Sunday, July 6, 2014

Of Teenagers, Parents, and Alcohol

My younger son, who turned 18 in January, was looking forward to going to a classmate's cottage in Ontario, Canada, this week to spend a few days with her, some of her friends, and some other kids he recently graduated with.

Being that at least one of the girl's parents (her mom) was going to be at the cottage, my wife and I were strongly considering letting our son go. At the risk of sounding prudish, the arrangements weren't ideal--the parental unit (or units) would be staying in the main cottage; the kids--three boys and three girls, ranging between the ages of 18 and 19--would be staying in a separate cabin on the property.

Nonetheless, we were leaning toward saying yes. But we wanted to know what the host family's stance was on alcohol. It's not that we don't trust our son--he's extremely trustworthy. We just have strong feelings about parents allowing teenagers--especially teenagers who aren't their own--drink alcohol freely while under their supervision. (In the interest of full disclosure, the legal drinking age in Ontario is 19; but not all of the kids invited on this trip are 19.)

Our son contacted the girl whose parents would be hosting the kids and she told him that her mom was "okay" with them drinking.


When my wife and I got that piece of information, we thought ever so briefly about still letting our son go. But after talking about it, we had to say no. Needless to say, we're not very high on our son's list of favorite people right now. And that's understandable. He was really looking forward to hanging with his friends on this little trip. Now dad and mom are putting the kibosh on it. So he's disappointed, which makes us disappointed.

Shortly after making the decision, I posted a Facebook status update that read:

I think it's a shame when parents of teenagers allow their kids to drink alcohol when they're around them. Just my $0.02, though. 

I think most people agreed with my post, but there was at least one detractor. So be it. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion.

If you're the parent of an older child in long-term recovery from addiction (check), and addiction runs rampant in your family (check; on both sides of my family), I think you tend to be a little more cautious in a situation like this. Those two things definitely weighed heavily in our decision.

Another part of the decision lies in statistical evidence cited in David Sheff's book Clean: Overcoming Addiction and Ending America's Greatest Tragedy:

"Only one in twenty of those who start using after the age of twenty-one become addicted. The goal of prevention strategies should be preventing all use, but it's also valuable to delay use as long as possible. An older person who tries drugs [blogger's note: alcohol is a drug] is less likely to have problems with them, and any problems that do develop are usually less severe. Another compelling reason to postpone use is that drugs can lead to an earlier onset of psychological problems, including psychosis, in teenagers."

That right there seems to be as good a reason as any to try and delay your teenager's use of drugs or alcohol as long as possible.

I know there are some parents who will argue that they'd rather have their teens drinking under their supervision, or at home where it's safe. Sheff addresses this point in his book as well:

"Some parents allow their kids to drink or smoke [pot] as long as they do so 'responsibly.' Some tell their children that it's okay to drink or smoke pot in moderation but that they're not to use hard drugs. Some tell them it's alright to use as long as they don't get in a car with someone who's high. The parents agree to have parties in their houses because, as a mother who hosted a party where her children and their friends were allowed to drink beer and smoke pot said, 'At least I know where the kids are. They're safer at home.' But no matter what conditions they impose or rationalizations they make, these parents are sanctioning drug use and drinking. And there's another factor that parents should consider before they allow teenagers to drink or use drugs in their homes: It's illegal, and in many states parents who allow it can face prison sentences and fines. If a child at their house gets high and later has a car accident, the parents can be held responsible."

The arguments David Sheff makes in the paragraph above are, in my opinion, damn good ones. I honestly can't comprehend how a parent could host a party or gathering and let underage kids who aren't their own drink.

Sheff goes on to say:

"More faulty logic comes from parents who say things along the lines of 'I'd rather have them get used to drinking now, so they learn moderation. Otherwise, when they go off to college they'll go wild.' This ignores the research that has demonstrated that postponing use is safer. In addition, there's no evidence that kids who drink and use as teenagers will drink less when they're older. In fact, the opposite is true: Almost every adult who has a drug problem started using as a teenager....Of course, postponing use doesn't guarantee that teens won't use or won't develop drug problems later, but it greatly improves the odds that they won't."

