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Teen Drinking -- I'm For It
I've told the story of how, when I got to college, I found the idea of getting drunk so boring that I don't think I had a single drink when I was there. Why? Probably because my parents consistently offered me alcohol when I was a kid. (Which, I believe, is now a crime in some states.)

Anyway, if my dad was drinking something, he'd offer us a taste. So drinking had no allure of the forbidden. And because we were offered it, we almost never accepted (tasted terrible). And then, being raised Jewish, we'd have wine at holidays (Manichevitz will put anyone but the most hardened drunk off drinking).

At 15, I got curious about getting drunk. Since my parents were unforbidding about alcohol, I decided the safest way to experiment would be to do it when they were there. We went to my cousin Patty's wedding, and I drank (ugh!) vodka and Tab until I was reeling. I threw up on the way home and my dad laughed at me and said, "I bet you won't be doing that (drinking too much) again." I didn't have another drink until I was in my mid-20s, and then only an occasional glass of wine. And still.

Addiction treatment pioneer Stanton Peele, who just came out with the book Addiction-Proof Your Child, finds this approach wise, and write$ about it in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. Here's an excerpt:

What kind of parents would ever allow their children to drink at home? Doesn't this put youngsters at risk?

The answer to the first question is simple. Most of the state laws include a specific exemption for children drinking at home during family and religious ceremonies. Observant Jews, for example, traditionally serve children small glasses of wine during Friday night Sabbath ceremonies. Other cultures also begin socializing children into drinking at an early age -- including Mediterranean societies such as Italy, Greece and Turkey (and non-Mediterranean societies such as China).

As for the second, two international surveys -- one conducted by the World Health Organization -- revealed that these Mediterranean countries and Israel had the lowest binge drinking rates among European adolescents.

In societies where children drink with their parents, this typically means giving a kid a small amount of wine or other alcohol, often watered down on special occasions or a family dinner. Many European countries also lower the drinking age for children when they are accompanied by parents. In the United Kingdom, for example, the legal age is 18, but for a family at a restaurant it is 16. In France and Italy, where the legal age is 16, there is no age limit for children drinking with parents.

But what might all of this mean for teen drinking problems in America?

Several studies have shown that the younger kids are when they start to drink, the more likely they are to develop severe drinking problems. But the kind of drinking these studies mean -- drinking in the woods to get bombed or at unattended homes -- is particularly high risk.

Research published in the Journal of Adolescent Health in 2004 found that adolescents whose parents permitted them to attend unchaperoned parties where drinking occurred had twice the average binge-drinking rate. But the study also had another, more arresting conclusion: Children whose parents introduced drinking to the children at home were one-third as likely to binge.

"It appears that parents who model responsible drinking behaviors have the potential to teach their children the same," noted Kristie Foley, the principal author of the study. While the phrasing was cautious, the implication of the study's finding needs to be highlighted: Parents who do not introduce children to alcohol in a home setting might be setting them up to become binge drinkers later on. You will not likely hear this at your school's parent drug- and alcohol-awareness nights.

Obviously, if a parent isn't comfortable consuming alcohol -- for whatever reason -- he or she is going to find it difficult to teach a child moderate social drinking. Fair enough. But neither should parents feel guilty or intimidated about responsibly introducing their children to alcohol in a home setting. The research suggests that this is more likely, not less, to protect the kids against the excessive drinking that permeates American high schools and colleges.

The youngest of my three children attends New York University, in a metropolis that is no stranger to alcohol. But alcohol is not forbidden fruit, since Anna drank wine at home. She says binge drinking holds no allure. I believe her.

Stanton's website is here.

Posted by aalkon at August 31, 2007 9:53 AM


This is the line of reasoning that always occurs to me when the drug legalization crowd starts comparing drugs to alcohol. The use of alcohol has become intertwined with social interactions in a way that illegal drugs haven’t. You don’t see heads of state celebrating a new treaty by sparkin’ up a doobie or hoovering a line of Peruvian flake. Having a drink is a beloved and respectable part of western civilization and young people should be able to join in, properly supervised and in moderation.

