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Why Adults Ignore Underage Drinking and Other Stories

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It's Monday morning, and tales about the weekend start trickling in. Did you hear about the sweet 16? Three kids passed out, one girl turned up naked and unconscious, and the police came and hauled everyone in. Tut-tut, isn't it awful. Next Monday: different characters, same outcome.

Ho-hum. Underage drinking is routine in a lot of American cities and towns, including mine. Indeed, according to demographic data from the 2007 National Survey on Drug Use and Health released by the Department of Health and Human Services, as well as a 2010 longitudinal study of 20,000 students, predominantly white, well-educated, and affluent Northeastern communities turn out the highest rates of underage drinkers. Summit N.J., where I live, fits right in the sweet spot of that demographic zone.

This comes as no surprise. Kids here drink, and everybody knows it. They hide Absolut vodka in their Nalgene bottles, run off with a six-pack of Heineken from the family refrigerator, slip a cabernet from Dad's wine cellar into their backpacks, and have at it in someone's basement, backyard, or -- miracle of miracles! -- a friend's vacant house. The empties turn up in the woods behind an elementary school, along the side of the road that goes out of town, and in the rhododendron bushes in my frontyard. Most of us grudgingly toss the bottles and cans in our own recycling bins.

Rather than fight it, many parents have raised the white flag and allowed their underage children to drink at home. What's more, some parents, advertently or not, supply their kids with booze: the American Medical Association reports that 25 percent of all teenagers, and 33 percent of teenage girls get alcohol from their parents, while 40 percent of teens say they get their booze from friends' parents. The numbers bear this out: according to the AMA, about one-fifth of 12- to 20-year-olds are binge drinkers and most kids take their first drink at age 12.

Parents who permit or ignore underage drinking are reluctant to talk about it openly, for obvious reasons (i.e., it's illegal.) But off the record, some common explanations emerge. Most important, parents believe that kids will drink regardless of the rules, and that allowing it to happen at home is safer than sending them out to drink elsewhere. If drunk driving can be prevented, they reason, the big risk is gone. As well, parents understand that demanding abstinence from a son or daughter will condemn that child to social exile. And anyway, underage drinking is not that big a deal, they believe, as long as it doesn't get out of hand or lead to drugs. Look, we did it, and we're OK. Finally, being the bad guy all the time --the one saying "no" again, the one having to feign indifference when your son screams "I hate you!", the one who is immediately told "No, Mom, we're not drinking" -- gets old. And we're all so tired, fantasizing already about that chilled bottle of sauvignon blanc waiting for us in the refrigerator.

"Parents think it's the lesser of all evils," John Moriarty, the marketing director of Sunrise Detox in Stirling, N.J., told me in early April. "But nothing could be further from the truth," he said. A boatload of studies and articles spell out the dangers of even moderate drinking among teenagers. Alcohol damages young brains. The AMA study discovered that 14- to 21-year-olds who abused alcohol had "about 10 percent smaller hippocampi" -- where the brain learns and remembers -- and that the harm might be irreversible. Alcohol use is inseparable from the leading causes of teenage death, starting with car accidents and moving right on down to suicides, homicides and overdoses, with or without additional substances. Of those kids who start drinking before they're 15, 40 percent show some signs of alcoholism as adults. Alcohol use goes hand-in-hand with other nightmarish behaviors: rape, delinquency and the use of "real" drugs, including a new favorite in New Jersey -- synthetic pot known as K2, which is associated with seizures, blackouts, cardiac infarction and psychosis. "Most parents aren't aware of the long-term brain damage, stunted brain development and the susceptibility to other addictive drugs," Moriarty told me.

Given the science about underage drinking, and the terrifying inevitability of prom and graduation-related drunken deaths, the laissez faire approach that many adults take when it comes to teenage drinking makes less and less sense. Of course, understanding risk has never been a strong suit of the human race; witness all the kids driven hither and yon, safe from potential kidnappers and growing obese from inactivity. But in communities that pay lip service to children's well-being -- where riots erupt over the lack of field space, where Board of Ed meetings go bad when school districts can no longer fund Latin and parents demand that vending machines spitting out Coke and cheese doodles be removed immediately -- looking the other way when kids are actively harming themselves in our basements and in the basements of our friends is... bizarre. "You have to look at what's going on," John Moriarty said. "No one wants to look at it."

Most chilling of all is the realization that even if you do behave like a grown-up -- set limits, demand abstinence, call other parents when you've heard rumors about binges, lay down the law about the consequences, all while keeping the lines of communication open -- your children and their friends will probably find ways around the rules, will likely sneak booze and lie about it, and will try to host parties in your house when you're thinking you've got it all covered. Drunken kids will end up in your basement and mine. Without a clear-eyed examination of the problem along with some kind of collective determination to take it on, there's nothing any of us can do about it alone.

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