I'm all for anything that "greatly improves the odds" of a teenager not developing a drug problem later on in life.

Those are the primary reasons for my wife and I saying no to the trip. But there are other reasons, too. We don't think the combination of young people drinking at a place right on the water is a good one. Add to this the fact that it's in a foreign country and there's just no way we were going to approve it.

Our son will be disappointed for a while, I'm sure. But hopefully he'll realize at some point that we made the decision we made because we care. He knows firsthand what our family has been through with his older brother, and he's aware that my wife and I are pretty educated when it comes to the whole drugs/alcohol/addiction thing. (Way more educated than the average parent, I would say.)

A parent's role is to make decisions regarding their child that they believe are in the child's best interest. It's not to be their child's friend and make the decisions they want you to make.

My wife and I believe we made the right decision. But what do you think? Are we being overprotective? Would you have let your 18-year-old go on this trip under the same circumstances? Do you think letting a teenager drink at home is okay? I'd be curious to hear your opinions. In the meantime...


Update (2 hours later): I don't think our son is taking the decision too hard. A few minutes ago he emerged from the bathroom after having taken a shower, came over to me, gave me a hug, and said, "I love you, dad." :)


  1. Wow, that last sentence says it all. He knows your decision was made in LOVE. I fully agree with everything you said. The legal drinking age here is 21 and even though when I was under 21 I thought that was "stupid" to be old enough to vote or go to war but not to I see that its because most kids under 21 are too immature to handle alcohol. Good for you for saying no!

  2. Parents who host drinking parties for under-aged consumers are doing long-run damage while patting themselves on the back.

  3. I have a much different view. Your son is 18. He is an adult. He is able to cross the border unassisted by his parents. It is time for him to begin making his own decisions. You wrote that he makes good choices. You decided he could not go to this weekend trip because essentially you do not trust him, even though he has done nothing to lose your trust. I don't think that is a fair message to send to him. It sounds like he wasn't that upset about missing out on his peer bonding, so you didn't do too much relational damage. That's good. Just understand that he is now an adult. You cannot control what he does or the decisions he makes anymore than you can control your addict. Try not to have a false sense of security thinking you can keep him in a bubble away from all those harsh influences. Is he planning to go away to college? If so, this weekend would have been a terrific test of his character. Either way, it is a big bad world out there, and mommy and daddy can't always just say no and keep him safe. He has to grow up sometime. One last thing, just because your oldest is an addict does not mean your youngest son is, too. He may very well be able to have a beer or two with his buddies (once he is 21) and stop. My second child is 21 and rarely, if ever, has a drink.

  4. Anonymous... My son *is* 18 and *is* an adult. However, he was not able to cross the border "unassisted by his parents" because A.) He doesn't have a car, and B.) He doesn't even have a driver's license. So his method of transportation to the friend's cottage would've been one of his parents driving him there and dropping him off. Also, I never said we didn't trust our son. In fact, we *do* trust our son. We didn't trust the *situation.*

    Contrary to your opinion, my wife and I don't have a "false sense of security" and we know we can't keep our son in a "bubble." But we do think we have some say in what he does as long as he's living under our roof and is still dependent on us. To answer your question, he *is* going away to college. He also spent his junior and senior years of high school at a boarding school for kids with ADHD that is 5-1/2 hours from home. So being away from home is not anything new to him. We believe his character has already been tested on several occasions.

    While you seem to be dead set on turning this into a case of my wife and I not trusting our son--which is incorrect--you didn't say a word about the host parents, who not only allow their own underage kids to drink--which is illegal--but also allow underage kids who are *not* theirs to drink (also illegal and, we believe, immoral). That's the situation we didn't trust. Various underage kids drinking, at a cottage in a foreign country, staying in a separate building from the parents, right on a lake. And our son having no way to leave if he felt uncomfortable or in danger. All of that didn't add up to a safe situation, in our opinion.

    I appreciate your comment and your opinions. But this isn't a case of "mommy and daddy" holding our 18-year-old's hand like he's still a little boy. It's a case of two concerned parents wondering why the host parents didn't seem to want to take any responsibility for what their own kid and her friends would be doing. What if one of their underage guests got drunk and went out on the boat or went swimming and a tragedy happened? We didn't feel comfortable having our son being "supervised" by parents like that.


