Crazy, is it not, the idea that a 14-year-old should be allowed to consume alcohol? Insane! Irresponsible! Dangerous! At first, I would be inclined to agree, but sober reflection on the severity of alcohol abuse among those who are underage has drawn me to this initially alarming position. I cannot here present every supporting argument, nor can I hope to answer each of the myriad of objections, but I will attempt to address the most pressing of both in the hope of spurring serious conversation on this important issue.
From the outset, let me make one thing clear: I hold a resolute revulsion for alcohol. Whatever uses it has which someone might insist are beneficial, the harm wrought by it warrants its complete removal from society. Most unfortunately, this is not possible. As such, alcohol must be approached in the manner that will most effectively minimize its damaging influence, and it is in our current approach that I find a most severe problem.
Something to which every child looks forward while growing to adulthood is the increasing allotment of liberty. To signal the growing maturity and capability of a youth, there are certain milestones which invest greater freedom and responsibility, some of the more universal including: permission to stay home alone, reaching high school and permission to engage in more varied extracurricular activities, permission to drive, permission to enter the work force on a part-time – then later full-time – basis, permission to enlist in the military, permission to vote, and permission to live independent of one’s parents. Each milestone functions as a proclamation of confidence that an individual understands the potential consequences for abusing the new freedom being granted and possesses the self-discipline to exercise that liberty properly.
A most serious problem with the drinking age being set at 21 is that it becomes the climax of this progression to adulthood and full liberty, setting the permission to consume alcohol above driving, working, enlisting, voting, and personal independence. How is it that someone who has proven capable of self-government in all of these fundamental areas remains incapable of governing alcohol consumption? This illogical situation creates an aura around the notion of drinking which forms the substance of my second reason for lowering the drinking age.
It is well established that there is something about the forbidden that is alluring to human nature, something thrilling about blatantly defying restraints and exploring that from which others intend to keep us. As more freedom is granted, the opportunity and temptation to abuse that freedom grows. Once a boundary has been crossed, this allure of the forbidden inclines to excess. After all, if someone has already broken a conventional rule or law, what would prompt that person to impose another boundary in order to prevent excess, especially after consuming alcohol, which lowers a person’s capacity for sound judgment with every gulp? Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention verify this tendency. Of the alcohol consumed by individuals between the ages of 12 and 20, 90% is by binge drinking. It is really no surprise, then, that another study found that 85% of high school teens who admitted to drinking and driving during the previous month said they also “binge drank.”
Here, the twin objection might be raised that alcohol dependence is far more likely among minors and that a young teenager’s body is much more severely damaged by alcohol than a 21-year-old; therefore, a 14-yearold should not be allowed to drink it. This is a fair and valid point, but it comes to the wrong conclusion. Most of the harm wrought by alcohol, both as a result of internal physical reaction to it and as a result of poor choices made under its influence, occurs as a result of binge drinking. Drinking for the purpose of becoming drunk is what causes people to lose all sense of judgment and control, become extremely ill, and eventually develop a dependence on alcohol. Social drinking – casually drinking while interacting with friends – on the other hand, aims for the pleasure of company and conversation with friends and therefore does not produce drunkenness or illness, nor is the influence of the alcohol so potent as to generate dependence. This distinction may presently be seen by comparing American college students with their European counterparts.
Upon returning from an extended study abroad in Germany – where the drinking age is 16 – one American student recounted that the other Americans would drink themselves to drunkenness while the German students at the same event would drink moderately. Asking the Germans at one such party why they did not do the same, the Germans replied to the American student that they had behaved similarly when they were 14 or 15 but grew out of it. The German college students had pushed boundaries for a couple of years before becoming more moderate; Americans who start binge drinking at 14 spend seven years going ever further past boundaries before the law no longer cares if they drink. German college students, drinking moderately in social settings, are therefore far less hampered by alcohol than binge-drinking American college students. In the context of permission, alcohol is not sought for its own sake, but it is entirely sought for its own sake – and therefore much more subject to abuse – in an environment where it is attached to the allure of the forbidden.
Now, let me make one final point clear. I do not suggest that 14-year-olds be permitted to buy alcohol themselves, only that they be allowed to drink it. If someone older must buy it, it is more likely that someone else will be present when the alcohol is consumed, putting it more into the context of social drinking and doing so with someone who has likely had experience with alcohol and can act as a moderating influence. What I am ultimately proposing is nothing short of changing the mores of society with regard to alcohol, a process that is almost certain to be slow and arduous but well worth it. Lowering the drinking age to 14 will provide an environment in which this process can take place, and, though there will likely be more than a few instances of abuse in the short term, I am convinced that experience and guidance will instill moderation and that the perception of alcohol will change in the long-term.
At 14, one is just about to enter high school, a step which signals the final and most rigorous stages of training for adulthood. Instruction on how to successfully navigate many facets of the adult world is more purposefully administered, and personal responsibility is more seriously demanded. Would it not be far better to introduce alcohol under the guidance of experienced adults rather than under the influence of inexperienced peers?
I find alcohol revolting and wish that it could be removed from existence, but I am moved to a far greater degree by distress over all the harm that is being done to my peers by an approach to alcohol that, in spite of the best intentions, cultivates immoderation, abuse, and disregard for boundaries – thereby undermining self-government – and elevates alcohol to a far greater significance than it ought to bear. A drinking age of 14 would make the ability to consume alcohol prior to – and therefore of lesser significance than – driving, working, enlisting, voting, and living on one’s own. It would allow for an environment of open social drinking rather than secretive binge drinking. It would make the task much easier for adults to monitor alcohol consumption by minors and cultivate moderation. This moderation would lead to far healthier lives for our peers, far better citizens for our communities, and far fewer instances of earth-shattering grief which are now being inflicted by binge drinking.
So, what should the drinking age be? Perhaps 14 does not now seem so crazy. For the sake of our young people, our friends, and family members, we ought to seriously consider what approach is most likely to bring about the best results and continue to devote our utmost efforts toward cultivating the best in each other