Bread and butter. Chocolate and peanut butter. Drinking and college.
Anyone who thinks that making the drinking age 21 will keep 18- (and even some 17-year-olds) from drinking on campus is blind to a very simple reality. There’s a reason high school juniors and senior quietly shortlist party schools when they’re looking at colleges. After four, or more, years of grinding away at Advance Placement and Honors classes; of losing sleep over extra-curricular activities for the purpose of buffing up their resumes, students are wound tighter than a weasel on turnips.
They need to let go.
When I went back to college in 1980 the drinking age for low-test beer in Ohio was 18. I was 25 and recently discharged from Navy, so I didn’t care, but I had experienced higher drinking ages in Washington where I could get beer on, but not off, base.
That always struck me as fundamentally wrong. At 18 I was considered old enough to volunteer to fight and die for my country but I couldn’t get a fucking shot of Wild Turkey.
Our nation’s destructive experiment with prohibition didn’t end in 1933 with the 21st Amendment. Fluctuating thresholds—low-test beer vs. high-test beer, wine vs. liquor—don’t make a lot of sense, especially when we give 18-year-olds the vote and the military draft, but not alcohol (and of course our present debate over recreational marijuana).
The laws and the stress to excel has created a phenomenon that probably existed in the ’80s but not one I saw during that first Reagan administration: binge drinking. Not drinking to relax. Not drinking to get drunk. Not even drinking to get plastered. Drinking to blackout.
Caitlin Flanagan, reporting in in How Helicopter Parenting Can Cause Binge Drinking for The Atlantic, wants to talk about the Good Parents vs. The Get-Real Parents. She writes:
At high-school gatherings that include parents—sports events, back-to-school nights, college fairs—you can overhear the adults gingerly sounding out one another. They speak in a kind of code, but this is what they want to know: Are you a Good Parent or a Get-Real Parent?
Good Parents think that alcohol is dangerous for young people and that riotous drunkenness and its various consequences have nothing to recommend them. These parents enforce the law and create a family culture that supports their beliefs.
Get-Real Parents think that high-school kids have been drinking since Jesus left Chicago, and that it’s folly to pretend the new generation won’t as well. The horror stories (awful accidents, alcohol poisoning, lawsuits) tend to involve parents who didn’t do it right—who neglected to provide some level of adult supervision, or who forgot to forbid anyone to get in a car after drinking.
Get-Real Parents understand that learning to drink takes a while and often starts with a baptism of fire. Better for Charlotte to barf her guts out on the new sectional than in the shadowy basement of a distant fraternity house. On the nights of big high-school events, Get-Real Parents pay for limos, party buses, Ubers—whatever it takes to ensure that their kids are safe. What is an Uber except a new kind of bike helmet?
In the beginning, everyone is a Good Parent. Bring up teen drinking among parents of elementary-school students and it will elicit the same shiver of horror as the word adolescence itself. But slowly people start defecting. At first, it’s easy to demonize the ones who chuckle fondly about their kids’ boozy misadventures. But by junior year, it feels as though everyone is telling these funny stories. The Good Parents comprise a smaller and smaller cohort, one that tends to stay quiet about its beliefs. Get-Real Parents can be bullies—they love to roll their eyes at the Good Parents, so it’s best not to expose yourself.
The top colleges reward intensity, and binge drinking is a perfected form of that quality.
People who succeed don’t accept half-measures. You either go big or you go home. In disgrace. That’s the message. Flanagan continues:
Professional-class parents and their children are tightly bound to each other in the relentless pursuit of admission to a fancy college. A kid on that track can’t really separate from her parents, as their close involvement in this shared goal is essential. Replicating the social class across a generation is a joint project. That’s why it’s so hard to break into the professional stratum of society: The few available spots are being handed down within families.
Dynasties, even nascent ones, count. Flanagan nails what she sees as the inevitable result:
What 80-hour-a-week executive doesn’t drop her handbag on the console table and head to the wine fridge the second she gets home? Her teenager can’t loosen the pressure valve that way—he has hours of work ahead. A bump of Ritalin is what he needs, not a mellowing half bottle of Shiraz. But come Saturday night? He’ll get his release.
In the United States we worship the manic. We put our Type A Personalities on pedestals, we pay them insane amounts of money, even make movies about them. We even forgive them when they come off the rails because we recognize that only a tiny minority can maintain that level of intensity day and after day after day.
For that tiny minority, with their extraordinary support system of coaches and personal assistants and platinum health care and legal teams, going of the rails is just a cost of doing business. For the rest of us, for our children, with only flimsy, if that, support systems, the costs are much, much higher.