ZERO Tolerance: How Firm the Line?

A friend phoned her neighbor, complaining about the wafts of marijuana smoke that circled up and into to her kitchen window from the neighbor's driveway during the warm summer nights. The neighbor's teenagers and their friends were smoking out in the driveway. My friend said the mother's response was, "Well, that's what kids do, isn't it?"

What parents expect of our kids often becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

It seems simple, in the above example, to see the mother at fault. Many of us who are dead set against our kids using drugs don't have trouble seeing the error in her ways.

But what about alcohol use? This issue feels much less clear to many parents.

The "Zero tolerance" policy that is present in many communities is supposed to give a clear message to teenagers. We all know that the drinking age is 21, and the statistics that indicate fewer teenaged drunken driving accidents support this law. The zero tolerance laws make the consequences of teenage drinking clear, theoretically providing an additional deterrent to this illegal behavior.

But it's not so clear for parents. When living with teenagers who are actually in the process of making those decisions, the range of choices becomes much more complex. This was highlighted to me recently when in the company of a parent who loudly declared "My kids don't drink!" (His kids are 18 and 20 years old.) What made his declaration so surprising is even I know this simply isn't true. More than a little surprised at both his desire to boast of his "ideal" teenagers, and his ignorance, it caused me to re-examine this tough issue for parents. Let's look at some of the issues parents must face around alcohol use of older teenagers.*

By the time kids have graduated from high school, 80% of them have tried alcohol. So, if most kids are going to experiment with alcohol, attentive parents must question what they can do to keep kids safe. This sticky wicket includes looking at the questions: if I allow my teenager to drink at home, am I actually encouraging the behavior? If my teenager is drinking, how do I know if he/she is do it as safely as possible? What role do I play in keeping my teen safe while not encouraging drinking? Is our relationship open enough to tolerate honest conversation about his/her behavior in drinking? Can my teen trust me to have smart, realistic, and honest discussion around this topic?

TIME magazine quoted many adults, even several college presidents who feel that the drinking age of 21 creates more problems than it solves. It pushes drinking underground, where adult supervision disappears. It forces kids to drink furtively, and may actually encourage the irresponsible behavior that it is trying to prevent. We know in most European countries teenagers are brought up with alcohol available to them, and they don't seem to have the same struggles that we do with teenage drinking. Is Zero tolerance helping us, or hurting us?

These are really difficult questions. And many of these questions must be examined by each parent of a teenager as you sort through this challenging area. By not knowing that your kids may be drinking at parties, you may be forcing them get behind the wheel of a car at night so they get home by curfew. By not honestly facing and discussing their interest in drinking, you may be denying them the chance to learn from you how to drink responsibly, and to demonstrate their ability to make good decisions. You may have denied your chance to hear their honest opinion and to know what they think. Will your teenager be prepared to make good decisions upon leaving home after high school? Some kids, particularly those who haven't had much freedom in their past, party too hard when they find themselves in an unsupervised environment, having little experience demonstrating balance and judgment around alcohol.

On the other hand, by allowing them to go to the homes and places where alcohol is available, your teenager is now subject to all kinds of possible consequences: is he/she going to drink too much? Can you rely on their use of designated drivers? And what if they get caught drinking while underage? The legal consequences of zero tolerance can be serious.

Each family must find their own way through these challenging issues. The law will tell us the issue is clear, but most parents of teenagers know that the reality of making these choices can be gut wrenching at times.

Being a parent of a teenager is one of the most challenging positions you'll ever find yourself in. And this discussion will demonstrate what many of you have already experienced: sometimes every option you have feels undesirable for one reason or another. But sticking your head in the sand may be the option that's the least responsible. Ask yourself: What's more important, that your teenager make decisions you agree with, or that he/she learns to make good decisions that keep him safe?

*There are some different issues when speaking about younger teens who experiment with alcohol. Statistics show that kids who are drinking before the age of 15 are four times as likely to become dependent on alcohol as those who start drinking at 21. They are also 10 times more likely to be involved in a fight after drinking alcohol, seven times likelier to be involved in a car accident, and 12 times likelier to be injured.

© Sue Blaney 2004

Sue Blaney is the author of Please Stop the Rollercoaster! How Parents of Teenagers Can Smooth Out the Ride and Practical Tips for Parents of Young Teens; What You Can Do to Enhance Your Child's Middle School Years. As a communications professional and the parent of two teenagers, she speaks frequently to parents and schools about parenting issues, improving communications and creating parent discussion groups. Visit her website at

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