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Underage drinking: Parents, the conversations can't wait

One week after Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler ignited a national conversation on what parents should do about teen drinking, America is still talking. Locally in the school drop-off lines or via text with trusted friends, parents are wondering if they’ll know what to do if faced with underage drinking. And if they are, parents wonder whether they’ll have the nerve to do the right thing.

Some adults are adamant that their children will develop healthy habits and a respect for alcohol if they introduce it at a younger age in the privacy of their own home. And the truth is that’s legal in most states. Parents feel that it is their responsibility to raise their own kids. When they’re asked if it’s ok for another adult to serve their kids alcohol, the response is almost always, “No way.”

Yet each day that passes without a conversation about the issue, a parent is essentially passing that responsibility to other adults: an older fraternity brother or the "cool" parents down the block.

With more than 20 years of research, program development and public awareness campaigns to fight underage drinking under our belt here at The Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility, we’ve learned a thing or two about this issue.

First, parents are the leading influence in their kids’ decisions to drink or not drink alcohol. Your kids will listen – even if they have a scowl on their face. And they’re watching, too. Be a good role model. If you choose to drink, do so responsibly and in moderation.

Second, talk with your kids early and often. In the middle school years focus on healthy lifestyles, making good decisions and resisting peer pressure. These conversations will hit home not just on alcohol but on a wide range of issues.

In high school, too often parents turn their focus toward reminding their teens not to drink and drive — an important discussion that must undoubtedly be had — rather than talking with them about not drinking underage in the first place. For parents, it may feel like they’re choosing to fight the greater of two evils, but don’t choose one battle over the other because one may seem more dangerous. The truth is, both battles are worth fighting because both battles can carry life-altering — and sometimes life-ending — consequences.

And parents, your job is not done yet when your kids go off to college. New friends, new freedoms and new challenges require regular and open communications. They’re still listening. They still desperately need your support.

So, here we are. A week later.

A week later, millions of Americans have wondered what they might have done differently if they found themselves and their teen at an underage drinking party. A week later, the answer to “what would I have done?” is hopefully a little clearer. We’re better off having given the issue some reflection. A week later, parents hopefully realize the conversation can’t wait until “beach week” or graduation night or prom night. 

A week later, we know that the conversation must start early and must happen often. 

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