As much as I despise drunk drivers, I think the primary measure to curtail drunk driving, raising the drinking age, has caused young people to turn to illegal drugs for their recreational chemical needs and the wages of that policy are already coming due. (My generally Libertarian tendencies come off their rims when it comes to drug legalization. The catastrophic effects to society seem unavoidable.)

Posted by: martin at August 31, 2007 8:22 AM

Pretty much the same story here. Manischevitz on Friday nights, and a sip of beer in the summer, Praise Jebus, who would want to drink that stuff?

In college I went to one party where I got so smashed I was vomiting up on the carpet remnant I had carefully "recyled" from the carpet store bins at the beginning of the year.

I've never been anywhere close to that drunk again.

So yeah, I offer my kids a little bit of wine once a month, the other nights they plead and beg for just grape juice.

I think a similar experience where my parents would let me drink their coffee kept me off that. Gross disgusting stuff until you get enough sugar and milk into it.

I think the key is to demystify/decriminalize the various behaviors. Alcohol? It's no big deal, I've been drinking it since I was five.

I also let my kids light the Shabbat candles for a similar reason -- let them figure out how matches work while I am around.

And in a bit of a stretch, I would like to see all new drivers forced to spend a day learning how to ride a motorcycle. Motorcycles are much better environmentally than cars with better gas mileage and a far smaller footprint in so many ways. Southern California has good motorcycle weather 95% of the time, and it would help traffic out for everyone if we could shift some number of single car trips into a motorcycle trip.

I find that most of what makes motorcycles unsafe to drive is that car drivers aren't looking for motorcycles, mainly since they have never experienced them. Which is why I would force all new car drivers to spend a day learning how to ride motorcycles.

Besides which, the Rock Store was always a fun stop on the way to the beach.

Posted by: jerry at August 31, 2007 8:33 AM

I've been there...that place is a blast!

P.S. The big new danger to bikers (cyclists and motorcyclists) is asshats texting while driving.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at August 31, 2007 9:08 AM

Amazing. I thought it took a village to raise a child, but apparently all it takes is parents. Huh.

I can tell you from experience that it doesn't matter what the driver is doing, when you are on a motorcycle, you are at risk. However, you learn to be way more attentive on the bike than you ever were in your car. The ones that piss me off the most are the ones that aim or the ones that cut you off and slam the brakes. I was ready to pull a fucker out of his truck and stomp him after he kept changing lanes to cut me off over a mile or so span of road - deliberately keeping me from rejoining my riding group. If he hadn't pulled off that road to get on the highway, there woulda been problems is all I'm sayin'.

Posted by: brian at August 31, 2007 9:38 AM

I live in an area where lots of people ride bikes. The people driving cars don't have the asshole market cornered. Bike riders seem to have some sense of entitlement, as though the road's there just for them. Most recently, a group of bikers pulled into the lane in front of me when there really wasn't room to safely do that. I wasn't driving slowly either. The last rider didn't have time to make it over and he wanted to flip ME off and yell obscenities? Could be that's one reason car drivers aren't more considerate to bikers.

Posted by: Teresa at August 31, 2007 10:41 AM

I think you're reading the studies wrongly.

First, I'd bet things aren't going better for problem drinkers in the United Kingdom than they are in Ohio.

Second, a home that has two loving parents to supervise a kid's experience with alcohol aren't the ones in which kids will feel the allure of a boundary violation in drinking. That is, if you've got a single mom, or a bad (possibly drunken) stepdad, you're more likely to do binge-y and transgressive sorts of alcoholic experimentation anyway.

Of course, your model of first experience is preferred, for many reasons... Public safety is the best one. I agree with you that a teen with a drink is not the end of the world.

But I don't think the context of the first exposure itself is what makes an alcoholic. You have to have the gene(s). And then you have to tickle the dragon's tail until you get his attention. Kids from good homes are less likely to be out fucking around with monsters.

