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Is home schooling best for drinking?

Should parents teach children how to imbibe responsibly or stick to 'not until you're 21'? Even experts disagree.

December 31, 2005|Robin Abcarian | Times Staff Writer

NAPA, Calif. — Grabbing a quick cup of chai tea at a bakery during her lunch hour, Kelly Williams, who at 17 is years away from the legal drinking age, talks about wine: "My brothers and I have a good sense of responsibility when it comes to drinking," says the St. Helena High School senior, who comes from a family of well-known local winemakers. "We've grown up with the sense that it's a part of life. It isn't a forbidden fruit. That's just the way my parents have raised me."

Likewise, Kelly's 17-year-old stepbrother, Jake Engelskirger, a senior at Napa High, enjoys sipping wine at home occasionally. He does not, like many of his friends, attend parties where minors drink to get drunk. "There's a huge difference there," he says, sitting on a school bench at day's end. "I've really lucked out because my parents have done a fantastic job of teaching me about respect for alcohol and wine."

Kelly and Jake, who believe the best place to learn about drinking is at home, may unwittingly be endorsing a traditional yet controversial kind of alcohol education. The idea that parents might -- or should -- take a hand in teaching their children how to drink responsibly before the kids are unleashed on the world after high school is one that is surprisingly little discussed in alcohol education circles.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday January 04, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Alcohol education -- An article in Saturday's Calendar section about whether parents should teach their children about responsible drinking gave the name of the director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest's Alcohol Policies Project, George Hacker, as Packer.

Every year, just in time for New Year's Eve, the University of Michigan releases a major survey about teens and illicit drug use (including alcohol). This year's results found that while slightly fewer teenagers are drinking, the numbers remain consistently high. Some experts say that whatever else, the current approaches to alcohol education, which emphasize abstinence until the age of 21, are not working.

There are shelves of research and debate on certain aspects of underage drinking. Public service campaigns have focused on eliminating drunken driving, not serving alcohol to underage drinkers and, after some highly publicized arrests and accidents, asking parents not to provide havens for underage drinking parties. Increasingly, local governments are putting teeth in that request, passing laws that specifically punish parents who allow such parties. Movements to lower the drinking age, which is uniformly 21 in the United States, crop up now and then. But little effort has been devoted to studying whether the home may be a good place to learn how to be responsible about alcohol, which some researchers think is a topic ripe for exploration.

"I cannot come out and say that we can teach responsible drinking -- I would be at major risk from an institutional perspective for saying that -- but what I can say is that there is at least some evidence that by providing alcohol in a protected environment within the context of a meal, perhaps, we can at least minimize the excitement of it. But you would never get funding for a project like that, not in our current political climate," says Kristie Foley, an assistant professor of public health science at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, the lead author of a study published last year in the Journal of Adolescent Health that examined the effect that parental approval has on underage drinkers. Among her findings: "Parents who provided alcohol to their adolescent children or drank with them were more likely to have children who neither regularly used nor abused alcohol."

European vs. U.S.

In almost any discussion of teenagers and alcohol, the subject of European versus American attitudes is bound to arise. The conventional wisdom is that European children, particularly from the Mediterranean region, or "wine" countries, sip wine from an early age and that this practice infuses them with a healthy attitude toward drinking.

The view that Europeans are better at instilling maturity about drinking, however, is hotly contested by studies compiled by the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. A 2004 paper using data from European and American surveys, which compared the drinking rates of American and European 15- and 16-year-olds, found that, with the exception of Turkey, young Europeans from 34 countries drank more and were intoxicated more often than Americans.

Research has found that most Americans take their first drink of alcohol as young teenagers, but the underage drinking rates have been declining modestly since the early 1990s. The University of Michigan's Monitoring the Future Survey, sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, found that although 44% of eighth-graders said they have ever had a drink, only 17% reported drinking once or more in the last 30 days. Likewise, 64% of 10th-graders have had a drink, while 33% said they'd had one or more in the last 30 days. And 77% of 12th-graders have had a drink, while 48% have imbibed in the last 30 days.

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