Several years ago while on a Baltic cruise, my family and I enjoyed a two-day stop in beautiful St. Petersburg. Since it was Russia, I naturally expected to see some vodka.
Here's what I didn't expect: My sons, then 17 and 13, were continually offered shots of vodka, as well as beer, wine, champagne and various flavored liqueurs. In my estimation it was about enough alcohol to knock out a horse. I recall giving my younger son several "don't even think about it" looks. I did, however, at one point allow him to take a tiny taste of one beverage to satisfy his curiosity.
That son is now home for the summer after his first year of college. Like most parents, I worry about whether he's behaving in a reasonably responsible manner when it comes to drinking. Did I prepare him adequately for his more independent life, and have the lessons I tried to impart when he was younger sunk in? Were the lessons the right ones in the first place?
Among the issues that parents face in raising children, alcohol is a particularly tricky one. Certainly we're all concerned about the effects of underage drinking, but knowing the right steps to take to lessen the likelihood that our kids will develop problems with alcohol use is not as straightforward as we would like.
Now, against the backdrop of a nation grappling with continual news illustrating the dangers of teen drinking, there's a growing backlash against the strict legal and social prohibition of underage alcohol use in the United States. These arguments have routinely surfaced in the 30 years since Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, and now we're hearing them again, very vociferously, from those who believe that letting teenagers drink is actually better in the long run.
Their justifications generally run like this: Teaching kids to drink "responsibly" at home will lessen the risk that they'll turn to binge drinking later since they'll be less likely to consider alcohol a kind of "forbidden fruit." It's also argued, based more on perception than demonstrable data, that countries such as France and Italy that have no age restrictions on alcohol consumption have fewer problems with alcoholism among youths.
These views do have a certain appeal. Proponents of softening underage drinking restrictions often paint glowing pictures of families three generations deep gathered around the dining table with lovingly prepared food and bottles of wine from the old country to pass around. Kids get small portions of the beverage to sip slowly and appreciatively as grandpa regales them with stories. It's like Norman Rockwell with booze.
Some also present it as a civil liberty issue, and accuse the federal government of dictating to parents how to raise their children. (To be clear, while federal law restricts alcohol purchases to those 21 and older, most states allow parents to provide alcohol to their children in certain settings and circumstances.)
There's evidence that many parents buy into the theory of more tolerant drinking rules for kids. In a 2012 survey of mothers and their third-grade children published in the journal Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, one-third of the kids reported sipping alcohol at home and 22% of moms thought that letting kids drink small portions would better enable them to resist peer pressure to drink outside the home.
But many organizations that study teen drinking contend that such views are unsubstantiated, and that probably the opposite is true. Research by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, for instance, indicates that kids who start drinking by age 15 are more likely to develop problems with alcohol later on.
That teens drink isn't in question. The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that by age 18, more than 70% of teens have tried alcohol.
But it's the way some kids drink that raises particular concern.
According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, about 40% of 18- to 25-year-olds reported having engaged in binge alcohol use, defined as five or more drinks within a couple of hours. The NIAAA reports that 5,000 people younger than 21 die each year and another 190,000 visit emergency rooms due to alcohol-related causes. Increased risk of sexual or physical assault and long-term damage to developing brains have also been linked to youth alcohol use.
So we continue to look for answers. While some studies show that programs promoting alcohol abstinence are largely failures, it's also highly unlikely that the "let-them-drink" crowd will have its way, at least from a legal standpoint. And while some parents might let their kids indulge in an occasional taste, the way I did in Russia, I don't see a massive movement to view teenage drinking more permissibly.
Parents will always struggle to find the most effective and appropriate ways to teach their kids about alcohol, and many will encounter problems with their teen drinking despite these efforts.
But if we're looking for examples of better ways to handle the issue, we'd best proceed cautiously. Some countries held up as models of healthy tolerance actually have higher rates of alcoholism than the U.S. And a few years ago, a story by National Public Radio pointed to growing incidents of binge drinking among youths — in France.
PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.