anticipating consequences, controlling impulses and calming unruly emotions - is the last part of the brain to mature."
(Like I said: Duh.)
In any event, apparently some parents believe drinking under supervision will keep kids from drinking elsewhere. But apparently just the opposite is true. One recent survey showed that 33 percent of teens whose parents have a strict no-use message will still drink alcohol - but fully 89 percent of teens who say their parents don't have a strong "anti-drinking" message drink alcohol. So even if parents supposedly keep their kids "physically safe" at a beer party in their home one night, they may then literally be putting them at greater physical danger with alcohol the next (never mind having them possibly developing a drinking habit).
But more than physical safety, more than recognizing that teens literally can't make certain decisions responsibly, here's the bigger issue we parents should always be asking ourselves: What's going on in our child's heart? For instance, are we teaching that right and wrong comes down to what will keep a person physically safe at the moment? Flash: There's a whole lot of damage a person can cause his soul, and the souls of others, while still remaining "safe" in the body.
According to Proverbs 22:6, "train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it." But this also has a negative warning. If we train our children that physical safety of the moment justifies immoral or illegal activity, that might be a very dangerous path they stay on for a lifetime, too.
Parents matter. Sure, we need to keep our kids physically safe, which we best do by giving a clear "no" to all sorts of illegal, immoral or other inappropriate behaviors. But even more than that, we need to be about the business of reaching the hearts of our children. It's clear that "no" is a big part of that mission, too.