A coalition of college presidents has aggravated the usual suspects—and even some writers I usually agree with, like Steve Chapman and Jay Hancock—by arguing that the drinking age should come down to 18. I'm with the anthropologist Dwight Heath, who takes their argument a step further:
[D]rinking alcohol itself is not the root of the social, legal and physical problems attributed to underage drinking. Rather, it is heavy, excessive drinking among teenagers that is causing most of the problems.
It is this culture of excessive drinking among youths that some college presidents hope to change. They want to teach young people how to drink responsibly, a lesson that I believe should include encouraging parents to drink in moderation with their underage children at home.
Heath points out that "kids who drank with their parents were about half as likely to say they had drunk alcohol in the past month and one-third as likely to say they had had five or more consecutive drinks in the previous two weeks." (He also distinguishes drinking moderate amounts at dinner, which he endorses, from supplying kids with booze for their parties, which he does not.) Most important, he points to some compelling cross-cultural evidence:
Introducing alcohol to children at a young age is a widely acceptable and culturally ingrained practice in other countries. France views drinking as an integral part of everyday life, a sociable custom usually enjoyed at the family table. Children are allowed to experiment, within limits, and no one expects that drinking will significantly change their lives. The fear that teaching kids to be responsible drinkers will only teach them to be heavy drinkers has been unfounded in other "wine cultures," including Italy and Spain. Both countries report very low rates of alcohol dependence: less than 1 percent in Italy and 2.8 percent in Spain. In the U.S., the rate is 7.8 percent.
Whatever else it may be, drinking is a learned behavior. It is shaped by a complex combination of observations, warnings and personal experience. The U.S. needs to start recreating a culture like the one we had 200 years ago where alcohol was an everyday part of family life and not the tempting forbidden fruit.
Both France and Italy, incidentally, have a drinking age of 16. I don't often get a chance to say this, so here goes: If only we were as free as France!