Why I Let My Underage Daughters Drink

The following article first appeared on Substance.com

My sister is a recovering alcoholic. My mother died without that label, but with many of the issues. I struggle in that in-between place myself. An online quiz might label me with a drinking problem—not because of how often I drink, but because of how much I enjoy it when I do.

In the house where I grew up, alcohol was not the focal point, but it was always there. We drank the most on special occasions. And with five kids and a large group of close relatives, growing up in Pittsburgh during the Steelers’ reign, there were many excuses to drink.

My sister has memories of being a little girl and swiping sips of champagne punch from everyone’s glasses at parties. But I wasn’t that girl. Her life was ruined by her alcohol addiction; mine wasn’t. I don’t know why that is—but I do know that I want my own children to grow up to have a healthy relationship with alcohol.

So I do the best I can, but not everyone is on board with my liberal approach.

I recently ran into a neighbor while I was buying a box of Zinfandel at the local liquor store. When I saw him again at a friend’s birthday party, I light-heartedly shared that the box of wine had been for my daughter Hayley: “I didn’t want you to think it was for me!”

Instead of laughing, a group of people around me fell completely silent. “If I were you, I wouldn’t tell people I do that,” said a man I’d never met, sternly.

Hayley, 20, is a junior in college with a 3.5 average. It wasn’t the first time I’d bought alcohol for her and it won’t be the last. My other daughter Allison, 22, graduated summa cum laude last year. They are both doing well in school, succeeding in their jobs and relationships, coping with the usual challenges young women face. I’m proud of my daughters, and more importantly, I trust them. This is why I let them drink—and I see no reason to hide this fact, even if other parents may judge and criticize me for it.

I knew some of the other adults at the party had college-age kids and I confronted them about their own kids’ drinking: Isn’t it inevitable that they will find a way to drink? Shouldn’t we try to help them do it safely, not secretly?

It started a conversation: One parent said he encourages his daughter to bring her own beer into parties with her and keep it with her, for her own protection. “I’ve told her to refill her own bottle from the keg and hang onto it even when she goes to the bathroom so no one can spike or roofie her,” he said. When other parents admitted that they, too, have encouraged their kids to BYOB to parties, I asked: “Well, where are they getting their booze?”

Personally, I spare my kids the risks and expenses of procuring alcohol illegally on their own. I realize why some people might think this tactic flawed. But no one said raising kids is a matter of easy choices.

The lines get blurry when the lines get blurry. My perspective on a “working relationship” with young adults and alcohol may be skewed as I’ve taught at the college level since I was barely out of college myself. My 18-to-22 year-old students see me as a safe outlet with whom to share their stories—an adult who can give them perspective, without punishing them.

So I hear about Friday-night blackouts, throwing up on subways, waking up in beds they do not know, losing shoes, belts, phones, hoodies, and much, much, more. I know many girls who answer 3 am booty calls and two boys who were hospitalized with cirrhosis at the age of 20. Their tales are terrifying. I look at my own daughter’s consumption, and while yes, it’s illegal, they could both be labeled as straight edge compared to some of what I’ve seen and heard.

My perspective on alcohol is even more skewed by my family’s history of alcoholism. I have seen my mother so snockered she literally could not see me standing right in front of her. I have seen my sister get arrested, lose jobs, be evicted. Now that she’s sober, I see her continue to struggle with this disease.

My daughters have seen their beloved aunt passed out on the couch and been unable to wake her, and have watched her, on numerous occasions, stumble and fall down. They have memories of waiting hours to eat, as their grandma topped off her bottomless before-dinner cocktail for hours.

These memories may be painful for my daughters, but I believe there can be value in observing what not to do. We have all seen the worst of what alcohol can inflict, but instead of avoiding it out of fear, we try to understand its strength and be stronger.

I’m trying to train my kids to think that alcohol is meant to enhance our life experiences, not cloud them. We look at recipes together and find seasonal cocktails to fit what we’re eating. They know some basics: White wine is good for seafood; red is good with Italian; a dry Riesling is excellent with sushi.

We make drinking a social activity—it helps us bond. When we go on vacation, we have a ritual of filling and freezing a bucket-full of margaritas upon arrival. It takes us the week to finish it, sipping leisurely on the beach. We make homemade strawberry cello and are always fascinated by how the strawberries’ color leaches out into the alcohol. We held a wedding for friends in our home this past Christmas and we all drank Prosecco at 10 am. But the sparkling wine was part of the celebration, like the music and the flowers, the candles and the people in our home.

My husband and I didn’t see eye-to-eye on this issue. He died when the kids were 13, 11 and 5. But well before he passed, when the kids were little, we had talked about how we would handle topics like alcohol, marijuana and premarital sex. He felt strongly that we should enforce a strict zero-tolerance policy. I disagreed, arguing that we would be hypocritical to deny our own behaviors. I wanted to create a space where our kids could come to us with questions and concerns, even if—especially if—they began to explore.

My middle child, Hayley, moved into her own apartment with three other girls in her sophomore year of college. As I helped her set up her apartment, her roommate unpacked a margarita pitcher and glasses. Boxes of wine glasses and a carton of beer mugs covered the countertops.

Later on, as they were getting ready for their housewarming party, I knew it was my time to leave. “Girls. Here’s the deal,” I said, hoping they would see me as an ally and not just dismiss my parental advice: “These really are some of the best days of your life. You want to remember them.”

The subtext was: Don’t drink so much you lose memory. And Hayley tells me she and her roommates have not forgotten those words. Each night before they go out they remind each other: “Let’s remember tonight.” Allison says she can actually hear my voice while she’s out, reminding her to drink water in between drinks, to stay with her friends and to watch out for them.

One could say that the ramifications of alcoholism in my family have actually benefited me and my daughters. Of course my daughters have made mistakes—as have I. But we talk about them. They’ve called me from school to relate their occasional incidents, moments when they took things too far. I’d rather know than pretend it’s not happening; transparency feels safer than denial.

It’s hard for all of us to navigate this terrain. Of course I’m still scared that I’ve made bad decisions, that the children won’t be able to fight heredity and will lose control like my mother and sister. And I wonder—have I enabled them? Have I made alcohol too “okay”?

But right now, I’m okay. We’re okay. I find comfort in knowing I’d never turn a blind eye to my kids’ behaviors—that way, if they do need help, I won’t be in the dark.

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