Our current approach to teaching young people the truths about alcohol and our efforts to instill in young people responsible attitudes toward drinking simply do not work. The body of evidence that reveals our failures is huge.
Binge drinking by college students, fraternity hazings that involve poisonous quantities of alcohol, deaths from massive alcohol consumption from Delaware to Oregon, and the more common tragedy of drunken young people wrapping cars around trees offer conclusive evidence that the “Just say no” approach to teaching adolescents about alcohol is a fatally failed policy.Many families ban the consumption of alcohol by high school students and require curfews for high school seniors, even though as soon as these students become college freshmen, they’ll be free to do as they please, whenever they please, and without adult supervision.
They’ll have their freedom, but they’ll have absolutely no knowledge of how to behave responsibly toward the beer, wine, and whiskey that will suddenly be everywhere they turn on a college campus.
Pretending that alcoholic beverages will not be around and hoping that young people will not consume them are completely unrealistic approaches that benefit no one. Dealing with the realities of alcohol is an approach that will benefit everyone.
No one would ever teach swimming by throwing novices into the deep end of the pool. No one would ever hand a teenager the keys to the car without first providing training on how to drive.
But that is exactly what we do when we send teenagers off to college without teaching them about alcohol. We expect college freshman to handle the massive social and academic adjustment of living away from home for the first time. Then, we also expect them to deal responsibly with the role of alcohol as a sign of coming of age in our society, even though we’ve taught them nothing about alcohol. It can be a mighty tough transition for an 18-year old.
Parents need to teach responsible living skills long before college liberation occurs. Training in alcohol use should take place beginning in high school, and by the senior year a teenager should have the same freedom he or she will have as college freshman.
ll teenagers make mistakes, but the point is to have those mistakes occur while the teenagers are living at home so that parents can help them learn from their mistakes and so parents can prepare their children to make intelligent choices when they leave home and are living independently.
Flight instructors use a training protocol that provides useful comparisons. Flying without training is ultimately dangerous. A student pilot must fly with an instructor, and over more than 40 hours of training the student is taught how to take off and land, and how to fly slowly without falling out of the sky.
Early in training the instructor exits the aircraft for the student’s first solo flight. That brings the instant realization that there is only one way to get down, and that is to fly according to the rules, to maintain a safe speed, and to control the plane for a smooth landing.
After that first solo flight, training begins in earnest. The next step is a solo flight to a distant location and a return, followed by a triangular flight to two other destinations before returning home.
But there are still many hours with an instructor to learn about flying with instruments, dealing with different conditions, honing aircraft handling skills, and practicing emergency procedures.
Eventually, an F.A.A. flight inspector evaluates flying skills and common sense. The instructor looks for someone who follows the rules, who says “no” when the inspector requests a procedure that would violate a regulation, and who won’t kill himself or herself…or others. Only then does the student become a licensed pilot with the freedom to fly off into the skies as he or she chooses.
Parents should follow a similar protocol in teaching alcohol safety. By the senior year in high school a student should be able to drink at home and should have the freedom to demonstrate that he or she understands the potency of alcohol.Yes, it is illegal to serve your son or daughter alcohol in your own home.That law needs to be changed because huge numbers of teenagers drink clandestinely (just as their parents did).
Our laws should give parents the right to decide who can drink alcohol within the family home so that responsible parents can train their children to handle alcohol. We should bring common sense to our laws in order to destroy the social myths about alcohol that lead to date rape, binge drinking, and alcohol-induced deaths.
It is far more intelligent and humane to have a policy of open alcohol use at home and to teach students to make responsible decisions before they live on their own than to do what we’re doing, and what we’re not doing, now.
Understanding the risks of excessive alcohol consumption is a learning process that needs to start at home, well before a child leaves for college. We need to stop turning a blind eye to avoidable deaths and injuries by empowering parents to teach teenagers responsible alcohol use in the home before they leave the family nest.
Swimmers should be taught in the shallow end of the pool, and student pilots need careful coaching before they are free to fly the skies on their own.
The belief that parents can do nothing more than to tell children to “Just say no” is a failed policy, as far too many families have learned to their anguish after they have sent a child off to college.
Nullifying the cultural role of alcohol with early training in its use, and demystifying drinking as a hallmark of freedom needs to start in the early teenage years. Our laws need to recognize this reality.
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