Too much, too soon?

Feb. 7, 2007, midnight | By Marie Mencher | 17 years, 4 months ago

Parents say they're promoting responsible drinking by providing alcohol at home. They're also breaking the law.

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

Looking down at the glass of Irish mead in front of her, Sharon, a senior, figured it couldn't hurt to try some. After all, her mother had given it to her.

Sharon liked the sweet taste so much she drank the whole bottle. When she felt sick afterwards, she climbed into bed. That's the advantage of drinking at home, she says.

By providing her daughter with alcohol at home, Sharon's mother hopes to encourage social and moderate drinking. She says that when parents establish rules about alcohol that are too strict, teens are more inclined to break them. "I know a lot of parents don't let their kids drink or have restrictive rules that don't allow teenagers to find out what life is about as an oncoming adult," Sharon's mom says. "I hope that by giving my kids a foot of rope, they don't go the whole mile."

Sharon is one of the 65 percent of drinkers under 21 who say they get alcohol from family and friends, according to the Century Council, a non-profit organization committed to fighting drunk driving and underage drinking. Underage drinking is currently the leading drug problem in the United States, according to a March 2006 report by the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth. But for parents like Sharon's mom, the decision of whether and how much to drink is up to the teen.

An expensive freedom

When Krista, a sophomore, wants a drink, she can help herself to a beer from the fridge or mix her own alcoholic drink " all while her parents are home. By allowing Krista to drink, her parents hope that alcohol will lose its illicit appeal. "They give me this freedom because if I drink, they don't want me to hide it from them," she says.

Sharon's mother also strives to promote an open dialogue about alcohol with her daughter despite the legal consequences of serving it to minors. An adult who allows a minor to possess or consume alcoholic beverages is subject to fines up to $500 for a first offense and $1,000 for a repeat offense, according to the Maryland Underage Drinking Prevention Coalition.

While her parents encourage her to experiment with new kinds of alcohol, Sharon claims she knows her limits. For her, getting drunk has no illicit thrill, as it might for teens who binge drink at parties despite their parents' rules against drinking.

Like Krista, Sharon is allowed to freely sample from her family's liquor cabinet. Sharon currently has a mixed drink about once a week, so she feels capable of drinking responsibly. "The novelty has never been there for me," she says. She most recently drank a few weeks ago - she'd had a bad day, and so had her mother, so while her younger sister did homework in the adjoining room, Sharon and her mother drank together in the kitchen.

Though Sharon's mother intends to curb the appeal of alcohol by serving it only in small quantities, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that no matter how much they consume, those who start drinking before the age of 15 are four times more likely to become dependent on alcohol later in their lives. The same report says that early drinking can lead to other risky behaviors, including abusing drugs, having sex with multiple partners and earning low grades in school.

Bethesda-area parenting coach Allan Shedlin says that parents who permit alcohol consumption often want to be seen as a friend rather than an authority figure, failing to set clear rules and punishments in exchange for a close relationship with their teen.

Shedlin wrote a book on this topic called "The Freedom of Limits," in which he explains that parents constantly struggle to find the balance between setting limits and granting freedoms. "As parents tend to spend less time with their kids, they want that time to be fun time," he says. "There is some confusion that if you are lenient and don't set limits, that it's likely to be more fun."

Integrating alcohol

Sharon denies using alcohol to improve her relationship with her mother. She claims it is integrated into other aspects of her life, helping to relieve stress, numb sadness and alleviate menstrual pains.

"Alcohol is a depressant. It relaxes you," Sharon's mother says. "It's like popping a bunch of Tylenol, but it tastes better."

Krista drinks regularly and thinks nothing of it, but she quickly learned the consequences of binge drinking when she first tried alcohol about a year ago. With her parents' approval, she consumed enough liquor to induce nausea and a splitting headache. After she recovered, her parents simply advised her to drink less next time. "If I want a beer, they give me a beer," Krista says. After the experience, she felt capable of making rational decisions about drinking.

Because of her parents' permissive attitude toward alcohol, Sharon has also had the opportunity to test her limits. She says she only binge drinks, which she defines as "either knowingly or unknowingly consuming alcohol past your tolerance point into the land of tipsy and drunk," about once every three months.

Enough to go around

Sharon and her family are typically the only ones sharing drinks, but occasionally, Sharon's friends join in. Sharon's mom offers them alcohol only if she has gotten the other parents' permission first, she says.

Over the summer, when Sharon celebrated her 17th birthday, her mother encouraged her to invite friends over to have pizza and ice cream cake, hang out and enjoy parent-approved cosmopolitans and margaritas. Sharon's mother joined in, drinking and socializing with the group as they relaxed on lawn chairs, enjoying the summer evening on the deck.

Although only a small amount of alcohol was served, even a small amount can be dangerous, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. A study conducted by the institute showed that consistent drinking over a long period of time can cause liver damage and stunted growth. As the body undergoes changes during puberty, it produces hormones that are vital for organ development. Drinking alcohol during this period may upset the hormonal balance necessary for normal growth of organs, muscles and bones, the report found.

Despite the risks, Sharon's mom hopes that introducing her children to alcohol early will emphasize the importance of drinking in moderation. The rules she does have are rigid: Drinking and driving is an "absolute no-no," and she only serves drinks to other teens if she has permission from their parents. According to law enforcement officials, though, such arguments probably wouldn't hold up in court.

Sharon's mother wants to instill a sense of responsibility in her children so that they can make rational decisions about drinking. "A pinch of freedom is a pound of responsibility," Sharon says, and her mother agrees.

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Marie Mencher. Marie is anxiously thrilled to be on the Silver Chips staff. She is having a sleeplessly great time covering stories with actual relevance, but nonetheless would like a little more time to do the other things she loves, like being assistant drum major of the … More »

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