“Can I have a sip?”
“Yes, go on then, have a try. But just a sip.”
“Yum, I like it. Can I have more?”
At what age do we let a child take a taste of beer, or a sip of wine? Would you pour your teenager a glass of wine with a meal? What do you do when you know that alcohol will be at the teen party next weekend? How about when you suspect that your under-age teenager is meeting mates in the pub?
It must be confusing to children. When we have something to celebrate, we often open a bottle. When we want to relax, we often open a bottle. When we socialise, we often take a bottle. When we need to think of a gift, we often give a bottle. But they, the children, are not allowed. How magical this adult elixir must seem. No wonder it must appear to be one of the keys to the gateway through to adulthood.
Thus our children receive the message that part of being an adult is to drink. I often hear of people offering a young person alcohol at a rite of passage, to mark a child’s journey into adulthood. Drinking is part of our culture but how much support do we then provide to our young people as they explore their capacity for alcohol?
We have laws about alcohol. In England you must be eighteen years old to purchase alcohol but you can drink it with your parents at home from the age of five. A pub can serve a sixteen year old alcohol if they are with an adult and the drink is with a meal. You may not drive if you have had more than a certain amount to drink.
These age limits make no sense to me. We hand a teenager a cider at the same time as we hand them the car keys. This has the potential to be a lethal combination. And whilst we insist on driving lessons and a test before a person is free to drive alone, no such training or test is given with alcohol consumption.
Adults use alcohol to relax socially. Just at a time when our youngsters are particularly self-conscious socially we sanction the use of something that alleviates some of that awkwardness, but then we leave them to it. When you are drunk you lose the ability to be moderate. We ask too much of our teenagers to leave them unsupervised with alcohol. We leave them to binge drink. We see them leaving bars and parties, or on the streets, too drunk to walk straight. They misbehave. They injure themselves. They become pregnant. Always invoking the excuse of drunkenness. And we let it happen.
“Now we know from research that parents who talk to their kids frequently about drinking -it’s very effective in reducing underage drinking,” Jan Withers, the National President of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. MADD has collated the information from this research into a guide for parents, available here.
We are so anxious not to intrude in their social lives that we abandon them to danger. More than half of all first sexual experiences happen when drunk, more often than not, unprotected. Many young people live to regret the fights, criminal damage, accidents, injury, and pregnancy arising from uncontrolled drinking, but not all live to. I would not wish for my daughter’s first sexual encounters to be experienced drunk. Let them resent our discrete presence at their parties, in their youth clubs, on the streets where they hang out. Teach them and then insist on safe drinking limits when they go out. Keep your teenager safe. Stay present.
You would not leave your toddler to explore a potentially hazardous place unsupervised. You would keep a watchful eye. The same needs to be true of our teenagers. Be willing to give your life over in the same way now that you have a teenager, as you did when they were a toddler. They need us to be there just as vigilantly. Trust that we have the right to supervise, and work out how to be involved, not to police but as a care-taker.