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Tough Topics Local parents weigh in on underage drinking

Last month, we talked to local teens about underage drinking. Now, we’ve turned to local parents to get their points of view. In collaboration with Washington Family, we also conducted a short online survey and some respondents agreed to be interviewed. Here’s what they had to say.

Ninety-three percent of surveyed parents said they do not let their children drink, and 97 percent of parents said they frequently talk to their kids about drugs and alcohol. But after talking with some of these local parents, we learned that their stance on underage drinking is not as black and white as these percentages suggest. In fact, there’s a lot of gray area when it comes to what parents allow and what they do not.

Fifty percent of surveyed parents said they allow their kids to have supervised parties, for example, and of the 7 percent of parents who let their teens drink, all said they also supply the alcohol.
Beth from D.C., who has two middle schoolers, believes her teens shouldn’t drink — but only up to a point. “Our rule in our house for any alcohol consumption is 18 and up,” she says. Her reasoning? “If you can fight for our country at 18, then you should be able to drink a beer.” She also adds that she lets her teens drink wine during communion at church.

A., from Arlington, Va., first allowed her kids to drink around 15 and 16 while vacationing abroad as a family. “We traveled a lot to foreign countries, where we did allow them to drink when they were with us,” she says. “So, because that happened, it was pretty hard to not let anything happen back here.”

For S., a mom from Westminster, her own attitudes about drinking affect the rules that she and her husband have for their two teens, ages 13 and 15. “My husband and I actually don’t drink much, just socially every couple of months,” she says. “So, it’s not something we allow, but we are also not big drinkers or keep [alcohol] in the house.”

G., a mom from Towson, says she keeps it “straightforward” with her 14- and 17-year-olds. “Underage drinking is not allowed, period,” she says. However, she notes that while she hopes her children wait until they’re 21, she’s also “not naïve to think they won’t start early.”

While these parents were eager to talk about this topic, they also recognized the sensitivity of the issue. And they were concerned about how they might be judged for what they have to say.

“I never said to my kids, ‘Hey, how about you throw a party?’” says A. But she did come home to at least a “handful of parties,” which she or another adult in the household then monitored for safety. “I just got looser by their senior year because by that point, you pretty much know they’re already drinking.”

Many of these parents were also less worried about the laws and more about the social and health effects of underage drinking.

“Teenagers are not ready for the responsibility that comes with drinking,” says Gigi. “They may not have the self-control to avoid addiction, and underage drinking is not safe.”

S. agrees with this concern. “Alcohol really worries me because it lowers inhibitions so much. People get sick, they aspirate on their own vomit and die, or they go get in a car,” she says. She even adds that if she ever had to choose between her child drinking or vaping, she’d choose vaping — the “lesser of two evils.”

“Teenagers are going to try stuff. So is it less dangerous to vape than drink? I don’t know,” she says. “But it’s definitely something I’ve thought about.”

The parents we talked to also knew of instances where other parents had been penalized for underage drinking in their homes and other related problems with parties. A. recalls once dropping her son off at house party and then soon after getting a call from him to come back and pick him up. “He told me that someone had invaded the parents’ liquor cabinet and some girl had passed out, so the police were on their way,” she says. “I was really proud that he called me.”

While parents said they want to be clear with their kids, many were unclear on the laws around underage drinking. In fact, 22 percent said they were unaware of their state’s laws on providing alcohol to minors in their home — and perhaps for good reason as the laws vary from state to state in our region.

Paul D’Amore, an Annapolis-based personal injury lawyer says that in Maryland, there are two laws on this subject, one that addresses alcohol possession by a minor, and one that addresses providing alcohol to a minor. “The former makes it a crime for a minor to possess alcohol; the latter makes it a crime for an adult to provide alcohol to a minor. Both of these laws make exceptions for instances where the alcohol has been provided to the minors by a member of their immediate family for consumption in a private home or during a religious ceremony,” he says. “So, you can give alcohol to your own children but not someone else’s child.”

Yet, that is just the criminal side of the issue, D’Amore cautions. “Two recent Maryland Appeals Court decisions have made it clear that providing alcohol to minors creates civil liability for the adult if the minor is harmed or harms a third party. So, if parents serve alcohol to minors at a house party, or turn a ‘blind eye’ to obvious alcohol consumption, they risk financial responsibility for any harm caused to the children or that the children cause others, say by injuring someone on their way home.”

For those in Virginia, the laws are pretty similar, with the added exception that they also allow those under 21 to drink as a guest in the house if their parent, guardian or spouse who is age 21 or older is present. But for the District? The laws are tight. There are no family or location exceptions for underage drinking.

In the end, when it comes to teenage drinking, the general consensus among parents is that talking to your kids is key.

“We started talking about alcohol and drugs at age 10,” says Gigi. “We talked about the lasting effects of drug and alcohol use. We talked about actions and consequences, and how drugs and alcohol impact individuals, families and futures. We had an open and honest conversation, an ongoing conversation to ensure our teens know where we stand and our expectations.”

Beth agrees. “Our kids are being exposed to a lot of stuff that maybe we weren’t. Whether you can identify if your kids are drinking or using drugs or not is less the point than if your kid feels like you’re going to be there if they have an issue and they need to talk to you.”

About Britni Petersen

When Adranisha Stephens isn’t chasing down a story, she is traveling, blogging, photographing or spending time with family and friends. She has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Frostburg State University and a master’s degree in journalism/digital storytelling from American University.

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