What’s The Best Way For Parents To Deal With Underage Drinking?

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Maryland’s attorney general is currently embroiled in a controversy over underage drinking, after a photograph of him at a large house party full of teenagers was published in the media. Attorney General Douglas Gansler (D), who’s running for governor in the state, appears in the background of a photo that was posted to Instagram — a photo that also a crowd of shirtless teenagers with Solo cups. He’s under fire for being at the party without making more an effort to prevent underage drinking from occurring there.

After the photo was unearthed, Gansler attempted to brush aside the criticism. He said it wasn’t his responsibility to intervene at the party, which occurred at a Delaware beach house that several parents — including Gansler — rented out to allow their teens to celebrate “Senior Week.” The group of parents devised a set of rules for their children while they were staying at the rental property, including bans on driving and hard alcohol. The agreement didn’t mention any prohibition on beer or wine.

Gansler hasn’t denied the authenticity of the photos. He says he stopped by the party for just a few minutes to to talk to his teenage son about their plans to leave Delaware the next morning.

“The question is, do I have any moral authority over other people’s children at beach week in another state? I say no,” Gansler told the Baltimore Sun in an interview that was published on Wednesday. He also noted that “for better or worse, the reality is some kids drink alcohol” while they’re celebrating Senior Week.

By Thursday, Gansler had changed his tune a little bit. He said that failing to investigate whether there was underage drinking at the party was a “mistake.” In contrast to his earlier statements, he told reporters, “There’s no question I have a moral responsibility over other people’s children.”

The gubernatorial candidate has sparked somewhat of a larger conversation about parents’ role in preventing teens from consuming alcohol — particularly since he has worked with the Century Council, a nonprofit organization that works to combat alcohol use among teens, to publicly advocate against underage drinking. Gansler’s Republican opponent has commented that he personally takes a “hard line” on drinking with his own kids.

And Gansler’s decisions ultimately speak to an issue in U.S. society that’s largely unresolved: Do parents have a role in teaching their kids to use alcohol responsibly? Should they allow underage drinking under their own roof if they can ensure it’s done safely, particularly if that can help mitigate the risk of drunk driving? Should more of them draw up contracts for Senior Week that acknowledge their kids will be drinking, but attempt to limit their risky behaviors while doing so?

It’s certainly clear that excessive alcohol consumption is a big public health issue in the country. Americans are prone to binge drinking, a behavior that costs the U.S. government an estimated $171 billion each year in health costs. Even when Americans attempt to use alcohol responsibly, they often fall short — according to one recent study, 40 percent of people who agree to be the “designated driver” for an evening of drinking end up having at least one drink anyway.

And alcohol abuse starts young. The Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) most recent survey of high school students found that, over the previous 30 days, 22 percent of respondents binge drank and 24 percent rode with a driver who had been drinking some alcohol. Some high schoolers report having consumed 15 or more drinks in one sitting.

Obviously, parents are invested in keeping their kids safe, and preventing them from breaking the law. But research has consistently found that many of them are also worried about the “forbidden fruit” nature of alcohol — that is, since it’s so highly restricted, kids become more attracted to trying it. Considering the fact that alcohol is glamorized throughout U.S. society, those parents point out that it’s naive to expect teens to buck social pressure and avoid it entirely. Indeed, by the they turn 21, 86 percent of American youths have had alcohol at least once.

“Making hard-and-fast rules creates the sense that alcohol is some magical potion,” addiction expert Stanton Peele told Time for a story on the subject published back in 2008. Peele believes that kids need to be desensitized from alcohol’s mystique and taboo.

The United State’s history does seem to provide some clues about the nation’s troubled relationship with alcohol. If the Prohibition Era is any indication, banning alcohol outright could encourage increased consumption rates. Prohibition also gave rise to the more widespread use of hard liquor and binge drinking, since it was harder to come by alcohol and more important to finish a drink quickly. There’s an argument to made that the same dynamic holds true for teens who are forced to sneak around, and that loosening the ban on underage drinking could encourage healthier relationships with alcohol.

One World Health Organization (WHO) study found that U.S. teens drink less frequently than their European counterparts, but tend to consume more alcohol when they do. But the research is mixed. Other studies have found that European youth are actually more likely to binge drink, and that exposing kids to alcohol from an early age could increase their chances of drinking more later in life.

U.S. government agencies and alcohol abuse prevention organizations take a decidedly hard line stance on this issue, pointing out that drinking isn’t healthy for teens while their brains are still developing and should never be considered to be an option, even in moderation. They do not condone parental involvement in underage drinking. And when any type of new studies in this area do come out, media outlets are typically quick to declare that the matter is closed. Overall, though, scientific research on parents’ role in teaching their kids how to drink responsibly is still pretty limited. Experts disagree about exactly how parents should deal with the issue.

Many states do have laws on the books that allow parents to provide their children with alcohol in private residences. In Attorney General Gansler’s home state of Maryland, that is the case — so it wouldn’t be against the law if Gansler let his son have a beer in their home. But parents aren’t necessarily permitted from making that decision for kids other than their own.