Parents look the other way on underage drinking

Nov. 16, 2004, midnight | By Amanda Lee | 16 years, 2 months ago

Where only first names appear, names have been changed to protect the identities of the sources.

It doesn't take long for James to get drunk at his 16th birthday party one fall night. By early evening, the junior is too intoxicated to hear someone calling out his name. James' mother, looking displeased, is yelling at him from the basement doorway as he staggers across the backyard patio. But she ignores the open cooler sitting just outside the sliding glass doors filled with chilled beer cans and asks instead about a string of prank calls they have gotten that evening. The beer doesn't bother her. After all, she bought it for her son's teenage party guests.

James' mother is not the only parent in the Blair community with a lenient attitude towards alcohol use. According to an informal Silver Chips survey of 100 students taken on Oct. 28, 54 percent of Blazers know someone whose parents let their child and childs' friends drink alcohol underage. According to experts, this decision to condone underage drinking heads down a slippery slope that could be physically and legally hazardous for both parents and children.

According to Maryland law, adults are prohibited both from furnishing alcohol for consumption to persons known to be under 21 years old and from allowing anyone under 21 to possess or consume alcohol. The penalty for both civil offenses is a fine up to $1,000. The only exception to the statute is in cases when a parent provides alcohol exclusively for their child, inside their own home. Some states also enforce social host laws, statutes that hold adults liable when they provide alcohol for minors who then cause death or injury in traffic accidents. According to the Mothers Against Drunk Driving website, Maryland is one of 19 states without a social host law.

Junior Nicholas Billhimer, a self-declared "connoisseur of beer," tasted his first brew at the age of ten and says he was given alcohol "as something to appreciate, not something to get messed up on." He emphasizes that his parents' attitude towards alcohol is conscientious. "They don't approve of me getting ridiculously inebriated, but you know, as long as I'm not slobbering drunk, [they're okay with me drinking]," he says. The Billhimers have given alcohol to their son's friends in the past, but only with permission from the friend's parents.

A primary concern for experts on underage drinking is health risks related to drinking. According to Dorothy Moore, the Substance Abuse Prevention Coordinator at the Department of Health and Human Services in Montgomery County, approximately half of all alcoholics inherit their disease, and serving alcohol to genetically susceptible teenagers may trigger the beginnings of alcoholism. Even for those without a hereditary propensity for alcoholism, the possibility of minor brain damage associated with drinking is especially harmful for teenagers whose brains and bodies are still developing.

Cousins John, Richard and Michael, all seniors, also drink with their parents' knowledge. "They let us drink a bottle or a fifth of Hennessey and maybe a handle [of rum] for our friends," Michael says.

When the three first started drinking, they kept their parents in the dark. But eventually, their parents confronted them after Richard came home too drunk to keep up the charade. They made a deal with the boys.

In exchange for being allowed to drink, the three must adhere to certain guidelines. When they drink at parties, they always have a designated driver, and they are required to come straight home after leaving parties. When they drink at home with friends, their parents take away the boys' and their friends' car keys. "If you're too messed up, then you're going to stay the night at our house," John says. They believe that the situation they have worked out with their parents makes for a more open relationship.

Setting an example

To Moore, such parental concessions are unacceptable. "When you sit down and look at it," she says, "these kids are getting the message that it's okay to break the law."

In the next year, Montgomery County plans to launch an educational campaign based on successful programs in Florida and Ohio called "Parents Who Host Lose the Most." According to Moore, the program focuses on a clear, zero-tolerance policy for would-be adolescent drinkers and the importance of setting a law-abiding example for teenagers. "It's illegal; it's unhealthy; it's unsafe. Why is it so important that the child drink alcohol? It's not a rite of passage in the U.S.; we have laws," she says. "There are so many other things you can be a connoisseur of that are legal."

If underage drinkers are caught by police, they face the same stiff penalties as their parents. According to Meg Baker, the program coordinator of Drawing the Line on Underage Alcohol Use, the police force has pushed for underage drinking citations to be changed from a civil to a criminal offense, creating many more options for punishment beyond fines.

For students like Billhimer, John, Richard and Michael, the consequences of underage drinking are still not threatening enough to cease the practice. When confronted with the legal implications of their parents' actions, Richard nods uncomfortably but repeats his reasoning. "[Our parents] know we're going to do it anyway, so it's better to be honest about it," he says.

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Amanda Lee. Amanda Lee is excited to be a junior staffer and page editor this year! When she's not working on Silver Chips, Amanda LOVES "The West Wing," Chipotle burritos, and her family. She is also interested in improving her guitar skills and loves rowing on the … More »

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