It's kind of like sex: The first time is usually hideous, no matter the circumstance & company, and it doesn't say much about what will follow.

If anyone understood what I was getting at in every sentence above, please send an email, and I'll send you a certificate for a free dinner at a participating Red Lobster® restaurant.

Posted by: Crid at August 31, 2007 12:08 PM

My family's not Jewish, so no Manischevitz, but otherwise the story was similar. (Catholics like to drink. A lot.) Dad used to brew beer at home; we kids got to help him bottle it, taking a few sips here and there. My parents started asking me if I wanted to order wine with dinner when I was, I think, 15. So far, everything seems fine. That having been said, two caveats:

1) Both of my parents are trained to recognize the signs of drug and alcohol addiction; they can spot an addict a mile off, almost instantaneously. If one of us had turned into an incipient alcoholic, they would have known, and would have been honest with themselves about it. There does seem to be a genetic component to alcoholism; some people will never be able to drink moderately. Parents should get some training on recognizing the signs of alcohol and drug addiction, and should be willing to confront their kids about unwise behavior if so.

2) Neither one of my parents would have dreamed of holding a party at their house for our underage friends at which drinking was openly allowed. They were perfectly happy to make decisions about whether THEIR OWN children were allowed to drink underage. They didn't make decisions about anyone ELSE'S children, because they wouldn't want other parents undercutting them in a similar way. I think it's great to encourage your 15-year-old to share in a champagne toast at a wedding, but allowing 50 15-year-olds to get bombed at your house is an IDIOTIC idea.

Posted by: marion at August 31, 2007 12:08 PM

I had a friend in college whose dad (a judge) took this one step further. He told her that if she ever wanted to try LSD, to let him know. He wanted to help her create the best possible experience, instead of a disastrously bad trip.

Posted by: Lena at August 31, 2007 12:10 PM

Lena, that almost sounds like a boundary violation in itself, though I see what you (and those parents, and Amy and her parents, were getting at. It just seems creepy and instrusive. Again, imagine we were talking about sex to a young teen: "Honey, if you ever decide to blow a guy, just let me or Mom know, and we'll find you a nice clean, safe fellow, and we'll clear out the basement rec room on a Friday night. We'll leave out some chips & Mr. Pibb...."

I'm not a parent and never wanted to be, so if someone who is says I'm wrong, then that's that. But isn't the whole point to instill good sense through every other context, so that when a son or daughter moves out into the world to make their own adult choices, they do it right?

Posted by: Crid at August 31, 2007 12:22 PM

Marion has a good point in that there seems to be a genetic, or at least inborn, predisposition to alcoholism for a percentage of the population. I've observed before that there are two kinds of heavy drinkers: those who do it because they are miserable, and those who do it for no apparent reason other than that they like it. The first kind can cut back if/when their life improves, and they can still drink socially. The second kind, except in rare cases, cannot stop without outside intervention. And once they do dry up, they can never touch alcohol again.

I have a theory that it's the second group who constitutes the bulk of the early-age, out-in-the-woods drinkers. Studies that conclude that early drinking leads to alcoholism have the cause and effect reversed: Early drinking doesn't lead to alcoholism; rather, the early drinkers were *already* latent alcoholics before they ever had their first drink. They drink at an early age because they are driven to seek it out. It's a self-selecting audience. I sometimes say, half-seriously, that we should make every kid drink a half-shot of vodka when they turn 12. If they lose their lunch or just grimace at it, they're okay. If they immediately start asking when they can have some more, don't wait; send 'em to rehab now.

Posted by: Cousin at August 31, 2007 12:35 PM

Say, this isn't the same judge who got caught using a penis pump while court was in session, is it?

