October 17, 2021

Alcohol 101

Guest Opinion
By Mary Keyes Rogers | Sept. 18, 2021

Sometimes, in the interest of good parenting, I have broken the law.

Ask any drivers ed instructor how many times they're accompanying a kid who's getting behind the wheel of a car for the first time ever. Next to none would be the answer. 

Moms and dads find a quiet parking lot or backroad and give the kid their first lurching attempt at driving the family car before starting formal lessons on the road. Of course, it is against the law, and, of course, it is going to be a huge insurance problem if something goes awry, but we all do it. We are good parents.

The system then kicks in with a driver’s permit so we can coach our kids as they learn to drive, with us nervously riding along in the passenger seat searching for the brake.

Now, let’s talk about teaching our kids to drink alcohol.

Sometimes, in the interest of being a good parent, I have broken the law.

Realistically, no kid — make that no adult — is going to wait until their 21st birthday to have their first drink. Yet there is no system in place to accommodate parental coaching of drinking alcohol. That is, if you live in Michigan. 

The 1984 National Minimum Drinking Age Act allowed each state to set exceptions. Forty-five states (including Michigan) allow lawful underage drinking under limited circumstances that include religious purposes, medical reasons, working undercover for law enforcement, or in situations when reporting the medical needs of another minor. 

Twenty-nine states allow underage drinking while under a parent’s supervision. I believe Michigan should include the Parental Exception, as most other states have done. 

In those 29 states, parents can furnish and supervise the drinking of alcohol by underage children on private property where alcohol is not sold.

If you have an image in your mind of an 11-year-old throwing back an old fashioned, I will ask you to be a bit more reasonable and give parents more credit. Consider a 20-year-old college junior at deer camp with his father and uncles. Imagine a 14-year-old being served a glass from the wine bottle being passed around the Thanksgiving dinner table, or an 18-year-old having a cold beer with Mom and Dad after raking fall leaves. 

Parents can decide at what age and under what circumstances drinking makes sense for their child.

Learning how alcohol does or does not fit into daily life, family life, cannot be taught in one day in a quiet parking lot. Responsible drinking is taught over time, in multiple situations, and in a variety of settings.

In Ohio and seven other states, parents can order alcoholic beverages for their children in bars and restaurants if they remain seated together. Yes, really. Let your teenagers participate in that scene with you present before that magical 21st birthday.

I have allowed my own children to drink alcohol under my supervision since they were in their mid-teens. Never with friends around, never as a game, never without a parent.

Did I allow them to drink too much? Yes. That is the most valuable chapter of the textbook, and it should be learned in a safe place.

I was raised by an alcoholic. I was intent on not raising one.

Drinking is for grownups; not children. It requires a higher level of maturity than any date on a calendar can assess. You bet I want my children to be experienced with alcohol, to respect it, and to understand the dangers. Although it wasn’t pleasant, I didn’t completely shield them from seeing a drunken adult make a fool of themselves or become ugly.

Alcohol is unavoidable in our culture. It is not good nor bad. I have a full liquor cabinet and a fridge full of beer — it is part of life. I want my kids to know how to enjoy drinking as responsible adults. In order to learn that, they must actually drink as they would if we were not next to them.

As parents, we need the freedom to teach our kids about what I refer to as vice management. As little kids, the vice is candy. As pre-teens, it might be video games. Whatever the alluring and addictive thing is, we need to teach our kids the dangers and how to control our urges before they become bad habits and then lifestyles with awful repercussions.

Having a lawful means to allow our teenagers and young adults to drink with us allows us to bridge the gap between secretive underage drinking and suddenly legal wild drinking. We need the buffer zone provided by the parental exception.

Would this create an opportunity for trouble in homes where parental supervision is not the best? Probably, but I imagine if that is the case, there might be underage drinking occurring already. For most families, this lawful exception would create an atmosphere that would in turn benefit the culture of drinking throughout our communities.

Mary Rogers is the host of "The Experience 50 Podcast for Midlife" and an actively engaged citizen of Grand Traverse County. She lives in Traverse City.

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