The Hanover County, Virginia community I live in suffered a tragedy last weekend that is unimaginable to this dad. In a single vehicle crash, in one moment out of what seemed like a lifetime of moments ahead, two young men had their futures permanently cut short. Additionally, three other young people are recovering from serious injuries from the same crash. Although the official cause of the crash hasn't been determined by local law enforcement, there's evidence that the crash involved alcohol. Enough so that many folks in our community have issued passionate pleas for parents to talk to their kids about the dangers of drinking and driving.
Before I go any further, let me say I don't know any of the young people or their parents involved in that particular crash. But my heart breaks for them and I will be praying for healing and peace, as impossible as both likely appear to them right now. The words I'll share here are more about the conversations that are taking place in the aftermath of the crash, not the crash itself.
Let me also add that I've lived my 30-plus year adult life in two distinct alcohol-related chambers. One contains the first 15 years of my life I spent battling the consequences of alcohol abuse in my own life. The other, my most recent 15 years, I've spent trying to prevent similar battles in the lives of others.
In saying that, you might find it surprising that I've been discouraged by the don't drink and drive message that's erupted and been pointed at our young people in the aftermath of last weekend's tragedy. Most of you know too many people whose lives have been impacted by a drinking and driving tragedy to find anything wrong with that message yourselves. I agree with you; it's a message filled with wisdom, but when it comes to our kids - especially our underage drinkers - it's a message that goes way too far. I myself longing for the day when we as parents will agree to skip the "and" and simply stop at :
I know that suggestion might stir up disbelief. Maybe even anger. I've heard enough reaction from hundreds of parents over the years to this suggestion to know it's true. Most of the reactions I've heard are centered on a theme that goes something like this:
We know kids are going to drink, so why not do everything we can to make sure they're safe when they do.
There are several things I find at least inaccurate about this reaction, and in my own way of thinking - I think it's dead wrong.
First, in spite of the possible drinking and driving tragedy that's hit so close to home, the one message our kids have consistently received and responded to is don't drink and drive. Since the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) began recording alcohol-related statistics in 1982, the number of persons under 21 killed in drunk driving crashes decreased 79% from the record high of 5,215 in 1982 to 1,072 in 2013 - (Responsibility.org).
Trust me, I'm with you. The loss of one young life is too many. But unfortunately, because we believe drinking and driving is the biggest risk our young people face when they drink alcohol, and, as I've stated, tragedies like last weekend's are becoming less common, we as parents, and I dare say as a society, find less and less wrong with our young people drinking just as long as they don't drive after they do.
In too many cases we've become comfortable with underage drinking.
This comfort level is built on one of two things. One, parents and society don't know enough about the many other dangers underage drinking invites into our children's lives. Or, two, we think too much like many of our kids and believe those dangers will never impact my child.
In 2007, the Surgeon General of the United States was concerned enough about the growing risks associated with underage drinking that the office released: The Surgeon General's Call to Action To Prevent and Reduce Underage Drinking, a 2007 report from the Office of the Surgeon General. It's a lengthy document - 106 pages - but if you have young children, I strongly encourage you to read it. The Surgeon General opened the report with these words:
For the most part, parents and other adults underestimate the number of adolescents who use alcohol. They underestimate how early drinking begins, the amount of alcohol adolescents consume, the many risks that alcohol consumption creates for adolescents, and the nature and extent of the consequences to both drinkers and nondrinkers. Too often, parents are inclined to believe, “Not my child.” Yet, by age 15, approximately one half of America’s boys and girls have had a whole drink of alcohol, not just a few sips, and the highest prevalence of alcohol dependence in any age group is among people ages 18 to 20.
Here are some of the risks outlined in the report.
I know some of you read through those risks and thought: not my child. Not now. Not ever. And I pray you are right. But before you completely dismiss the warnings as over-dramatic government scare tactics, I'd like you to consider your life. Consider the life of friends and people you know. Take an especially close look at the lives of people you know who drank when they were under 21 years old. Have they faced any of the consequences identified above?
I know my life has. And I know a lot of other lives that have been permanently impacted by underage drinking. Not all lives. Maybe not even a lot. But enough for me to know when it comes to my own two young boys I'm not willing to concede if they don't drink and drive, alcohol won't threaten their futures. I'm just not willing to concede that:
We know kids are going to drink.
I mean, how many of us would be willing to say: We know kids are going to shoot up heroin, so let's make sure they are safe when they do it. Or cocaine or prescription drugs not prescribed to them. Shoot, how many of us would even say that about cigarettes these days? Few of us. Because we clearly understand the risks involved with those drugs. So why do we hesitate to have the same anxieties around our kids drinking alcohol?
Mainly, because adults in our society are big fans of alcohol. Unfortunately, the way most adults drink alcohol is quite different than the way our kids drink it. In fact, 90% of the alcohol consumed by high school students is in the course of binge drinking (Center of Disease Control). High school students who drink aren't having a beer with dinner, they're getting drunk. Almost every time. This heavy drinking combined with a developing brain poses a host of short and long term risks to who they are and who they become. Risks I'm unwilling to concede my boys will take without a fight.
So what does my fight look like? My boys are 7 and 9 years old. Already we talk about the risks of young people drinking. (That list above). We have been for years. When we talk about these risks, drinking and driving is included, but only as part of the risks, not THE risk. Research shows that ongoing conversations between parents and their kids is the most effective protective factor our young people have against the risks of underage drinking. So I'm going to keep talking.
I do so with the realization there are never guarantees. Parenting doesn't offer many. But I believe if we come at it from a healthy philosophy, we give ourselves, and more importantly our kids, the best chance at health and success. And when it comes to underage drinking, my philosophy is simple: