Underage drinking is against the law, but do parents know best for their children? Some parents believe teaching young people how to drink responsibly begins at home.

The U.S. does not have a federally mandated drinking age

The National Drinking Age Act, passed in 1984, allows states to choose their own legal drinking ages, but the act withholds federal funding from states that don't comply with the recommended age of 21 years to possess and purchase alcohol. Like every other state, Michigan has complied with the recommended minimum age for legal purchase and possession of alcohol, so I have always known a drinking age of 21 years old.

Sneaking around and underage drinking

Still, I am old enough to remember days of driving to Canada — before you needed a passport — to dance and drink in a country where I only had to be 19 to buy alcohol. And, of course, there were six packs of beer purchased by older siblings of friends and hundreds of other ways to figure out ways to drink before that seemingly-far-away 21st birthday. All of that sneaking around led to bad decisions, bad headaches and a nagging part of my brain that wonders if teenagers would be better served to learn how to drink responsibly well before they turn 21.

Debating the argument for allowing underage drinking

Parents feel strongly about their parenting decisions, especially ones involving the health and well-being of their children. These parents considered the arguments for and against underage drinking and made the decision they each feel best fits their family.

Let them make their own decisions

Susan, who chose to remain anonymous in order to protect her family's privacy, spoke frankly about the role alcohol played in her home. At one point she and her husband frequently used alcohol to decompress from their at-home computer programming and design jobs. She believes that modeling behavior is an important part of parenting and that arbitrary rules aren't necessarily good teaching tools.

I believe that honesty was key: Alcohol has a definite effect, and you can't hide it.

Susan says, "We concentrated on raising good adults, rather than good children. That meant honest explanations and leadership, and I believe that honesty was key: Alcohol has a definite effect, and you can't hide it. They saw us get happy and they saw us stumble and babble like fools — and they've seen us really overdo it and get mean. I think seeing the honest effects convinced them that it wasn't something to aspire to or emulate. We invited them to celebrate with us, to taste our drinks, to imbibe with us — and they usually would participate politely with a drink, but only one or two."

Her children are now 26 and 18 and have no interest in drinking to excess: "The older one celebrated his 21st birthday with a bottle of good bourbon, and occasionally he would drink a bourbon and coke in the evening, inviting us to join him. A year later, the bottle was still on his shelf, half full. The younger son is 18, and shows no interest at all in alcohol, particularly where his friends are concerned."

Teach them to respect the law

I think it sends a message that you as a parent think the laws and rules only apply to other people. Kids pay attention to things like that.

Sherri Kuhn is the mother of teenagers: a high school student and college student. She believes teenagers should follow the law when it comes to underage drinking, not only because of the drinking itself but because of the message that breaking the law — even at home — can send to impressionable teens.

Sherri says, "I am not for it at all! I can see parents who offer a sip of Champagne in their home for a special occasion, but never actually serving them or their friends. I think it sends a message that you as a parent think the laws and rules only apply to other people. Kids pay attention to things like that."

The bottom line

Parents should decide where they stand on the issue of underage drinking — and make sure their teenagers know where they stand in order to prevent misunderstandings about the consequences that can arise from either decision. Some states do have special provisions for drinking in private locales or with certain family members, so familiarize yourself with your state's laws while making a decision for your family.

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