Is home schooling best for drinking?

Times Staff Writer

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.

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.

Even with a slight decline in drinking and the popularity of “zero tolerance” approaches, a question almost demands to be asked: Shouldn’t teenagers be taught about how to be responsible when they (almost inevitably) engage in this behavior?

“You’re putting your finger on a pretty controversial issue in the field,” says Joel Grube, director of the Prevention Research Center in Berkeley, which is funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “First of all, it is illegal, but there are researchers and others who believe that what you need to do is teach young people how to drink safely.” (He is not among them.) This, he says, is the field of “harm reduction,” the theory governing the logic behind giving addicts clean needles. People will always engage in certain behaviors, the thinking goes, so work to limit the damage.

Psychologist Stanton Peele, an addiction expert at the New York-based Drug Policy Alliance, which seeks to reform what it considers failed drug policy, is a proponent of harm reduction. “Every civilized non-psychotic human being has offered their children alcohol,” says Peele, who says Americans are terminally mixed up about how to address such issues. “We always approach appetitive behaviors in a moralistic and restrictive way: don’t do drugs, don’t smoke, don’t drink.” Peele had just attended a drug and alcohol awareness night in Summit, N.J., where the discussion focused on binge drinking among young people. “Nobody ever brought up the idea of responsible use or any kind of training in responsible use.”

Jake Engelskirger took a mandatory health class at Napa High and, he says, the issue of alcohol was never addressed. “There was a whole sex ed week, and a little about drugs, but nothing about alcohol.”

Some researchers think the drivers education model offers something of value for alcohol education. Sociologist David Hanson, a retired professor from State University of New York at Potsdam who has studied alcohol use in college students, embraces what he readily admits is a non-starter of an idea: learner’s permits for drinkers.

“Clearly, driving is dangerous, it takes maturity and skill, but we don’t simply tell young people driving is dangerous, it kills and injures a lot of people, you’re too young to do it, and then on their 21st birthday hand them the keys to the car and say, ‘OK, now you can drive.’ This is what we do with drinking.”

The best way for parents to teach their children about drinking, says George Packer, director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s Alcohol Policies Project, is to set a good example. “I don’t think there ought to be general rules on the topic. That should be left to individual parents. If that were to become the norm, I think there would be substantial problems because a lot of parents don’t really know much about alcohol either, and training kids to drink in the home will probably not have that much effect on the kids’ drinking outside the home, which is where most of it occurs.”

What’s legal

He offers another caveat: “When you adopt the thinking that teaching people to drink is important, that’s already, I think, down a slippery slope that suggests drinking is important, everybody does it. It’s a pro-drinking message in and of itself.”

Although it is illegal in California for anyone younger than 21 to consume or possess alcohol in public, or for anyone to purchase or provide alcohol to an unrelated minor, parents may legally serve their children alcohol in their homes, says David Labahn, executive director of the California District Attorneys Assn. As long as no unlawful behavior ensues -- driving, fighting or public inebriation -- there’s no legal prohibition.

“There is no statute that says a parent or guardian is precluded from serving, say, a 17-year-old individual a glass of wine,” Labahn says. “As you go down in age, some medical professionals might say that furnishing alcohol is detrimental to the child’s development, and that could be child endangerment or contributing to the delinquency of a minor.” But he could find no instances of prosecutions involving this issue.

Jim Koch, founder of the Boston Beer Co. and father of four, bristles at the idea that it is wrong to teach children about alcohol by allowing them to try it. Koch, the familiar voice and face behind Sam Adams beer, laid down a few rules about drinking for his older kids when they were teenagers. “I may part company with others, but as a parent, you have to assume that before they’re 21, they’re going to be exposed in one way, shape or another to alcohol .... I believe that a parent has a responsibility to educate, guide and shape a kid’s attitude.”

Among the rules he has taught his children: Don’t have more than one drink an hour. If you’re drinking out of plastic cups, nest the cups so you don’t forget how much you’ve had. And never, ever do shots. “Nothing good happens when people do shots,” he says.

His children would sometimes accompany him during business visits to restaurants and bars, and in places like those, they learned how unpleasant drunk people can be. “If you’re 14 and you see someone who’s drunk, it’s no longer something you aspire to,” Koch says. “You are watching repulsive behavior and you don’t want to be that way.”

Jen Sherwin, a 23-year graduate student at Cal State Chico, grew up with winemaking parents at the Sherwin Family Vineyard on Spring Mountain in the Napa Valley. When she left home for college, she says, she was surprised at how many students went overboard with alcohol. “It was absolutely insane. There was a lot of alcohol poisoning, a lot of kids had to get their stomachs pumped. People would drink 24/7. I was like, oh my gosh, I have to study.”

What she observed was that the kids who went the craziest were the kids from families that were restrictive and did not talk to their children about alcohol except to forbid it. “I had other friends up there from Napa Valley who didn’t go overboard either, because we are used to being around wine, and the freedom of being able to drink wasn’t overwhelming to us.”

Julie Johnson, a former public health nurse and Napa Valley winemaker, has spent many hours pondering the obligations of parents to children in a place where wine not only brings pleasure but also puts bread on the table. In 1981, Johnson and her now ex-husband founded the winery Frog’s Leap.

Today she owns a small winery called Tres Sabores, and her husband, Jon Engelskirger, is the winemaker at Turnbull Wine Cellars. She is also Kelly Williams’ mother and Jake Engelskirger’s stepmother.

Test cases

Sitting in Peet’s Coffee in Napa, she leafs through the contents of a file she has compiled over the years. “Here’s one that’s interesting,” she says, holding up an old newspaper story about the demotion of a Denver-area principal for allowing seventh- and eighth-graders to take a sip of wine during a three-hour meal at the end of a school trip to Paris. “I think there’s a whole history of knee-jerk reactions to the subject.”

Johnson thinks that her generation of winemakers -- people who were trained in viticulture and oenology programs at UC Davis and Fresno State in the 1970s and are more or less the reason for the American wine boom of the last two decades -- are something of a test case for the subject of teaching kids about alcohol. “I don’t know any vintner or winemaker who has consciously refrained from offering their kids the occasional sip of wine,” Johnson says. “We didn’t stop any of our blended family of six children from enjoying a glass of champagne in a toast to our new marriage three years ago.”

She believes -- perhaps naively, she admits -- that parents can teach children to be conscientious alcohol consumers, foremost by talking about the issue and modeling appropriate behavior, but she also understands that not every parent is equipped for the task. Like Koch, she has imparted rules to her children: It’s not healthy for you to drink while your body is growing, it’s never healthy to drink to excess and it is absolutely unacceptable to be drunk or be out of control.

So far, her parenting techniques seem to be paying off. All three of her children, she says, have commented on “how the kids at their schools who get wild and abuse alcohol the most have the least trustful relationships with their parents and/or have to deal with the most punitive attitudes and mixed messages about alcohol at home or in their churches.”

To hear Johnson’s 17-year old daughter talk, the lessons imparted at the family table have been taken to heart.

“I’ve just grown up around the idea that you shouldn’t just drink alcohol for the sake of alcohol -- that it should taste good and it should feel good when you put it in your mouth,” Kelly Williams says. “It’s something to enjoy, not abuse.”