  5. DDD, easy now, your not being attacked or judged...YOU, asked for opinions, that's all these are !
    I imagine Bar, Ann, and anonymous ( possibly your son) are parents or adults. I am both, as well as a recovering ADDICT of 40+ yrs.
    I also was a teen in the mix, as well as worked as a maintainer in a large school district on Long Island, N.Y. I observed students of ALL ages, and was quite taken by the street smarts of the youngest children, and what goes on way before they're TEENS...remember 12yr. Olds turn into teens ! This is when the fun begins, not at 18, 19 to 21. CHILDREN ,7,8,9 are all ready drinking, smoking and being Monkeys...( Monkey see, Monkey DO !
    Preventative measures begin between ages of 2 and 3, this is when ( as a parent of 4, 16 to 30) a child's tracks are laid, that guide them through life.
    You and your wife have one child that became an addict, and apparently one( this son you refer to) who is not ! Very well, you've done something correct. Something you may not have even known ? You see your older son played a major role in raising the younger sibling ...that's how the cookie crumbles. If young son has not all ready dabbled with older brother ( ? ) it's amazing enough ! He sure as heck was paying close attention. How ever you as parents delt with problem A steered B from that very problem, well done.
    All the above opinions are just that, are in the mix, first hand and have allready raised your sons. Something you can't change NOW. He knows who he is and how to act, at home and away. News flash dad, at this age, he is on his own a long time outside your jurisdiction. You did your part as parents a long time ago, relax, unless you still have pre-teens, there is not much more you haven't all ready done, so your DONE.
    This is when this young man picks up where you guided him. He is already fine. You can't change his peer group now ! And he is apparently missing out on a great trip, with these same peers that he is with all the time anyway. What's different in Canada,then your own back yard ?
    Your only course of positive action here would be to consult with the chaperon parents ( who you should all ready have friended) and make your WISHES clear.
    No offence, that's all these are, wishes...your son is a big boy, and these friends of his will be home soon to pick up were they left off with or without your boy going on this life's journey trip. Make yourself VERY clear to him and the chaperones. He will be fine, in fact it sounds like he all ready is, and he is an adult, let him live, and make you proud...just my opinion !
    Now, as a parent, addict, and grade school worker/observer, drug, alcohol and firearm EDUCATION must begin in KINDERGARDEN , because teens are allready TEENS and as a teen, this education has been learned on the street, way to late to re-educate. Today's children are ten years ahead of our street smarts, no thanks to us, and we were raised in the sixties !
    If America is going to survive addictions and isms destroying the rest of this country, we have to, as responsible adults re- bring this war, to KINDERGARDEN classes across America...only then,in 30 or 40 years may things turn around for Americas FUTURE !
    You have a family, ENJOY them ! Life is too short not to.
    God bless Americas future,
    Craig Dickinson / Dad-2.
    DAAD...Drug addicts against DRUGS

  6. DDD, I completely agree with you, and with your response to Anonymous. I am also a parent of a young adult son in recovery (410 days sober!), with a younger brother about the same age as your younger son. Our older son had a close friend whose mother allowed them to drink and smoke pot at the house, beginning in high school, unbeknownst to us. My son was very close with this family from a very young age, and my husband and I truly believe that this mother's action contributed greatly to our son's addiction problem. This was an adult who he looked up to who sent the message from a young age that it is okay to drink and use drugs as long as you don't drive. This message is so misguided, and parents who do this are making assumptions about other people's children that they have no right to make. Every child is different, and there are biological factors that contribute to how drinking will affect a teenager's tendency toward addiction. For my son, it was a family history of addiction; and impulsive behavior due to ADHD. This has NOTHING to do with trust and with allowing your kids to make their own decisions. My older son completely agrees with our stance on this, and acknowledges that this mother condoning drug and alcohol use to him for several years was a big contributing factor to his addiction. It was hard for him to come to this conclusion because of his feelings for this mother, but, as a person in recovery knows, part of the process is identifying triggers and looking at things with a bright light. Some relationships and situations are not sustainable in long term recovery.