Underage Drinking

Dear 4 Moms,

I recently arrived home from work to find my 19 year old son with his feet up casually drinking a beer. When I tried to calmly address this with him, he used the excuse of having a tough day at work. He just moved back from college two weeks ago and began working for a landscape company. He believes that because he is working and behaving as an adult, why shouldn't he be able to have a cold one if he wants to. As our conversation turned to argument and I started to lose my cool and composure, he laughed at me and told me how cute I am when I am angry. Any advice on how to handle this?


Audrey replies:

Hi Tracy,
I won't answer your question directly, instead I'll talk about my own experience.

Early in his college career, my son came home for a weekend to help me with heavy yard work. I like to think that he and I have a good relationship and that he feels he can talk to me about pretty much anything he needs to without fear of censure or withdrawal on my part. He'd already told me about being arrested for graffiti and my reaction had been to ask if they were using electronic fingerprinting now, as opposed to back when I was arrested, for civil disobedience, in the 70s. I listened calmly while he described being in New York City's central holding overnight. See, I'm a groovy mom.

During that same conversation, I also took it upon myself to ask him if he'd tried various drugs, other than pot, which I knew he smoked. We had pretty educational (at least for me) conversation about that subject. I was proud of my open-minded accessibility, I can tell you.

Then he came home. I had bought a small chain saw and was wearing gloves, safety glasses, and jeans whenever I used it. My son laughed at all that stuff (see previous “Helmet Wars” post) and wouldn't use it. I didn't make him.

That night he went out with some friends. The next morning, when I got up to go to work, I found a cigarette butt on my kitchen floor. There went the “groovy” mom. Now, you've got to know 3 things: I'd just bought my little bungalow all by myself, the kitchen floor is carpeted (came with the house), and I am a runner and a singer and I despise cigarettes. I saw that butt and went ballistic. It was about 5 am and I'd heard my son come home around 2. Well, he was going to lose some beauty sleep.
I knocked on his door and when I heard the sleepy, “Come in.” I went in, stood over his bed, and yelled like I've never yelled before. Really, my kids know where I stand on things, but I'm not a yeller.
In no uncertain terms, I allowed myself to tell him how disappointed I was with his behavior, I expressed my anger at his callousness about fire and the risk to my property, and most importantly, my fear at the idea of him being a smoker. If it sounds like I spoke politely, let me correct that impression. I didn't.

A few days later, I was at the therapist who was helping me process my fairly recent divorce. I told him the whole story I've just related to you and he said, “Well, he pushed and pushed, and finally got your attention didn't he?” Duh! I felt the proverbial lightbulb go off above my head. I was relearning that old lesson, ie, my son does not need me to be a friend, he needs me to be his mom. At that point, with the divorce, adjusting to college, the move to a house he hadn't grown up in, my son needed to know that at least one thing hadn't changed; he needed to know that I was who I had always been, his mom.

Tracy, look at your son's flagrant behavior, his language. Think about when he was 2 or 3 and would act badly and then glance over at you to make sure you were looking. The saddest children I've seen are those whose parents want to be their friends. Our growing sons desparately need us to be moms, even if they'd deny it with every breath. We cannot control or shelter them but we can let them know what we believe and were we stand. We can, we should, they want us to.

Kathy responds:

Wow! I dread this day and I know that as the mother of 4 sons, it is going to come. My husband is a big fan of beer, not to excess, but does enjoy it after a long day. Okay, sometimes short days too. So, my kids have seen this behavior. We also have alcoholism in our family, which makes us very cognizant of setting an example of responsible drinking behavior. I write this the morning after 2 glasses of wine during dinner with my husband, which I am thinking might have been one too many for me. :-)

I am learning as I get older that when I don’t know how to respond, or am aware I am going to respond badly, to step away for a minute and regroup. This helps me to be less emotional and hopefully clear speaking and rational. The conversation I would hope to have would start out sympathetic. You are working really hard, it’s tough I know. Then I would let him know how proud I am of that behavior, his responsible attitude and the path he is taking toward becoming a responsible adult. Then, you drop the bomb. He is not a responsible adult yet. Responsible adults don’t live with their mommy. They don’t break the law, which he is doing by drinking underage. (Correct? Is it still 21?) Responsible adults honor their parents, and aren’t disrespectful by breaking the law in their mother’s house and telling her she is cute when she is angry.

Next, lay out the consequence for that behavior. I don’t know what that would be in your family, but I am assuming he is somewhat dependent on you for something other than shelter. Maybe this time he gets a free pass, as your expectations weren’t discussed prior to this incident, but now he knows. So how will you handle this going forward, and are you prepared to follow thru? You are still the Mom, no matter how old the kid is. It is your job to point out bad behavior and help your kids get thru it. You also have the right to be respected throughout that process. You won’t get that respect if you don’t do your job well.

Rachel chimes in:

Lately there have been a rash of deaths here in RI associated with underage drinking. In many of the cases, parents were either directly involved in supplying the alcohol, or they willingly turned a blind eye and allowed the kids to drink in the house. As parents, we have to be very clear about our position on this issue. It really is a matter of life or death. And while I don’t think Tracey’s son is going to get hurt having one beer, it is clear that he doesn’t take Tracey or the situation seriously. I agree with Audrey and Kathy that it is time to set very clear boundaries.

4 Responses to "Underage Drinking"

E responded on June 5, 2008 at 9:45 PM #

I smoke pot, and I'm glad my Mom is cool with that. I also experiment with a few other drugs, and I'm glad my Mom is cool with that too. The
funny thing to me about that whole situation was, I don't smoke cigarettes. I think I had just bought a pack, maybe one of the two I've bought my entire life, so I could smoke some at a party or
something. I didn't even smoke any in Rhode Island, I just left them in my pocket and forgot about them, and some fell onto the floor. It
was very confusing and frustrating to be woken up by my Mom yelling at me for reasons I was unclear about, and then realizing there was no
way I could convince her that I don't care about cigarettes at all and the only reason they were here in the house was cause I forgot about
them. I understand that you were mad to find a cigarette butt on the floor, I would be too. I guess you could also say that by getting on
my case so hard about that one cigarette butt, you were making sure I never got interested in them. Still, it was pretty funny to me, once I
got over the frustration, over how much my Mom and Dad thought I was addicted to cigarettes or something. Seriously, every phone call from
my Dad for a month afterwards would include, "Did you smoke today?" like he was following advice he had read on the bus stop ad: "Talk to
your kids about smoking". I really couldn't impress upon my parents at all how little danger there was of my being addicted to cigarettes.
They just make me kind of nauseous. I guess what I'm trying to say is, even if you were doing me a favor by making sure I didn't become even
remotely intrested in ciggerettes, it wasn't a cry for help. I'm just forgetful.

In the case of Tracy, she can tell her son not to drink beer in her house, it's her house. And I think he sounds a little rude when he says
"You're cute when you're angry," But beyond that, all she can do is talk to him about drinking beer in college, she can't control that.

Unknown responded on June 8, 2008 at 9:55 PM #

Thank you every body for your input on this issue.
I appreciate the core truth: we need to provide framework. We are the moms. We provide support and guidance and limits. In learning to respect and obey within the loving and forgiving framework of home and family, out children learn to respect and obey in a world largely uncaring and certainly unforgiving.
Thank you for reminding me of this.
I just returned from the birth of my first grandchild and am raising an 11-year old. I needed this framework clarified.

Unknown responded on June 8, 2008 at 9:55 PM #
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rachel Nguyen responded on June 10, 2008 at 2:02 PM #


Thanks for your comment and your question. I am glad we could help!