American culture and society has always had a complex relationship with alcohol. For a whole period of our history alcohol was made illegal, but that didn't stop it from going underground to speakeasies. Out of a list of 190 countries and their minimum legal drinking age the United States joins a group of 11 other countries that have the highest minimum legal drinking age of 21. The majority of countries on this list (136) have minimum legal drinking ages between 16-19). Additionally, our media portrays alcohol use in a very prevalent light, often with a negative slant.
These factors as well as other personal values, beliefs, rules and practices, all contribute to attitudes and perspectives on underage drinking. Underage drinking is something that we know happens widely across the country, primarily when young Americans hit high school or college.
Having conversations with kids and teens about drinking is just one in a series of coming of age conversations that fall right in line with safe sex and the birds and the bees. It is a conversation that is difficult to have, and I believe often times just slips under the rug, being ignored.
This is a dangerous conversation to just be glazed over.
For me, in high school and even now in college, I have never had a strong desire to drink regularly, or to excess. This is not to say I don't drink, I do, but I don't find binge drinking super enjoyable and don't find it necessary. I also, fortunately, don't feel the pressure from my peers to drink.
A large explanation for my preferences and habits towards alcohol, especially as someone who is still underage, is my personal values.
However, I think the other half of the explanation for the way I consume alcohol is the exposure I have had with alcohol in my upbringing. My parents have always been very open with their consumption of alcohol. I don't have a memory where my parents didn't regularly have a glass of wine at dinner.
They also didn't keep me away from the alcohol. A favorite family story is when my mom and I were in line to check out at the grocery store and someone asked for the time, which was 5:00 pm, to which my 3-year-old-self cried out with glee, "It's the cocktail hour!"
I remember when I was young, I had a fascination with wine openers and would always want to help my parents or grandparents open a bottle. On special occasions where champagne was called for, I had a small glass that my parents would pour a small slurp of champagne into for me. By the time, I was 14 I knew how to make a Manhattan and our family's margarita recipe.
Growing up, I was comfortable around alcohol, but I didn't feel the need to consume it. It was there, out in the open and my parents were fine with me having small sips of their drinks. I was being exposed to alcohol in controlled situations, around my parents who were, fortunately around to guide me.
I saw what it was to consume alcohol responsibly and not to excess, for our family that meant having an occasional cocktail before dinner (around 5 pm) and then a glass or two of wine at dinner.
I also saw what happened with too much alcohol. There were several occasions where too much alcohol was had and my parents got into large fights which I very vividly remember. I remember after the first fight, the next day my mom explained that a large cause of the fight was that too much alcohol was had and that my dad had been drunk.
While this incident was obviously not intentional, it did teach me a lesson about the effects of drinking too much alcohol and why you have to be mindful when drinking.
Looking back on how I grew up with so much exposure to alcohol and drinking, I wonder how my attitude towards drinking would be different if I hadn't had so much exposure.
If my parents had treated alcohol like an evil substance that is meant to be hidden away until you turn 21, would I have been more prone to underage drinking and doing so irresponsibly?
There is the saying that "we want what we don't have," so if I hadn't had alcohol around me, would I have wanted it more?
I will never know, but it is something I consider.
I believe the exposure I had to alcohol was a good thing. To me, alcohol wasn't this substance that was shrouded in secrecy but my parents still made sure to make me aware of the responsibilities that come with drinking. Don't drink and drive, and be mindful of how much you are drinking.
Underage drinking isn't going to go away, and I don't see our society doing a lot to help it go away. So perhaps what of age Americans can do, is give kids exposure to alcohol and how to be responsible with it.
Every family has their own values and opinions that will differ from how my parents raised me around alcohol, but at the very least every household can be having conversations around alcohol and underage drinking.