Last week I had the pleasure of attending a lunch sponsored by The Century Council to sit down with Debbie Phelps (mother to Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps) and talk about the program Ask, Listen, Learn that teaches parents and children about the risks associated with underage drinking. It was an enlightening discussion and it has me seriously thinking about how I will approach this difficult topic with my own kids. 

My challenge is that I was a teenager who engaged in underage drinking and later a young adult who had a very unhealthy relationship with drinking and partying. I often wonder how I can teach my own children to make different, better choices than I did. Part of me wants to hide my past from my kids, but the other part of me wants to crack it wide open and show my children (and everyone else) that I made some mistakes and I want them to do better and achieve more.

Here are some statistics that I learned at the lunch:

  • By the time a child is in 8th grade, that's roughly 13 years old, 33% of children the same age will have consumed alcohol.
  • Parents are the leading provider for underage drinking.
  • People who begin drinking before they are 15 are four to five times more likely than someone who begins drinking at age 21 to develop alcohol dependence at some point in their lives.
  • Drinking alcohol can stunt the growth of a still-developing brain, leading to learning problems and other mental disorders.
  • Kids who drink are more likely to: get poor grades in school;
 get in a car crash;
 get in a fight;
 have unsafe sex; and
 become the victim of a crime, such as rape, theft, or assault.
  • Age 8 or 9 is the time that you should begin talking to your children about the dangers of alcohol, if not sooner.

I can hope that my children will make better choices than I did but I would also like to be informed about how I can approach this topic with them so that I can give them the best chance at a successful future. In our home, we do drink occasionally, and we enjoy it, so eliminating alcohol entirely from our lives isn't an option. There are a few key things that I learned that can greatly improve the chances that your children will develop a healthy approach to drinking. 

  1. Talk to your children early and often about the dangers of underage drinking and what your values and expectations are for them regarding alcohol. Decide what your values are well before you have these discussions. From the Ask, Listen, Learn site: "Ask your children for their thoughts. Listen carefully, and don’t criticize their answers. Make it a discussion, not an argument. Learn from each other."
  2. Model responsible behavior in regards to your own habits with alcohol. If you over consume or make mistakes, use those moments as teaching opportunities and talk about how you could have made different choices.
  3. Know who your children are friends with and where they are spending their time when they are away from you. Ensure that friends and their families share your values and model the same behavior.
  4. Give them plenty of direction and support for healthy, positive and goal oriented extracurricular activities. Get them involved with sports, art classes, writing workshops, mentor groups or anything else that they are passionate about and interested in. Keep them busy and focused on what they love. The Ask, Listen, Learn program encourages kids to get involved in three ways: Fitness, Academics and Community.

You can learn more about the Ask, Listen, Learn program on the website, download materials, and find out ways to answer questions that children may have.

After attending this lunch I have been talking with my husband and asking other parents what their values are when it comes to underage drinking. I've heard from parents who have a zero tolerance underage drinking policy in their home, to parents who may allow their underage children to drink responsibly* at home under their supervision. 

On the one hand, having a zero tolerance policy teaches your children a clear boundary that it is not acceptable to drink until they are of legal age but it also means that your children may hide their underage drinking from you. On the other hand, if you allow responsible* underage drinking in your home it may give you some influence over the social situations your child is engaging in but it also means that you are making it easier for your child to drink and it could lead to them abusing the privilege.

I'm very curious what people think about this! How were you raised, or how did you raise your kids and if you have young children, what do you plan to do when they are old enough to want to drink?

Disclosure: I have been engaged by The Motherhood to be a part of this campaign but all opinions expressed are my own.

*Century Council has stated that underage drinking is never responsible.