Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Drinking Age

Some questions for you: How old were you when you had your first alcoholic drink? Was it legal or not legal? Were you with your parents? Friends? Was it an exciting adventure? Dangerous fun? Did you drive? Do you agree with the drinking age being set at 21? I'm not sure whether my answers will surprise you or not, but here goes. I was maybe 10 when I had my first drink. I don't remember exactly, but I'm pretty sure it was beer. I'm also sure I was with my mom. No doubt we were working at some sort of heavy manual labor and Mom popped open a can of Heidelberg to cool off, passing it on to my sister and me so we could take a sip or two as well. I don't remember specifically because, well, it just wasn't that big an event. My mom didn't build up any mystique about it. It was simply a beverage that at that moment served the purpose of refreshing us in our work. No big deal. I did not drive a car after the drinking occurred. Again, I was 10.

My mom had a definite agenda in introducing us to very small amounts of alcohol at an early age. She wanted to show us what alcohol felt like in limited quantities while she was there to monitor and protect us. She also wanted to take away the mystique. Her plan worked. My sister and I never saw alcohol as glamorous, or rebellious. (It also helped in removing the glamour factor that our father was an alcoholic, but that's a different tale.) I have some friends who will say the same. Their families always had wine with dinner, and the kids were allowed a small amount with their meal. No big deal. Interestingly, they, like I, didn't sneak about with their friends to drink subversive substances. I hung out with a very straight-laced crowd in high school, whose parents, interestingly, tended to share the same philosophy with my mom. Limited quantities. Controlled conditions. No sneaking off to experience the forbidden fruit of the vine. These kids mostly ended up staying good kids. Honor students and church choir members. No dropouts. No pregnancies. No drunk driving. No alcohol mystique.

I didn't see much of the party scene, but what I did see of unsupervised underage drinking mostly made me think the kids involved were stupid. It definitely did not make me want to go out and throw a kegger. Mom's lessons on moderation stuck. College was a big eye-opener for me. It was the first time I had extensive exposure to kids who were experiencing their first away-from-home-and-now-I-can-get-my-hands-on-alcohol frenzy. These were the kids who had heard the "do as I say, not as I do" line from their folks, and they definitely had the alcohol mystique firmly in place--almost enshrined. They also had unfettered access to mood-altering liquids. (Pills and powders as well, but, again, that's a different tale--let's stick with the legal-once-you-reach-a-certain-age mood alterers.) The not infrequent result of this sudden and uncontrolled freedom? Well, they were experiencing something able to change their behavior dramatically, and yet they had been given no lessons in how to handle it properly, or know when they'd had enough. The results were predictable. Binge drinking. Wild behaviour and bad grades. Pregnancy scares. This wasn't universal, of course, and it's anecdotal, but from my observation as an alcohol-mystiqueless college student, fairly accurate.

I acknowledge the complete lack of objectivity of my perspective. What I experienced was what I experienced, and nothing more, but it does leave me with some opinions about how American society handles "coming of age" and alcohol consumption. We make being allowed to drink alcohol this big event. When you're 21 you will have arrived. Of course, by this point you may have been married for three years, fought in a war, and, as with my in-laws, have three children already, but the big moment has finally come, and now you can drink beer. Good grief. Talk about building mystique. You want to make something more important than it is? Make it the very last thing a person is allowed to do upon becoming an adult. Make it the defining moment of adulthood. If you really want to complicate things, too, give those adults no training in how to do it properly. This is basically what we ensure by setting the drinking age at 21. Mystique thoroughly established, thank you very much. We also ensure that the first experiences with alcohol will either occur when people have long ago lost all parental supervision, or, more commonly, at a much younger age, illegally, with kids sneaking off to get loaded behind the high school gym (driving themselves, of course, because they can't admit to any responsible adults that they've had anything to drink).

How did this become the national standard? The reason I'm bringing this up is that George Will brought it up first. He's got an interesting piece at Townhall. com on the advantages of lowering the drinking age--one of the biggest advantages being the parental supervision of which I have been speaking. He also includes an explanation of how 21 became the universal drinking age in America, despite the autonomy each state has to set the number for themselves. I remember when Idaho's drinking age was 19. It used to be that lots of states had lower limits. So, why did that change? Would it surprise you to learn there is money involved?

Although all 50 states ban drinking by persons under 21, technically there is no national drinking age. Each state has a right to set a lower age -- more than half had lower age limits in the 1970s -- but doing so will cost it 10 percent of its federal highway funds and cause significant uproar from contractors and construction unions.

You can read Will's article to see the reasons for the federal government's financial pressure, the government's reasoning, some of the pros and cons involved, and alternate ideas about how to promote responsible alcohol consumption by young adults. (Okay, not promoting the consumption, promoting the responsibility. You knew what I meant, right?)

I will add that I know that one of the important questions here is whether parents will be parents in this day and age. My mom actually explained to me why she was letting me have alcohol before I was an adult. She talked with me about how big a deal some people make about drinking, how some kids get a distorted view of it, and that she wanted me to understand what it was and wasn't, and to understand the effect it had. Now, I know that Mom was exceptional in this regard. Many parents out there would not take that involved an approach to alcohol education, no matter what the drinking age. Many would not supervise their kids at all, but I would argue that those are the parents who are not supervising their kids anyway. Theirs are the kids getting drunk behind the school gym and in their friends' basements even now. This would not change if the law were altered. I also know that this whole topic is a big can of worms and there are valid arguments on both sides of it. In this case, I am speaking mostly from my own experience, and drawing my conclusions from what worked in my own life, but I still think my mom was right.