Should You Go to Jail If Your Teen Drinks?

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The story I’m about to tell is not unusual. But it’s personal, tragic, and common, repeating itself almost every day throughout our country. We parents need to pay better attention.

Three summers ago, a picture surfaced of then-candidate for Maryland governor, Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, at a party attended by his teenaged son. The photo showed the 50-year-old politician and Yale and UVA educated lawyer amidst kids drinking from ubiquitous red plastic cups. The Instagram message was clear: Gansler had condoned, or at least turned a blind eye to, alcohol consumption by underage drinkers. His hypocrisy was hard to stomach, given that as attorney general of Maryland he had recently appeared in an educational video about the risks of drinking and driving by teenagers.

“Parents, you’re the leading influence on your teen’s decision not to drink,” Gansler said in the initiative to persuade parents to talk to middle-school children about drinking. “It’s never too early to talk with your kids about smart ways to say no.”

Parents, myself included, were outraged. That picture was one possible reason Douglas Gansler lost the Democratic primary. But many parents – in Maryland and around the country – don’t see anything wrong with Gansler or anyone else condoning underage drinking.

Then in Maryland last summer, underage drinking turned tragic — as it always can.

On June 25, a Maryland high school student hosted a party at her home in North Potomac for 30 friends, some of whom brought beer and vodka. A subsequent 26-page police report quoted witnesses that her father, 49-year-old Kenneth Salzman, was home and, though he did not provide the alcohol or serve it, he allegedly joked with a boy carrying two 30-packs of beer into the house, asking whether “one of the 30 packs was for him.” Later that night, four high school boys left the party intoxicated. Trying to avoid a speed camera, their car hit a tree. The two students in the back seat, Alex Murk and Calvin Li, were killed. The driver was charged, of course. But what’s more surprising: Kenneth Salzman was fined and is soon going to trial for allowing underage drinking in his home.

These are local stories, about local dads and their kids, and the two stories are seemingly unconnected. But the same controversial issues exist in every community. Do you let your teenaged kids drink, and how do your respond if other adults host parties with alcohol? All parents need to understand the laws about underage drinking, and why so many people advocate against allowing our kids to drink before 21.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) explains why underage drinking is not a youth problem. Teenagers cannot drink without complicit adults: adults who buy or serve alcohol for those under age 21, adults who look the other way when teens talk about drinking or using drugs, and adults who allow teenage drinking parties on property we control. MADD describes this as the “social host” problem – and almost half of all states have enacted laws prohibiting and punishing adults from contributing to underage drinking, even when they don’t buy booze for kids themselves.

“Law enforcement officials are typically not able to determine who provided the alcohol when they arrive on the scene of a teenage drinking party,” explains MADD. “Therefore, laws that prohibit furnishing alcohol to youth under 21 years old can be hard to enforce…Social host ordinances give communities a practical tool for holding adults accountable.”

The outrage over parents who condone illegal teen drinking has synthesized into legal advocacy in Maryland, stiffening the “social host” penalty with legislation that punishes parents who allow underage drinking with a $5,000 fine and one year in jail for anyone who provides alcohol to anyone under age 21. Whether or not you agree that allowing underage drinking is a crime, what’s clear is how dramatically parenthood has transformed within one generation. I grew up in Maryland in the late 1970s and 80s. My parents routinely let me sip their drinks starting when I was in elementary school. When I was in high school, they bought kegs of beer to serve at parties long before my friends and I could drink legally. There were pros and cons to their approach. Some parents still ascribe to the philosophy that adults should teach teenagers how to drink while they still live at home. But undeniably, the rules – and our laws — have changed.

Here are a few good reasons why we all should know the facts and the laws about teenaged drinking:

  • Research from prevention specialists, such as the Centers for Disease Control, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and individuals like globally recognized prevention expert Brenda Conlan, shows that delaying the first usage of alcohol and drugs reduces the risks inherent to substance abuse. If you can postpone your child’s experimentation with alcohol, their brain and social skills both develop better judgment to drink responsibly and make sound decisions even when under the influence.
  • If you struggle with how to set limits with your teenagers and their friends, as most parents do, use these laws and research to make it easier to say no – cite the facts, and that you risk a potential jail sentence and fine if kids drink on your watch.
  • Think long and hard about how you would face your kids, your family, other parents, and your community if you hosted an underage drinking event, and kids died as a result. According to CDC data, one out of every three drivers involved in fatal crashes were under 24 years of age. The risks are real.

Like most parenting decisions, a family’s philosophy about drinking alcohol is personal and largely private. Each parent has a right to guide our children as we see fit, as long as we are not hurting or neglecting our children or others’ children. But the reality of parenting teenagers is that we adults have not yet been released from the hard job of setting boundaries about the risks of encouraging teenagers to drink.

For me, the picture of a State Attorney General partying with teenagers spoke a thousand disturbing words, because a parent who sets a poor example sends the following destructive, potentially lethal message to his own kid and other teenagers: that no matter what adult authority figures say in public, we condone underage drinking. Other parents’ hypocrisy has the power to undermine the guidance from adults and abuse prevention specialists as we try to help teenagers navigate the tricky path to adulthood and responsible use of alcohol. So, due to parents who allow other people’s kids to drink on their property, on their watch, and with alcohol their money has bought, the laws punishing parents for teenagers’ behavior may be a good idea.

The threat of adult punishment may save lives, and override individual adults’ mixed messages to teenagers that excessive underage drinking is wink-wink-nod-nod fine. What’s troubling is that some parents need this kind of reprimand. Despite sound research about the risks of teen substance abuse, we’re so divided as parents that we need a law in order to parent together as a community and keep our kids safe.

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