This November, I went to a gaming convention in California where I met long distance friends, drank, and got properly drunk for the first time. Having heard said friends’ tales of previous years’ antics, I knew that drinking would be common and drugs present, but this shouldn’t come as a surprise; a large group of 20-somethings hanging out in California for a weekend is bound to have access to both.
I told my mom as much. This was my first big trip away from home – I had paid for everything myself, booked my flight and hotel, and would be on the other side of the country for four whole days – and it was important to me that my plans were transparent. I would likely drink, I said, but I wouldn’t have sex or touch drugs.
My mom’s response was not encouraging or ecstatic, but it was not dismissive, condemning, or generally unaccepting. Few parents want to hear that their kid will be underage drinking, but I think just as many are able to withhold a punitive lecture upon receiving said news. My mother’s concern was clear – her worry was, of course, heightened by my being several hundred miles away – but she told me to be smart, be aware of my surroundings, and to text her often.
About two weeks after this conversation, I landed in California where I had a fantastic, exhausting weekend with friends. I met a ton of people, played video games and was generally nerdy, and at night I drank at parties before walking or taking an Uber back to my hotel room in the early hours of the morning.
I had opportunities to drink heavily and get high. I was surrounded by people, friends and otherwise, who drank considerably more than me, and knew of others who spent their nights with cocaine in hotel rooms. Other rooms reeked of weed. Like it or not, the reality of a huge convention – or most large parties – is this; the opportunities for binge drinking and drugs are virtually limitless.
Yet alcohol in the United States has always carried with it a taboo, particularly for the youth. At 21, our legal drinking age far exceeds that of our peers. And, as everyone knows, underage drinking does not cease to exist as a result. This isn’t to say that I’m here to argue for the lowering of the legal age or otherwise. There is a plethora of research on the topic, both in support of our current laws and in contention, to be considered. Merely, I am of the opinion that if underage drinking is going to exist, then we are better off educating those who participate, rather than abandoning them to a reckless game of trial and error. Experimenting with alcohol does have dangerous and potentially mortal consequences.
Ignorant drinkers, underage or no, pose safety concerns. Drunk driving is one such risk. While the percentage of high school teens who drink and drive has decreased considerably in the last two decades, the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) still estimates that one in ten teens drinks and drives. Drunk driving is, naturally, incredibly dangerous, both to the driver and those sharing the road. While stressing the dangers and fatal consequences of drunk driving, it is a good idea to present yourself as an alternative to driving drunk or to getting into a car with a drunk driver. By discussing drunk driving with your kids, you are conveying that you understand the possibility that they will drink, and that their safety – and the safety of others – is more important than their rule breaking. New drinkers who are unaware of how their body processes alcohol are, ostensibly, more likely to underestimate their inebriation and attempt to drive, especially when calling a family member for transportation has additional consequences. Knowing that a parent is a way out of a potentially dangerous situation is an incredibly powerful thing, even in the world of Uber and Lift. A lecture, if you feel so inclined to give one, can come after your child is home safe.
Similarly, binge drinking is a common consequence of unfamiliarity with alcohol. While binge drinking occurs across all demographics, the CDC reports that “90% of the alcohol consumed by youth under 21 in the United States is in the form of binge drinks.” Binge drinking, for the record, is defined as consuming 4-5 drinks in about 2 hours, which brings an individual’s blood alcohol level to or above .08 grams. Unfortunately, heavy drinking can be fatal. My mom has told me several stories over the years about teens who underestimated their friends’ drunkenness and let them die because the fear of confessing to underage drinking is overpowering. A whole day of freshman year health class was dedicated to alcohol poisoning after a classmate ended up in the hospital. While “don’t drink too much” sounds a simple, easy command to follow, heavy drinking is easy to do when you are giddy to be drinking in the first place and unfamiliar with alcohol’s effect on you. A few drinks can be had in quick succession before a person realizes that they are more drunk than they ever intended. In California, I was careful and cautious, but the appeal of excess drinking had never been more understandable to me.
It is silly to think that turning 21 makes one a responsible drinker. Knowledge, above all else, is the dividing factor, and education can start at any age. Like most kids, alcohol had always interested me because it was something I could not have. Small sips of my dad’s beers at family gatherings were met with revulsion when I was younger. As I grew into my teens, the fascination remained, but my parents and my older brother began talking to me about the taste and quality of their drinks, and discussing how to drink smartly. My brother especially began to talk about having water between drinks, making sure to eat before, during, or after drinking, and giving alcohol some time to “work” before drinking more. In Cali, older friends talked to me, casually, about what works for them; one likes to walk around while she drinks in order to gauge how drunk she is, and another made everyone go out for an early dinner before any heavy drinking began.
Don’t get me wrong – my friends are not saints, especially those under 21. I watched a friend who recently turned 21 drink three vodka RedBulls without blinking in the span of a two-hour dinner, and another has a worryingly high alcohol tolerance for someone who is barely 20. While I don’t condone such excess, my point is that even the reckless, stupid, “Amelia, stop worrying; I’m fine” friends of mine know when to cut themselves off and how to be safe. In an entire drug-and-alcohol-filled weekend, not one of my friends drove drunk, threw up, passed out, were so inebriated they could not make it back to their hotel rooms, or otherwise endangered themselves or others. And some of that alcohol intelligence must be contributed to the way they have been exposed to alcohol throughout their teen years.
These strategies – eating, having water between drinks, etc. – may seem small and obvious, but they aren’t to teens and young adults who have never been exposed to or spoken about alcohol in this context. As I said, most of my education on the matter has been in small, casual doses, but it has been enough. Once I returned from California, I had two more formal talks about drinking with my mom and then my brother (who, I should mention, worked as a bartender for several years). In addition to reviewing, more formally, the information I had already learned, my brother also taught me the “standard” of each drink – 12oz of beer, 5oz of wine, etc. – and talked about the dangers of mixing drugs and alcohol.
Finally, remember that peer pressure can be positive. In California, when I was drinking, my older friends easily guided me to good drinking habits because they were and had been practicing good drinking habits. Someone – your son, your daughter – with a healthy, moderate relationship with alcohol can share information with others and positively influence their friends.
Even if you talk to your child about drinking and they do not perfectly follow advice or make the very best possible choice, that bit of extra information and awareness can make the difference between life and death; a good decision and a bad decision; returning home safe and ending up in a dangerous situation.
Underage drinking happens whether one’s parents like it or not. Educating does not require condoning. In preparing your child to drink responsibly, you are doing your part to ensure that there is one less ignorant, reckless drinker in the world.