I suspect this rant will win me few friends and probably more than a few enemies, but sometimes you have to say what’s on your mind. I’ve only seen a little about this story — Parents locked up for son’s boozy 16th — all of it curiously from the press outside of the country, so I can only comment on what facts I do know. It seems a Virginia couple had a 16th birthday party for their son back in August of 2002 and served some beer to him and a few of his friends. Yesterday, after the Supreme Court refused to hear their appeal in late May, both went off to jail to serve 4 1/2-year sentences, six-months for each kid at the party with measurable levels of alcohol.
At the party there were around 30 people between 12 and 18 years old. Of those 30, nine apparently had “measurable levels” of alcohol in their system. The fact that they used the careful phrase “measurable levels” infers that they were well below the already questionable 0.08% which arbitrarily defines what it means to be drunk. To me it sounds like they gave the kids a taste of beer in a controlled setting. As reported in the Brisbane Times, the couple was “[c]oncerned that the teenagers would drink without supervision, [so] the parents said they had bought alcohol with the understanding that the teens would spend the night at their place and collected half a dozen car keys to prevent drunk driving.” Under a less Draconian society than ours, that doesn’t strike me as particularly unreasonable. But we live in a society that generally does not allow parents to use their own judgment about how to raise their children. Now I want to be crystal clear that I don’t think for one second that they should have given beer to the other kids, not under today’s climate especially. While I can almost understand why some of those parents might be upset, had my son been there I would not have been troubled in the least. As for their own son, well that’s another matter. The fact that learning to drink responsibly in the home, the way it’s done throughout most of the rest of the world, is illegal here says quite a lot about our society and its commitment to raising mature, self-reliant adults.
The fact that Paris Hilton got a mere 45 days for repeatedly flaunting the law and this couple got 4 1/2 years for showing poor judgment once, even though they were at least trying to keep people safe and off the roads, is also illustrative of how out of whack our justice system has become. The idea that they deserved jail time seems ludicrous to me. But then I don’t see alcohol as the great social ill that so many people do. I have a hard time thinking of them as criminals, and for very personal reasons. When I was a kid not that long ago, my mother and stepfather acted in much the same way, as did other parents of my peers. My mother, for all her flaws, was a nurse and one of the most caring people I knew. While in nursing school she spent one of her rotations in the ER and saw more than her fair share of drug overdoses. When I started high school and began going to parties, she despaired that I would take up drugs. So she offered me a deal. If I agreed to never do drugs she would keep the basement refrigerator stocked with beer for me and my friends. Needless to say, I took the deal and spent many happy and safe nights with friends drinking responsibly in my basement. We had a pool table, television, sofas and privacy. That my mother would be a considered a criminal today — and indeed technically was then too, I suppose — strikes me as absurd. She was correct in assuming that I would drink and that there was nothing whatsoever she could do about it short of locking me under the stairs. It wasn’t just me, it was just the times, at least to some extent. Almost everyone I knew drank at least on the weekends. Some of my friends’ parents even knew that their kids were drinking at my house with my parent’s consent and knowledge. They felt better knowing where their kids were and that they were safe with people they knew rather than out driving around and/or out with strangers. These people were all criminals? They were bad parents?
In our post-MADD society that’s certainly how they would be viewed today. But I don’t accept that they loved their children any less than parents today simply because they chose their own way to deal with underage drinking. I recall one of our graduation parties — this was 1977 — that one of my fellow seniors threw. Her parents, along several others parents of seniors, were there and they provided several kegs, which were in the backyard. In the basement there was a true home theater (the father was a projectionist by trade) and he was showing Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein on film. Of the 435 people in my graduating class, it seemed like most of them were there that night. If this scene unfolded today the parents would be hauled off to the hoosegow, as the case with the Virginia couple. Yet it was safe and incident free, like virtually all the parent-chaperoned parties I attended. But one of the consequences of strictly interpreting law in such a way that the letter of it becomes more important than its spirit is that it criminalizes parents for making choices that fall outside the agenda set by neo-prohibitionists and other conservative interests that want to control every aspect of society with their own set of moral values.
When my kids reach their teen years, I would love to be able to teach them about responsible drinking firsthand. But given that doing so might give the state the so-called authority to take them away from me, I won’t risk it. I find it deeply troubling that I can’t decide for myself how to raise them or teach them how to be an adult. The notion that our government can do a better job from afar is preposterous. The best I can hope for is that they’ll see my wife and me drinking responsibly in our home; with meals, on sunny afternoons on the back deck, and so on. Hopefully they’ll also see my many friends in the brewing industry likewise drinking responsibly at the few remaining beer festivals that still allow children. Maybe seeing that will allow them to model responsible behavior and ignore the ridiculous propaganda spewed out by the neo-prohibitionist groups. It would be far better if I could slowly taste them on alcohol so they know what it is, how to choose it and how to enjoy it responsibly. We give 16-year olds learner’s permits so they can learn how to drive with an experienced adult. People should be able to do the same thing with alcohol without fear of being arrested or worse.
Instead, my kids will undoubtedly get most of their information from the media and their peers — despite my best efforts — and most of it will be wrong. Many kids today raised under such conditions understandably become binge drinkers. Anyone with an ounce of sense sees the connection between a lack of education and irresponsible drinking by teens and young adults. Future politicians, hoping to distance themselves from the results of their own lack of education, will call this time in their lives a “youthful indiscretion.” They will likewise fail to see that such an environment was been created by the very people and laws that set out to stop underage drinking. All they’ve succeeded in doing is to make the problem far worse. The Virginia couple heading off to jail has had their lives ruined by a system that made them criminals for trying to do the right thing. Is it really so unreasonable to believe that their son would have wanted to celebrate his 16th birthday with alcohol? I did. Most of the people I know did. It’s only wrong because we — or I should say you and you and you — have decided it’s wrong. It hasn’t been wrong through much of humanity’s history. It isn’t considered wrong right now in many parts of the world. I have no trouble believing this couple reasonably thought they were keeping their son and his friends safe that night. And they very well may have. But that obviously counted for naught. The couple is divorced now. Their son will be turning 21 later this year, in August. His parents’ lives have been ruined. I’d love to know the effect all of this has had on him and his friends who had a nip of beer five years ago. Have they all become alcoholics? Hopeless hooligans and ruffians? N’er do wells destined to be a burden on society for the balance of their lives? Doubtful. It’s more likely they’re normal college-age kids no different from everyone else around them. Apart from the attention this case probably got locally, I doubt it’s had any effect on their lives whatsoever. So in the end two parents who were trying to do the right thing and likely caused no real harm whatsoever ran afoul of neo-prohibitionist agendas and the laws they’ve spawned, and in the process had their lives destroyed. If that’s justice, maybe it’s time she took off the blindfold.