Underage drinking: Actions speak the loudest

No matter how many guides are given to parents about how to talk to their kids about alcohol, some of the most valuable insights on underage drinking will comes from those who have watched their friends make mistakes.

Larry Crowe/AP/FILE
This file photo shows an alcoholic beverage garnished with a lime

This weekend my sons and I had “the alcohol talk,” yet again, after learning one of their long-time friends is serving a 10-day stretch in jail over a college fraternity party gone terribly wrong because of alcohol.

This sad news and our chat coincide with the recent release of yet another resource for parents talking to their kids about alcohol. “The Alcohol Talk” – a promoted step-by-step parental guide. Produced as part of the Accept Responsibility campaign, it's all about how and when to talk to your underage child about the potential dangers of alcohol.

For the longest time, I thought that this particular talk was a conversation to be had primarily with teens before the prom, graduation, and immediately after obtaining a driver’s license.

However, ongoing parenting of four sons ages 20, 19, 15, and 10 has shown me that in reality, those talks come long after the first time we really need to have an initial sit-down to discuss alcohol, peer pressure, and consequences.

The guide is produced by the organization Foundations for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility, sponsored by alcohol distilleries including Pernod (whose name is on the top of the Accept Responsibility campaign website), which makes many of the mixed alcoholic drinks often associated with the underage bacchanal including: Absolute vodka, Kahlua, Malibu Rum and Seagram’s gin, to name a few.

At first, I was upset to discover Pernod’s role. But there are takeaways from the research for the campaign that, regardless of sponsor, do offer some valuable tips on keeping underage youth away from alcohol. For that reason, it is worth a review.

I will also admit that I am surprised that research shows that the age at which I need to start talking about alcohol with my kids has dropped yet again.

Apparently, according to the guide, the first alcohol talk you have with your child should happen before they enter the fifth grade.

My youngest son will be in the fifth grade next fall, so I suppose this is as good an opportunity as any to broach the subject of not only the physical dangers inherent in alcohol consumption, but also the social ones as well.

My sons' friend in jail – also a close family friend – is learning the hard way what impact underage drinking can have on a student’s life. Personal and family trauma aside, having a conviction and jail time on your record is not a good way build a future in a highly competitive job market.

According to a source, who asked not to be named in this story, students at the university, afraid of having an underage peer at an alcohol-fueled fraternity party, did little to help their peer who became intoxicated to the point of illness.

Instead of calling 911, or taking their peer to get help immediately at the community hospital located just five miles away, the students allegedly embarked on a lengthy, convoluted journey with multiple stops to different counties, before depositing the ill student at an ER – 70 miles away from campus – and leaving before authorities could arrive.

I am told that the student survived, through no intelligent act by the panicked fraternity boys.

Our friend’s son was apparently an oblivious bystander for these events, but by virtue of having been at the party is now serving time in jail alongside his frat “brothers.”

I know for a fact this young man’s mom and dad gave their son “the alcohol talk” back in freshman year of high school, because it resulted in me giving my sons the talk the very next day.

However, I also know that peer pressure, alcohol, and being away from home can be an especially inebriating combination that tends to dull a student’s common sense.

Having two sons in college now, I have heard enough stories to realize that it’s not uncommon for underage drinkers to be so afraid of consequences, or of getting fellow students in trouble, that all logic goes out the window in a crisis.

Our eldest son, Zoltan, 20, experienced this his freshman year of college, when a suite mate who was underage nearly drank himself to death in an evening. My husband and I were picking Zoltan up from the dorms very late one night and arrived to emergency workers carrying an unconscious boy from our son’s suite.

“He never had alcohol before and went to a party,” Zoltan told us at the time, after the unconscious boy was taken away by paramedics. “When he came in we didn’t know how bad it was. I asked him what he drank and he just said ‘everything.’ Then I hear the thud and bang, he was out cold.”

While other students worried the boy would get into trouble for drinking while underage, and refused to call for help, our son insisted they call 911.

However, our son was not in the same position as the others in this situation, because he wasn’t out drinking that night and so would not get into trouble for making the call for help.

Therefore, his only decision was obvious. He asked, “Which is better, a dead student, or a live one in trouble?”

What his suite mates and the ill boy learned later on is that most universities have a “Good Samaritan” policy, which protects both the intoxicated student, and the one who calls, from punishment by campus authorities.

The young man at Zoltan’s school was not expelled, but rather given a series of counseling sessions.

Perhaps, the first thing we need to tell our children when talking about alcohol is that when all else fails, they have the chance to be the Good Samaritan in the room.

Let them know that no matter what wrong has been done to create a situation, it can only be made worse by letting another person in trouble go unaided.

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