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An argument in favor of lowering the legal drinking age
February 19, 2014 - Andrea Johnson
Years ago, I interviewed a high school exchange student from Germany who was surprised by just how stupid North Dakota teenagers can be about alcohol. She watched or heard about her American classmates drinking to excess at parties and sneaking alcohol and compared it to her own experiences in Europe, where drinking wasn't as big a deal because her parents had taught her how to drink appropriately and in moderation.
In Europe, where she was from, parents might let kids have a bit of wine on special family occasions. Kids learn to appreciate different types of wines. The legal drinking age in most European countries is 18 or 16 rather than 21, as it has been in the United States for the past few decades. Germany apparently allows teenagers to drink in public at 14 with the approval of a parent or guardian and parents can serve children alcohol in a private family setting at a younger age.
I think there is a great deal of sense in the European approach. The American way turns alcohol into something forbidden, which is usually irresistible to a teenager of a certain age. Most adults, if we're honest, know that a lot of kids are going to drink anyway, regardless of the law. My high school classmates drank. My parents' classmates drank. My grandparents and their peer group drank when they were under 18. And, judging by the youth risk survey that kids in North Dakota fill out every two years, high school kids in North Dakota still drink too. I don't drink and never have, but I am a rare exception to the rule.
The problem is that when kids in North Dakota drink, they do risky and stupid things, like drive drunk or engage in risky sexual behavior or drink until they pass out. They may get in a car with another kid who's been drinking. They may be afraid to call their parents or the police for help because they are afraid of being arrested for underage drinking. Those who do get caught for underage drinking end up with a criminal record that can affect their future success. It's always seemed to me that it would make more sense to teach them how to drink responsibly rather than to make it illegal for them to do what so many kids have always done.
The argument in favor of keeping the legal drinking age at 21 is that people under 21 are immature and impulsive and less able to handle alcohol. That is true, but it is true of a great many other things we let kids do. People 18 and over can go to war, have sex, get married, have and raise children, sign contracts, go into debt. They do most of those things better when they have some guidance from parents and older and wiser adults. Drinking probably shouldn't be any different.
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