The minimum drinking age in most countries around the world is 18. The United States is one of only seven countries and the only developed country on that short list which includes the likes of Pakistan and Kazakhstan where the drinking age is 21. Luxembourg, where we now live as American expats, is on the other side of that distribution curve as one of 16 mostly European countries where it’s legal to buy and publicly consume alcohol at 16. This has become somewhat of a topic of conversation around our house as tomorrow – January 13 - is our son’s 16th birthday.
Let me say right off the bat: I am no expert on teens or alcohol or teen drinking. However, as a parent who has lived on both sides of this trans-Atlantic divide with a son now coming of age, I’ve been given a perspective on the issue that is not bound by a single cultural context. Theory is being asked to move to practicum five years early.
What I do know about teens and alcohol is this: that which is a forbidden fruit is highly desirable and the greatest risk from alcohol use is binge drinking. In the US, we have strict government laws that keep the fruit forbidden for so long that we propagate the idea that alcohol is not only overpowering but something that can’t be self-moderated. “Forbidden pleasures alone are loved immoderately; when lawful, they do not excite desire.” (Quintilian) According to my now 16 year old son, the pressure to drink is infinitely higher in the US than it has been in Europe precisely because it is not a big deal here. In one study, binge drinking (typically heavy drinking in a party situation) was highest in several Eastern European countries and the US and lowest in countries like Italy, Spain, and Luxembourg with liberal social alcohol use but less risky drinking trends.
It seems like teen drinking in America is associated with unsupervised parties, vandalism and drunk driving. Think about it. Aren’t those the images that come to mind? In stark contrast, my perception is that teen drinking in Europe is associated with family dinners and going to pubs and clubs. These kids aren’t hiding out in the woods or someone’s basement chugging whatever bottle of hard alcohol they could steal from their parents, they have a PLACE TO GO where they can order a beer and consume it at their own pace. Driving isn’t even an option. Virtually all kids in Europe have to wait until they are 18 to drive. Here you can have a much easier conversation with your teens about where they are really going and how much they plan to drink.
I’ve noticed here that alcohol isn’t stigmatized as a drug or something that is inherently evil. Instead alcohol is seen as neutral – neither poison nor magic potion – just another beverage option that is stocked on the same shelves as groceries. Alcohol, particularly wine and beer, is also most importantly first introduced in a family setting. It is family rather than laws which govern how people learn constructive drinking behavior. That observation has been confirmed by researchers that have found that societies with non-abusive drinking practices and low rates of alcoholism (notably Italians, Spaniards and Greeks) share some important drinking characteristics: it is primarily associated with eating/feasting, both sexes and several generations are included (whether all partake or not), it is not associated with an individual’s effort to escape, and drunkenness and the inappropriate behavior it begets is unequivocally not tolerated.
I'm starting to think that the US drinking age of 21 is inconsistent with other laws pertaining to the movement from adolescence to adulthood. In the US, you can drive, vote, take a bullet for your country, get married, and get into debt at the age of 18. But buy a six pack? THAT young man, you must continue to acquire illicitly for the next three years. But after 21? Drink yourself into a coma if you wish. It is true that the US has one of the lowest rates of per capita drinking in the world (in part because 35% of Americans report to abstain entirely), but it also has one of the highest rates of alcohol related deaths in the world among 15-29 year olds. This should not come as a surprise when the over-arching message is that alcohol is a “dirty drug” to resist like the devil, not something one must learn to enjoy in moderation.
We ask our kids to take on activities that build self-discipline like sports, music, and chores. We ask them to control their impulses in social situations. We give them keys to our car. And yet, we assume they will figure out how to moderate alcohol consumption with their equally clueless peers while exiled in a dark alleyway. “Like a city whose walls are broken through is a person who lacks self-control.” (Proverbs 25:28.) Experience teaches us that our kids are often going to fail when they try new things, so rather than ignoring that fact why not embrace healthy drinking as something they practice first at home and fortify those walls? I didn't know until recently that in more than 30 US states parents are allowed to serve their own children alcohol in the privacy of their homes, but it feels like we need an out-of-the-shadows culturally defined role for alcohol in and out of the home where abstinence isn’t the only model (but certainly a fine choice for some.) Unlike drugs, many parents who are not teetotalers might agree that our long term expectation is for our kids to learn that alcohol can be its most pleasurable experience when controlled NOT as a rite of passage to get wasted on your 21rst birthday.
I’m not suggesting that dangerous behavior is fully abdicated by lowering the legal drinking age, but I do believe that teens have a better chance when they can experiment openly in places of safety and with a attitudinal re-set. Some may argue that alcohol impacts the developing mind, but that argument seems most relevant in cases of excess not temperance. One mother here told me the other day that her son’s biggest shock when moving from our International high school to an American university was the way that American kids drink themselves into oblivion before even going out for the evening – an activity that no doubt kills brain cells. If we extinguished the novelty of drinking by having the first experiences at home around the dinner table, might our kids hear first that a glass of Syrah will make your spicy dish come alive rather than make you popular (a myth that is alive and well in today’s youth culture)? Might they be like the Italian youth with some of the lowest incidence of alcohol abuse in the world? Maybe it’s because I’m Italian or because my first born seems already hard wired for self-control that we have arrived at this conclusion. Maybe it’s even more important for the kids who aren’t wired for self-control.
Drinking at a party says this is how you have a good time or how you manage the anxieties of life. Drinking around a multigenerational dining room table says this is how you enjoy a good meal and good company, and by the way --- alcohol closes on you like a trap if you drink too much. The first way is seeking sociability; the second way is to participate in a social event where drunkenness is never the goal. Let’s put a glass, ideally paired with a nice piece of cheese, in their hands before the car keys.