By Stanton Peele, Ph.D.
Florida, Michigan and New Hampshire are some of a growing number of states to enact laws holding parents accountable for underage drinking at their homes. These laws typically involve hosting parties where alcohol is served to minors.
The target is parents who blithely allow keg parties in their basements and then let the teenagers who attend them drive home drunk. One such couple in Deerfield, Ill., was recently convicted when two 18-year-olds died in a car accident after such a party. Earlier this month, Karen Dittmer was arrested for allowing her 18-year-old son and his friends to drink beer at her birthday barbecue in New York's Suffolk County.
What kind of parents would ever allow their children to drink at home? Doesn't this put youngsters at risk?
The answer to the first question is simple. Most of the state laws include a specific exemption for children drinking at home during family and religious ceremonies. Observant Jews, for example, traditionally serve children small glasses of wine during Friday night Sabbath ceremonies. Other cultures also begin socializing children into drinking at an early age -- including Mediterranean societies such as Italy, Greece and Turkey (and non-Mediterranean societies such as China).
As for the second, two international surveys -- one conducted by the World Health Organization -- revealed that these Mediterranean countries and Israel had the lowest binge drinking rates among European adolescents.
In societies where children drink with their parents, this typically means giving a kid a small amount of wine or other alcohol, often watered down on special occasions or a family dinner. Many European countries also lower the drinking age for children when they are accompanied by parents. In the United Kingdom, for example, the legal age is 18, but for a family at a restaurant it is 16. In France and Italy, where the legal age is 16, there is no age limit for children drinking with parents.
But what might all of this mean for teen drinking problems in America?
Several studies have shown that the younger kids are when they start to drink, the more likely they are to develop severe drinking problems. But the kind of drinking these studies mean -- drinking in the woods to get bombed or at unattended homes -- is particularly high risk.
Research published in the Journal of Adolescent Health in 2004 found that adolescents whose parents permitted them to attend unchaperoned parties where drinking occurred had twice the average binge-drinking rate. But the study also had another, more arresting conclusion: Children whose parents introduced drinking to the children at home were one-third as likely to binge.
"It appears that parents who model responsible drinking behaviors have the potential to teach their children the same," noted Kristie Foley, the principal author of the study. While the phrasing was cautious, the implication of the study's finding needs to be highlighted: Parents who do not introduce children to alcohol in a home setting might be setting them up to become binge drinkers later on. You will not likely hear this at your school's parent drug- and alcohol-awareness nights.
Obviously, if a parent isn't comfortable consuming alcohol -- for whatever reason -- he or she is going to find it difficult to teach a child moderate social drinking. Fair enough. But neither should parents feel guilty or intimidated about responsibly introducing their children to alcohol in a home setting. The research suggests that this is more likely, not less, to protect the kids against the excessive drinking that permeates American high schools and colleges.
The youngest of my three children attends New York University, in a metropolis that is no stranger to alcohol. But alcohol is not forbidden fruit, since Anna drank wine at home. She says binge drinking holds no allure. I believe her.
Posted by permission of the author, Stanton Peele, from the Wall Street Journal where it was published. Dr. Peele is an award-winning psychologist and therapist who has written pioneering works on addition. He is the author of Addiction-Proof Your Child, published by Three Rivers Press, 2007.