Posted by: Paul Hrissikopoulos at August 31, 2007 12:53 PM

As far as Brit drunkenness versus French goes, it's considered vulgar in France to be a drunk. It's the land of small portions in food -- small, fabulous bits of food -- as opposed to vast quantities, and I think alcohol consumption is seen the same way. I don't think a French person could even fathom being in one of those eating contests in Japan or in the USA. Not that I could, either.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at August 31, 2007 12:54 PM

Amy, you're making the case that France is all about looking down on others as a snob. We knew that!

Pinsky once said that France has less public drunkenness than other countries because of some less high-minded cultural circumstances.... Specifically, there's been so much drinking there for so many centuries that anyone with a genetic propensity for alcoholism has already been weeded out of the population. In the middle ages, they'd pour wine over their children's Fruit Loops, and the kids would die of alcoholism before bringing about a new generation. They have some of the globe's highest incidence of cirrhosis with some of the lowest incidence of abject alcoholism. They drink, they just don't get riproaring drunk as do the Scots-Irish.

Maybe that annoying. hectoring tone of French character comes from being a population of survivors of drinkers... It means a great, great deal to them to be able to say they're more elevated than other people (specifically, their own wretched grandfathers).

Another Red Lobster® dinner for anyone who followed that.

Posted by: Crid at August 31, 2007 1:06 PM

Amy, you're making the case that France is all about looking down on others as a snob. We knew that!

And I knew you knew that, but that it might give you a special glow if you got to see me put it in print.

I'd rather eat cork board than Red Lobster.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at August 31, 2007 1:15 PM

Second, a home that has two loving parents to supervise a kid's experience with alcohol aren't the ones in which kids will feel the allure of a boundary violation in drinking.

This has not quite been my experience. I know plenty of homes with loving, involved parents that produced kids who ended up binge drinking at parties. Of course, I grew up in the Bible Belt with lots of parents horrified at the idea that their kids would EVER drink.

I think LSD is going a bit far, m'self, and my parents weren't happy about the idea about their kids using any permanently (i.e. past-age-of-21) drugs. But, for better or worse, alcohol is legal and likely to remain so, and using it properly is a learned, not an inborn, behavior. You learn how to incorporate alcohol into social interaction by doing that on a mature level (i.e. not in a situation where you feel comfortable, if not compelled to, get absolutely smashed). Kids whose first experience with it is at a party full of other teenagers are probably going to drink for as long as they can. Kids who associate it with having a glass of wine at dinner and staying sober will probably drink less...with the exception of those genetically programmed for alcoholism, and I'd say it's better for parents to know that ASAP and take steps to head off said kids from ending up dead in an ER from alcohol poisoning.

Posted by: marion at August 31, 2007 1:35 PM

The following quote was sent to me (from a decent journal abstract report as I recall) by - ironically - a French friend (we were arguing cordially about popular American assumptions about the French and vice versa):

"Nearly 43,000 French people die each year from alcohol-related causes, the pro­portional equivalent of 200,000 Ameri­cans - double the number who currently die annually of alcohol-related causes in the United States.

According to the World Health Organization's Global Status Report on Alcohol, the French drink 54 percent more alcohol than Americans, and die of liver cirrhosis 57 percent more often."

He went on to argue that the Italians are far more disdainful than the French about the idiocy of being plastered socially (and had statistics for that too. At which point I gave up...).

I was surprised, I admit because the British belief is also generally that the French handle drinking better - even if they're annoyingly superior on the subject!

Posted by: Jody Tresidder at August 31, 2007 1:43 PM

"Specifically, there's been so much drinking there for so many centuries that anyone with a genetic propensity for alcoholism has already been weeded out of the population."

This website would suggest otherwise:

Posted by: Lena at August 31, 2007 1:53 PM


The quote in my last comment is, I discover - from something called The Marin Institute. Wiki says this is an anti-alcohol lobby group - so maybe it overstates the case - or was at least slanted against the cozy idea that swigging plonk like a Frog is good for your heart. I see The Marin people didn't like that theory at all...

