Let My Teenager Drink
My 16-year-old called me from a bar. She said my 17-year-old was there, too, along with the rest of the gang from high school: "Everything's fine, Dad. We'll be home after last call."
I breathed a quiet sigh of relief. Like many other parents, I knew my teenagers were out drinking that Saturday night. Unlike most American kids, though, my daughters were drinking safely, legally and under close adult supervision--in the friendly neighborhood pub two blocks from our London home.
My kids could do that because Britain, like almost every other developed nation, has decided that teenagers are going to drink whether it's legal or not--and that attempts at prohibition inevitably make things worse.
Some countries have no minimum drinking age--a conservative approach that leaves the issue up to families rather than government bureaucrats. In most Western democracies, drinking becomes legal in the late teens. In Britain, a 16-year-old can have a beer in a pub if the drink accompanies a meal. Most publicans we knew were willing to call a single bag of potato chips--sorry, "crisps"--a full meal for purposes of that law.
And yet teen drinking tends to be a far more dangerous problem in the prohibitionist United States than in those more tolerant countries. The reason lies in the law itself. Because of our nationwide ban on drinking before the age of 21, American teenagers tend to do their drinking secretly, in the worst possible places--in a dark corner of the park, at the one house in the neighborhood where the adults have left for the weekend, or, most commonly, in the car.
Amid a national outcry over an epidemic of "binge drinking," the politicians don't like to admit that this problem is largely a product of the liquor laws. Kids know they have to do all their drinking before they get to the dance or the concert, where adults will be present.
On campus, this binge of fast and furious drinking is known as "pre-gaming." Any college student will tell you that the pre-game goal is to get good and drunk--in the dorm room or in the car--before the social event begins. It would be smarter, and more pleasant for al concerned, to stretch out whatever alcohol there is over the course of an evening. But Congress in its wisdom has made this safer approach illegal.
Our family currently has kids at the U.S. universities. The deans of all three schools have sent us firm letters promising zero tolerance for underage drinking. In conversation, though, the same deans concede readily that their teenage students drink every weekend--as undergraduates always have.
The situation would be vastly easier to manage, these educators say, if they could allow the kids to drink in public--this obviating the "pre-game" binge--and provide some kind of adult presence at the parties.
But the obvious steps would make a school complicit in violating the prohibition laws--and potentially liable for civil lawsuits.
The deans lament that there is no political will to change the national drinking age--or even to hand the issue back to the states. Politicians, after all, garner support and contributions from the interest groups by promising to "stop teen drinking."
But, of course, the law doesn't stop teens from drinking. "Most college students drink...regardless of the legal drinking age, without harming themselves or anyone else," writes Richard Keeling, editor of the Journal of American College Health.
As a wandering Post correspondent, I have raised teenagers in three places: Tokyo, London, and Colorado. No parent will be surprised to read that high school and college students had easy access to alcohol in all three places. In all three countries, kids sometimes got drunk. But overseas, they did their drinking at a bar, a concert or a party. There were adults--and, often, police--around to supervise. As a result, most teenagers learned to use alcohol socially and responsibly. And they didn't have to hide it from their parents.
In the United States, our kids learn that drinking is something to be done in the dark, and quickly. Is that the lesson we want to teach them about alcohol use? It makes me glad my teenagers had the legal right to go down the street to that pub.
The writer, formerly The Post's bureau chief in Tokyo and London, is now The Post's Rocky Mountain correspondent.