Underage binge drinking not a rite

  • May. 20, 2011 2:00 p.m.

I was afraid it would happen again. Last week I had a call from a parent asking my advice on a matter which I find extremely difficult to offer advice for; after all, the stakes are very high.

This is not the first time I’ve been asked. In fact, it happens a lot more often than I would like and while I would like to maintain a calm and rational approach to responding, I must confess sometimes to feeling angry at being put on the spot.

The request was for me to “approve” a grad party where students would go to the home of a family, give up the keys to their vehicles and have to stay all night, then have a party under the supervision of the parents that included alcohol.

I told the father that serving alcohol to minors was illegal and that there was no way I could condone or support the party as it could put me, and the school, in a compromising legal tangle should any problems arise.

(To cover my butt, I made sure to write him a formal letter on school letterhead expressing that sentiment. I have had the experience of students and parents intimating they had my support when others have questioned such parties.)

Naturally, I then had to listen to the argument I’ve heard many times before, that teens are going to drink anyway and thus it’s better that they do so in a supervised and controlled setting. I am not going to deny that for some students that is a legitimate argument and I am sympathetic to the well-intentioned parent who feels this is the best alternative to ensure safety.

But there is a fundamental principle that makes it impossible to show any support; it is illegal to serve, or knowingly allow minors to drink alcohol in your home.

We all know that many young people see the graduation or prom event as a rite of passage which includes embellished stories around binge drinking. The entire purpose of including alcohol is to encourage getting drunk.

For many parents, it is an experience they have had themselves or it’s one of those experiences they see as inevitable and for which they have little power or leverage to influence. For them, managing this rite of passage, despite the legal risk entailed, is better than sticking their head in the sand and hoping their child comes home from some unknown location safely.

As an educational administrator and health teacher, I have never accepted the inevitability of binge drinking as a rite of passage. It’s a choice that students make, and sometimes a dangerous choice when driving is involved, drugs are mixed in, or there is no one to bring some common sense to the evolution of activities that often occur once the party begins.  No student ever plans to have a disaster occur, but sometimes that’s exactly what happens, and when it does, there will be a lot of regrets, pointing fingers and legal actions.

My goal is always to educate, both students and parents, in an attempt to reduce the perceived necessity of involving excessive alcohol in any celebrations.  Ideally, I’d love to see the rites of passage change.

Let me start with a simple principle. Not every student needs to or wants to binge drink. In fact, my experience is that most do not.

However, caught in a social situation that reinforces such behaviour, many will follow, reluctantly, naively, but still they will follow.

Their inexperience often puts them the most at risk and leaves them vulnerable to excessive encouragement from others that can create a whole host of potential problems, from sexual abuse to alcohol poisoning.

The first part of deciding how to handle this impending challenge as a parent is to have a very frank discussion with your child about your concerns, fears and expectations. If your child has similar concerns about potential problems, then it is easy to strategize about alternative plans that can take away the social stigma of compulsory attendance or participation at illegal activities. Personally, I never had any difficulty being the ‘bad guy’ that my kids could use as an excuse to avoid peer pressure – never.

I also never had any fear of hosting parties where it was clear from the beginning that no alcohol, no drugs and plenty of adult supervision would take place. Many kids preferred that kind of party because it was safe and controlled. There wasn’t a drop of alcohol in my house at those times and I never went to bed until the last student was home safely or tucked in if they were staying the night.

Every parent must understand that if your child is a minor, and his or her friends are minors, the responsibility for anything that happens either to them, or as a result of their actions, falls on your shoulders if any substances that affect their ability to make reasonable decisions are offered or even snuck in to a poorly supervised gathering.

I could go on, quite a bit, but for now, I’ll simply suggest that next week I will address the issues of education needed for students who might find themselves in, or choose to be in, a situation where binge drinking is the order of the day.


Graham Hookey is an educator and writer. Email him at ghookey@yahoo.com.