Parents uncork teen alcohol debate

Is supervised drinking a safety issue or a flouting of law?

By Bonnie Miller Rubin
Tribune staff reporter

June 14, 2003

When Colleen Galatz's two sons were in high school, her home was the place where all the kids congregated. Perhaps it was her well-stocked pantry or fondness for loud music.

More likely, it was because teenagers knew that's where they could drink alcohol.

Galatz insists she was not trying to be their pal or seek their approval. Her motive, she said, was simple: safety.

"I know what I did in high school, and I didn't want my kids sneaking around doing the same things," said Galatz, whose sons, now 19 and 24, attended Homewood-Flossmoor High School. "They weren't in a car or in the forest preserves, but under my roof--where I could see them."

Other parents said they would never permit such behavior. "We didn't want our kids to get the impression that laws were not applicable to them," said Nancy Meehan of Barrington, whose daughter Laura is a senior at the University of Illinois. "We're not teetotalers, but we feel that our children needed to know that when rules are made, they need to be followed."

With graduation season in full swing, debate over allowing teens to drink has been revived by the hazing of Glenbrook North High School students. Two mothers were charged for allegedly providing beer to youths involved in the hazing.

Galatz's philosophy--to acknowledge that underage drinking is inevitable and hope to curb its excesses--has been gaining momentum in recent years. Supporters say a decade's worth of scare tactics hasn't made much of a dent, and it's time to accept reality.

Others say the law is the law--and permitting minors to drink only contributes to the widespread and dangerous problem of alcohol abuse.

No one disputes there is cause for concern. Researchers have documented that many students who drink aren't just downing a couple of beers--they're getting hammered. Those who overindulge are far more likely to injure themselves, damage property, have unprotected sex and get in trouble with police.

Such hazardous drinking first surfaces during the 8th grade and peaks during the early college years, then declines after age 25, reported a University of Michigan survey.

The question arises over how to tackle the problem. And if parents are divided, so is academia, where the zero-tolerance vs. get-real argument rages on. Both sides validate their stands with research--often funded by special-interest groups.

On one side are those who say parents must play a role if they want to instill the idea of responsible drinking.

"We tried Prohibition once before and it didn't work," said Michael Haines, director of the National Social Norms Resource Center at Northern Illinois University. "As a parent, I have a duty and obligation to prepare my kids for that--just as I would the use of a lawn mower or a car."

Henry Wechsler couldn't disagree more. As director of the Harvard School of Public Health's College Alcohol Studies Program, Wechsler is credited with defining "binge drinking" 20 years ago and first raising awareness of the problem. To him, permitting minors to drink, no matter how judiciously, is to send the ultimate mixed message.

"It says you have to drink. You have no choice--which is simply not true." Parents who condone such a practice, he added, "have their heads in the sand."

Typically, parents with more liberal attitudes may, like Galatz, provide little beyond a den or rec room where teens can hang out. Those who do supply alcohol said they monitor quantity and confiscate car keys.

But law-enforcement personnel said that what seems like a solution only raises more questions. Who is to say teens don't have a second set of keys? Or sneak out and get hurt? Are the parents awake and keeping vigil all night?

"There's a lot of uncertainty--especially around this time of year," says Naperville Police Sgt. Joel Truemper.

Truemper arrested a Naperville couple this month after they allegedly allowed minors to consume alcohol. Police said James and Kathleen Connor had called to seek permission to leave cars parked on the street overnight so that teens who had been drinking at their home after a high school graduation party could stay.

"If those were my kids, I would have wanted a phone call rather than just let them sober up," said Truemper, a father of three teens. "If [parents] choose to let their own child drink, that's their decision. But they're making a decision about my child in which I have no input. I have a problem with that."

Still, some talk-radio callers said they thought the Connors should be lauded for sensible parenting. The couple could not be reached for comment.

Kristine Ward, who graduated last month from Indiana University--ranked as a top party school--has witnessed her share of debauchery. She credits her parents' more laid-back thinking with keeping her healthy during the high-risk years.

"The kids who haven't been exposed really get overwhelmed," said Ward, 22, bound for law school in the fall. "It's like they're making up for lost time."

Each year, some 1,400 college students die and 500,000 more are injured in alcohol-related incidents, a 2002 study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism showed.

With those kinds of headlines in mind, Galatz--one of the few parents willing to be interviewed on the record--adopted an open-door policy with her children.

"I knew that if I didn't offer my house, some other parent would," Galatz said. "And it may not be as controlled."

The teens stayed put, she said, and she never hesitated to step in if guests went overboard. "No matter how much trouble they were in, they'd be in more trouble if I didn't know what they were doing," Galatz said. "If parents think their kids aren't experimenting, they're naive."

Illinois law prohibits the serving of alcohol to others under age 21, allowing exceptions only for "the performance of a religious service or ceremony under the direct supervision and approval of the parent ... in the privacy of a home."

But even the police sergeant sees the merit of allowing the occasional beverage at home. "If you don't give kids some freedom in a controlled environment," Truemper said, "when they go away to college, they get a little goofy."

Mark Rubert of Skokie adhered to that philosophy with his son, Sam, now 25. He never offered liquor to Sam's friends--"I did that once before and the parent went ballistic"--but he was certain that making it available to his son was one way to remove the allure before Sam went off to Columbia University.

"This is one area where European practices are more realistic than our own," said Rubert, a bank officer.

Meehan's daughter Laura said such flouting of the rules would have been unthinkable at her home. "My parents had one rule: You follow the law. Period. It worked for me.... But I can see both sides, especially if you're a kid who needs to test the limits."

The supervised-drinking approach started gaining popularity about five years ago. Around the same time, the "social norms" campaign--stressing not abstinence but moderation--was launched at many colleges, and the message then trickled down to high school. Beer giant Anheuser-Busch is a major funder of such college alcohol-education programs.

The premise of social norms is that most college students--60 percent--are moderate drinkers or abstainers, but they substantially overestimate how much their peers are consuming. This suggests that students who chug more to fit in might cut back if a public-awareness campaign let them know that the "Animal House" stereotype isn't the norm.

For his part, Wechsler derides the social norms movement, saying it's foolish to think that high-risk drinkers will lower their consumption just because others do so.

As for adult-sanctioned experimentation, he said: "When did the only choice become having a drink inside or outside the house? Perhaps the safe house may be the one that doesn't have alcohol at all."

Copyright © 2003, Chicago Tribune

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