Give Parents a Break: Making the Case for Supervised Teen Drinking

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You couldn’t blame Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler if he poured himself a stiff drink this week.

A Democratic candidate for governor, Gansler has come under heavy fire in recent days for not taking any action to stop underage drinking at a party that his son attended last summer to celebrate his high school graduation.

The brouhaha arose after a photograph surfaced showing Gansler at the beach-house party—amid a sea of dancing, fist-pumping, bathing-suit-clad teens—looking for his boy. Gansler originally told the Baltimore Sun that he didn’t remember if any kids were drinking that night—and that even if they were, it wasn’t his responsibility either as a parent or a high-ranking law enforcement official to get involved. After being widely criticized for that position, Gansler back-peddled and said that, in retrospect, he should have done more to intervene.

Yet from where I sit, as the mom of a 15-year-old son and a 21-year-old daughter, I’d say that he already had done plenty to intervene. In fact, I’d go so far as to argue that, by giving their teens a safe place to party, Gansler and the other parents who chipped in to pay for the Delaware vacation rental were being very responsible.

It is easy, of course, to take a holier-than-thou attitude and insist that if parents don’t let kids drink, they won’t. But that’s not the real world.

Alcohol is the most commonly used and abused drug among those under the age of 21, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  In a 2011 survey, the CDC found that nearly 40% of underage teens said they had drunk alcohol in the past 30 days, 22% admitted to binge drinking, 8% said they drove after drinking, and 24% said they got in a car with someone who had been drinking.

Given these grim statistics, Gansler and the other parents drew up house rules designed to make sure their kids stayed out of harm’s way: no driving, no swimming after dark, no girls behind closed doors, no hard alcohol or drugs. They held a meeting before “Beach Week” explaining these rules to their children and made clear that breaking them meant being sent home. And they assigned two dads to chaperone each night.

Conspicuously left off the house-rules list, however, was any prohibition against drinking beer or wine. While purists may argue that this amounted to condoning illegal behavior, it is exactly the kind of balancing act that sensible parents of high school students find themselves performing all the time.

I have one friend who has three sons—two of them now in college and one a recent college grad—who has hosted many a high school party in her backyard. She never provided the alcohol. (In fact, I don’t know a single parent who would.) And if she saw teens at her house drinking openly, she’d confiscate their beer or booze. But she also didn’t frisk kids on their way in, even though she was certainly aware that some were about to break the law.

“Obviously we knew—wink-wink, nod-nod—that kids brought alcohol,” she told me. “But if you truly banned it at the house, so they couldn’t come over and drink at all, they’d just go and drink someplace else. Is it really better for these kids to buy alcohol and go up into the hills, and then no one is there if something goes wrong?”

What my friend—and Gansler—understand is that the best parenting sometimes involves setting boundaries, but not to the point of completely alienating your kids.

Consider this: a few years ago, a study of 5,000 adolescents by researchers at Brigham Young University found that those who drank most responsibly had parents who exhibited a combination of “accountability”—knowing where their children spent their time and with whom—and genuine “warmth.” “Indulgent” parents, defined as those low on accountability and high on warmth, nearly tripled the risk of their teen participating in heavy drinking. But “strict” parents, who were high on accountability and low on warmth, also had problems; they more than doubled their teen’s chances of heavy drinking.

As a politician, Gansler may continue to find himself vulnerable, especially given that he appeared in a video a year ago in which he took a strong stance against underage drinking. But as a dad, he should take solace in the fact that he did the right thing.

Facing his critics this week, Gansler noted that he was “really no different from any other parent” attempting to navigate the gray areas that invariably come with having a teenager. “How much do you let them go?” he asked. “How much do you rein them in?”

When it comes to drinking, the wisest answer is a little of both.