At 11:55 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, the champagne was ready. The real stuff sat on one side of the kitchen, opposite the sparkling grape juice reserved for the children.
As our adult friends gathered, my 16-year-old, Yosef, shyly looked in my direction as his buddies darted for the real champagne while his siblings relegated themselves to the Welch’s Sparkling Grape.
I nodded at Yosef. He beamed. Tonight, he could join the “cool” kids in bringing in the New Year via the sting of cheap Korbel.
As with so many parenting decisions, I’m still grappling with how I feel about this.
If you have teenagers and have not faced a similar conundrum, I can assure that it is coming. Even though studies in recent years show alcohol use by adolescents is in decline — even at the lowest rates ever reported for some ages — around half of all of 12th-graders and nearly one in five eighth-graders are likely to report having had alcohol. More worrisome, teens are far more likely to binge drink (four or more drinks at a sitting) than adults.
Encounters with underage drinking
This most recent situation wasn’t the first for us. Several other “should we allow our son to drink while supervised by adults” instances occurred in just the past several months.
The first was an innocent ask by a fellow (at the time over-served) parent/friend during a trip to a beach resort this past summer. She playfully asked, “Do you care if I offer alcohol to our teenagers?”
I immediately became annoyed, dismayed, put-off that another parent even contemplated such a crazy idea. The very suggestion of allowing our teenagers to drink alongside of us was appalling.
But I collected myself. I politely replied, “Do what you want, but Yosef will not be drinking.”
Everyone else seemed to agree, followed suit, and no teens drank that evening.
Next, though, came the secondhand knowledge of a few high school parties, hosted by family friends, having included alcohol as part of the night’s refreshments. A feeling of relief showered me realizing that Yosef did not get invited to the parties in question. Many of our friends’ children did attend – some may have drank, some may not have. Either way, I felt like we’d dodged a bullet because, yet again, I would have to play the bad guy in telling Yosef he wouldn’t be part of it.
Social media posts would later confirm that, if he’s invited to parties in the future, I need to worry. For the most part it appears that teenagers treat drinking as a race to messy, unceremonious end, such as alcohol poisoning, drunk driving accidents and higher rates of physical or sexual abuse.
Parents must question themselves
From that backdrop, in the afterglow of the entrance to the New Year, I kissed my wife, hugged my good friends, and sipped of the cheap bubbly alongside my son and a few buddies. Again, I am recognizing my personal progression from shock at the thought of Yosef drinking to being complicit (and present) in him picking up a glass.
How might you handle the same situation? Before you even get to that point, start asking yourself questions like:
- Is teenage drinking a discussion among parents or something I need address with my son/daughter alone?
- Do I take a hardline or can my teenager drink in my presence? How might I react to a friend offering alcohol to my kid?
- Should my high schooler attend supervised parties that might include alcohol (whether the hosting parents know or not)? Does my answer change if my kid claims they won’t be drinking?
As with most of the parenting decisions I toil with, I seem to have started with a hard-lined approach then converted to a discretionary one — like refusing all offers of sweets for my kids turning into passing out the candy at every celebration or as a reward for a job well done. Those decisions, though, did not put my kid in possible danger like allowing them to drink might.
My rules on adolescent alcohol use
I don’t think I will ever feel completely good about condoning something that could be potential harmful and expressly illegal. But, instead of beating myself up over the morally compromising, I’ll align my son to my own set of underage drinking principles to Yosef as follows –
- I understand you may try to drink alcohol.
- “Trying” means a sip, not guzzling a handle or shot-gunning a six-pack.
- Your mom and I must be expressly OK with and present if you try any alcohol.
- No other parents should provide you alcohol – even if they are trusted family friends.
- If you’ve broken No. 1 through No. 4, call us. We’ll pick you up, no questions asked. Until tomorrow.
Agreement with these principles will not make me the “cool dad” with his buddies. These principles don’t mean I am encouraging him to evade the law. I assure you that I will be saying “no” far more than “yes” when underage drinking is entertained socially with others.
These do mean, though, that I get it. I remember being there, caught between a sip of beer and the impending disappointment of my parents. I regret poor decisions I’ve made driven by the need to hide realities from my folks.
Parenting older kids is tough. Yes, I’m glad I toasted real champagne with my son to ring in the New Year but, damn, I hope that cheap bottle tasted awful to him.
The smile on Yosef’s face, though, tells me otherwise – and thinking I’m doing this all wrong.