April 28, 2011
I want to address the topic of teenage drinking. I decided to write to all of you, to the whole parent community, because I think that drinking is a topic of interest to all of you, even if your sons are still in the lower or middle schools. The purpose of the letter is to give you some ideas as to how to deal with the fact that in our society high school students live in a culture of drinking. Not all of them drink, and many of them handle this culture impressively well. But they are all exposed to it.
By culture of drinking I mean that alcohol is all around them, not only in the normal home environment, but also in their own social circles. In some cases, the high school social scene is dominated by drinking. In these cases, where high school students gather, what they do, and who they are with may change from weekend to weekend and from summer to summer, but the presence of alcohol is constant and sometimes overwhelming. The high school drinking culture often abuses alcohol. Sleep-over parties are likely the starting point for many teenagers. Sleep-overs in general seem to be, at the very least, the surest way to torpedo a weekend: the only thing lacking in a sleep-over is sleep. They should be called party-overs, screen-overs (watch movies and play video games all night) or drink-overs, all of them shocking terms, but much more accurate.
In some high school social circles, drinking may actually be the activity for the day, the real purpose for teenagers getting together. And since their drinking is illegal, they do it in hiding, and they cannot admit to having done it. As a consequence, teenagers tend to binge drink mostly in unnatural places and times: at night in unsupervised basements, in the back of cars, or in parks under the cover of darkness. As a result, the teenager who drinks does not only have to go underground to drink, but has to stay underground so as to not be detected and made to stop. This gives parents no opportunity to teach their sons how to drink. Drinking thus often brings with it lying and deceit. In this scenario you should not be surprised if your sons are likely to drink before you think they are drinking, and are likely drinking more than you think they are.
Drinking has become a false rite of passage for many teenagers. Adults drink, so if teenagers want to act adult-like, then they should also drink, or so their reasoning goes. Unfortunately, it has become a rite of passage with no rules, very few limits, and no parental mentoring. It is as if teenagers started to drive illegally, hiding from the law and their parents, with their peers as their only counselors, and with the goal of driving as fast as they could as soon as they could. That would be a total disaster with lethal consequences. High school drinking is also a disastrous experience for many, even if with no lethal consequences for most.
Since drinking is so attractive to teenagers who naturally like to explore new things, especially if there is some risk involved, and alcohol is so available to them, what arguments can you present to your sons to counteract this culture of alcohol abuse?
Well, here are some ideas. I mention them with the hope that they may fuel your own philosophy and approach to your sons’ drinking.
- The teenager’s brain is more affected by alcohol than the adult brain. Young brains are being formed and are therefore more impressionable – that is good since they have much to learn – which means they will be more impressed by alcohol.
- Teenagers do not need alcohol to socialize. They are around their classmates and friends all the time – their challenge is to productively use the time they have with each other. Drinking does not add to their social lives, but rather detracts from them.
- Alcohol will also cramp their sociability. They are at the time in their lives when they are learning to make friends, when they are learning to enjoy friends’ company, and when they are learning to tolerate those whose company they do not appreciate as much. In so far as they may use alcohol as a crutch in their social life (makes them more “outgoing”), alcohol is preventing them from developing their natural social skills that could benefit them for the rest of their lives, but that will be increasingly hard to develop as they grow older.
- Since alcohol is addictive, the teenager will want to drink more and more, even when there is no special vulnerability or susceptibility to alcohol. As with any other addiction, the individual will seek to feed his desire by either drinking more often, or drinking more when he drinks, or both. The teenager that begins drinking in high school will likely be drinking too much (even for adult standards) by the time he graduates, and then he will go to college where his growing vice will be free to dominate him.
- Drinking in high school necessarily leads to living a dark life of deception. The most detrimental aspect of this life is the fact that it implies they’re lying to you, acting secretly so as to hide from you an activity that they know is disagreeable to you. As a result they get used to living with you, while living a lie. They get used to looking at you straight in the eye and lying to you. This is a most frightening vice. Once a teenager has developed this unfortunate character trait, he will be more likely to give in to it later in his life. What will prevent him then from lying to his future wife? Early drinking would then be the entry ticket to a painful and duplicitous life.
- Finally, since the vast majority of them also drive, once they start drinking in high school they have entered a terrible lottery. As they get more comfortable and confident (overconfident) behind the wheel and more accustomed to drinking, they are more likely to combine drinking and driving. Of those who drink and drive, some will have minor accidents – a small fender bender, or a little nudge at the mail box when pulling in the driveway. Of those who have an accident, a few will have more major accidents – perhaps a totaled car. And occasionally, one of those major accidents will be fatal, either for the boy or some innocent victim, or both. These terrible accidents are tragic, truly, but not shocking. After all, it is a lottery of death.
So, what exactly is a parent supposed to do about all this? How can parents help their children navigate this culture? Well, the first point is precisely that: parents are here to help their children navigate their social life. Parents are not policemen investigating their life, or a court judging their decisions, nor are they wardens overseeing a sentence. Although parents will have to occasionally investigate, judge, and pronounce sentence,
they are first and foremost parent, mentor, coach. Parents are to guide and develop their children into individuals who will be not only mature, but wise, prudent, and sound, and who will strive to make the best choices. In this regard, the culture of drinking in which their sons are immersed presents parents with an opportunity to teach, advise, encourage, and support.
In an ideal world a teenager would agree not to drink during his high school years – except for those occasions in which he is afforded opportunities to learn appropriate drinking habits in coordination with the parents. The teenagers I know who have followed this path have tended to do well academically, socially, and in many other aspects of their lives. However, the risk of demanding this approach in every case is that some teenagers will see abstinence from drinking as unrealistic, and therefore conversations where you forbid them from drinking and threaten reprisals if they do will merely encourage them to offer an insincere assent to your demand. They may then drink underground without you ever knowing it for sure, but always suspecting it.
In general, think of yourself as a drinking coach for your teenager. It may sound counter-cultural, but here is the point: you assume that he is going to drink at some point in his life, at least when he turns 21, and therefore, you want to train him so that he may learn how to drink well. More importantly, you assume that he wants to make the right decisions in regard to drinking. You also know that he will face challenges when trying to do the right thing – his own desires, peer pressure, and the like – so you are there to help him navigate those challenges. Since most of your sons will move away after graduating from high school, and therefore be out of your close supervision, his high school years while still living at home offer you the best opportunities to inform his character in this area. Most importantly, your communication with him, and his with you, should always remain open and trustful. He must feel that he can tell you anything that he does.
You may decide that he is going to drink with you on occasion so that you can teach him about different wines and about good beer in small quantities as opposed to bad beer in large quantities. You may even decide that you are going to let him drink some other times, not in your presence, with people you trust – relatives or family friends. I have no definite suggestion of what scenarios are appropriate, but merely wish to recommend that there be open communication and that you see your role as helping him learn to drink as a good man ought – which at his age will mean drinking very little, if at all, and then only in the right setting. Your son needs, or will need, you to help him navigate the drinking culture, and withholding that help would be the loss of a great opportunity to guide your son into this aspect of mature adulthood.
Alvaro J. de Vicente