Permitting underage children to drink at home is a question of parenting, not the law

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Thursday, July 3, 2008

A warm summer evening … sizzle on the grill ... a cold beer.

And your son or daughter is home from college.

"Can I have a beer, Daddy?" she asks.

What do you say?

If you want to stall, you can correct her usage: "It's may I have a beer."

"OK, may I have a beer, Father?"

She's 19, or he's 20. You know she drinks at college, or you know he drinks in the Army.

And after all, they're adults, even though they're not allowed to buy themselves a drink in Wisconsin until they're 21.

Still, Wisconsin law allows parents to supply alcohol to their underage children, no matter how old they are.

"Wisconsin's a pretty allowing state when it comes to kids and booze," said Janesville police Deputy Chief Dave Moore.

Parents even can buy their kids drinks in a bar, if the bar allows it. However, parents who go too far could be cited for child neglect, Moore added.

So this is not a legal question, but it is a question of good parenting: What's best?

An unscientific poll of Janesville Gazette readers found a mix of opinion, from people who would say, "No," to some such as this:

"Most kids will want to try alcohol at some time, anyway. You may as well teach your kids about alcohol at home. This does not mean that I support all underage drinking activities."

Professionals whose job it is to reduce underage drinking aren't so sure.

"Not in my house, if they weren't 21," said Carrie Kulinski, who coordinates anti-alcohol and drug programs for the Janesville School District.

"I guess it's up to the family, but it's also sending them a message that it's OK," and research suggests that when parents send that message, the children tend to drink more, Kulinski said.

So is it possible to teach responsible drinking by letting that 19- or 20-year-old have that drink?

"I wouldn't even want to get into that," Kulinski said.

Mark Flottum, who has a job similar to Kulinski's for the CESA 2 education agency, believes responsible drinking can be taught in the home, with a parent allowing a 19- or 20-year-old to drink a glass or two.

Flottum said he allowed his children, now all older than 21, to make their own decisions about drinking after they graduated from high school. He knows his children weren't perfect angels in high school, he said, but he's satisfied that now that they're older, they know the dangers and won't drive home if they find themselves inebriated.

But Flottum said that kind of thinking can be twisted by parents who let the drinking get out of control: "Unfortunately, they teach that all alcohol use—and larger quantities of alcohol use—are appropriate, as opposed to a glass of wine or use that falls under the safe-drinking guidelines."

Safe drinking is one or two drinks a day, Flottum said, but if there's alcoholism in the family, even that might not be safe.

Another red flag is how much a person can drink. Those who can "hold their liquor" are at a higher risk for becoming alcoholics, Kulinski said.

And, if your child started drinking before age 15, chances of developing a dependency go way up.

And really, it's better for young people not to drink, Flottum added.

Flottum said recent research shows the brain is not fully developed till age 25, and brain scans suggest that alcohol will damage the developing brain.

"The longer you can wait to provide or condone use of alcohol by your adult child, the better off they will be," Flottum said.

Here's something else to consider as you gamble that your child will be able to drink and stay healthy: Underage drinking figures in 5,000 deaths a year in the United States. And numerous studies have found that when drinking ages were lowered, the numbers of deaths and injuries increased, Kulinski said.

In the end, it might come down to what kind of an example a parent wants to set.

A recently released national study reinforced the idea that parental drinking makes a mark on the children.

For parents who had consumed alcohol in the past year, the survey showed, 16 percent to 17 percent of the kids age 12 to 20 engaged in the dangerous practice of binge drinking.

If the parents didn't drink, the binge-drinking rate for their kids dropped to around 10 percent.

But if the parents were binge drinkers themselves, their kids' binge-drinking rate shot up to the 20 percent range.

And Wisconsin leads the nation in binge drinking, Flottum said.

Last updated: 9:52 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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