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Are We Teaching Our Kids to Binge Drink?

Allowing our kids to drink at home as a way to avoid drunk driving doesn't get at the real problem with our attitude toward drinking in this country.
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On Halloween in 2010, Tiffany Clark allowed her 16-year-old daughter to have some friends over. By midnight, the gathering had turned into an out-of-control party. The police were called, one girl was hospitalized for alcohol poisoning, and the next morning Tiffany Clark was summonsed to court.

Earlier this week, Ms. Clark was found guilty of procuring alcohol for minors and violating the Massachusetts social host law. She was handcuffed and taken to prison, where she will spend the next six months, separated not only from her now 17-year-old daughter, but her 9-year-old daughter as well.

When I read this story in the Boston Globe this morning I was exasperated. Typical overreaction by a Puritanical legal system, I thought. They just refuse to come to grips with the fact that the vast majority of young people in this country start drinking well before the age of 21.

I know this fact from experience, and not just because I myself shared the occasional glass of wine over dinner with my parents before I went off to college. My son is a senior in high school. My husband grew up in Norway, so neither of us balked when he asked if he could have a beer with us in the backyard on his 17th birthday. Earlier this month, he returned from a three-week exchange trip to Germany. He had a lot to say about the drinking culture there, much of it confirming his parents' conclusion that here in America, we've got it all wrong.

In most of Europe, 16-year-olds may drink beer and wine legally, but they cannot drive until they are 18. And once they do drive, the bar for what is considered driving under the influence is set drastically lower than that in the U.S.. In Norway, it is illegal to drive with a blood alcohol count over .02 -- four times lower than the acceptable blood alcohol count in the U.S. (.08). I have seen many of my in-laws back in the old country refuse to drive until lunchtime the day after a big party. They know that even if they "feel" sober, they are subject to random roadblocks, and DUI penalties ranging from automatic license suspension to mandatory jail time. Recently, Norway tied drunk-driving fines to personal income. Back in 2009 the Huffington Post reported on a wealthy Norwegian fined over $100,000 for a driving-under offense. He also lost his drivers license for two and a half years.

My son's German friends have equally cautionary tales about drunk driving fines -- only theirs involve drunk bicycle driving. It is not unusual for 16-year-olds in Germany to ride their bikes to the local pub. But they won't ride them home if they've had one too many. Instead, they'll walk. Punishment for drunk bike riding can include an additional one-year wait time to obtain a driver's license, and it's hard enough to wait until you're 18.

But allowing our kids to drink at home as a way to avoid drunk driving doesn't get at the real problem with our attitude toward drinking in this country. According to one report, police found over 75 empty Dixie cups strewn around Ms. Clark's apartment -- Dixie cups stained with the dregs of Jello shots. Was Ms. Clark teaching her daughter how to drink responsibly, or was she teaching her how to binge?

I didn't hear any stories about Jello shots, beer pong or keg stands in Germany. Instead, my son told me how his German friends -- who confided that American exchange students had a reputation as hopelessly messy drunks -- would often drink mit cola (Coke and beer) if they knew they had a long night ahead. "What's the hurry?" they'd ask their American friends. "Why are you drinking so fast?" The answer, of course, is that American kids see drinking as a sneaky, forbidden activity -- hurry up and get drunk before you get caught.