Posted by: Jody Tresidder at August 31, 2007 1:54 PM

I agree with the general trend of this thread - that kids are better off having their first booze experience with parents around. We did that in my household, too. It's good to get some of that "forbidden fruit" stuff out of the way. But beyond that, I'm near certain that the rest of the deal is personal tendency - some people like to get out of their heads, some people don't. Of that first group, some keep it in check, others don't. And those who keep it in check often tread a very fine line.

Posted by: justin case at August 31, 2007 2:41 PM

> This website would
> suggest otherwise:

I take it back! I take it back! Goddamnit, there's just no fun to be had on a website frequented by a fucking graduate-level statistics instructor. Besides, Lean, that page is in English. (Seriously, I thought you were going to whip out some serious numerical shit using your superhuman powers.)

Anyway, it was a theory that heard on the radio, so I still think it's true. Like that woman said here last week, these are my illusions, and I'll thank you kindly not to shatter them.... La la la lalala.... I can't hear you.

> I know plenty of homes with
> loving, involved parents that
> produced kids who ended up
> binge drinking at parties

Man, I should not have been so gasbaggy, especially with the word "binge". Look, I don't think bingeing (sp?) leads directly to alcoholism unless you already have the characteristic for it... And young people often binge. (My alma mater is globally famous for this, ranked #7 in 2007.) Even the little Alkon girl seems to have had a bad time with her vodka & Tab. But a series of binges isn't tickling the dragon, it's shooting BB's at his eyes. And I'll bet the bottom dollar it happens more with kids from troubled homes than stable ones. You're right though, nothing can protect you if you have the propensity plus exposure.

> with the exception of those
> genetically programmed for
> alcoholism, and I'd say it's
> better for parents to know
> that ASAP


> some people like to get
> out of their heads


Posted by: Crid at August 31, 2007 4:32 PM

By the way, is this a holiday weekend?

No particular reason, really... Just curious.

Posted by: Crid at August 31, 2007 4:42 PM

By the way, is this a holiday weekend?

What might give you that idear?

Posted by: justin case at August 31, 2007 7:09 PM

Amy, I think you made an important post here.

The idea that youngsters should only begin to understand the effects of alcohol in the company of similarily secretive peers is truly foolish. Alcohol can offer some value in social relationships, but why not let youngsters begin to learn that in the home?

Posted by: Curtis at August 31, 2007 8:29 PM

I got to try beer at home when I was a kid because my dad is German and my mom is Austrian. I thought beer tasted awful so I stayed away from it until university. Then I drank a lot! (mostly at frat parties). I got tired of hangovers, so I switched to weed. Then I got tired of feeling stupid all the time, so I quit weed too.

Since my parents were European they didn't have problem with us having a beer now and then, starting at the age of around 16, which took all the fun out of it. I'd have wine every once in a while with dinner while I was still living at home.

Our family has a tendency to be functioning alcoholics, which is what my sister turned into, and what my parents are. They're around 78 and still alive, drinking their asses off, but apparently indestructible.

Posted by: Chrissy at September 1, 2007 5:08 PM

TO: Amy Alkon
RE: Teen 'Drinking'

Too late.

As I understand it, the French start gearing their children up for the realitites of Life around 4 years of age.

I recall reading that Samuel Adams, Father of the American Revolution had a pint of porter with his breakfast of oatmeal, before going off to Harvard; age 14.



Posted by: Chuck Pelto at September 1, 2007 6:10 PM

My parents were real drinkers. Yeah, they might split a can of beer once every few months, and they always offered me some from when I was old enough to know what it was. I tried a little once, I'm sure I was under age 10, and spit it out, it was so awful. So although I drink wine socially and beer on occasional hot summer afternoons it has never been a problem. My wife is a functioning alky, and has her three glasses plus of wine every evening. She still gets up every morning and goes to work, but it has taken a toll on our love life. Drunk is not sexy, at least not in my book. However we get along otherwise, so life isn't perfect?

Posted by: Jim H. at September 5, 2007 4:02 PM

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