It all begins with drinking in the home

Teenagers are just following their parents' example when they binge drink, writes high-school pupil Verity Johnson.

Teenagers pay as much attention to the legal age as they do to a fabric sale at Spotlight.

Red-cheeked amusement at plastic breasts is something I associate with 13-year-old boys. Or did until I was marched to a dinner party with my parents. Apparently 50-year-old men find the synthetic sensations equally appealing.

"Bring out the girls!" chanted the boys.

So out the girls came.

Specifically, the breasts appeared first: 20cm of plastic preceded their owners out the door. The girls, and their boulder bosoms, formed a conga line and began to dance around the boys.

(You'll understand that I'm using "girls" and "boys" loosely here - both genders of guest had grandchildren present.)My first thought was there was LSD in my canape. Then I remembered the adults had been downing the beers like they were blackcurrant squash.

When the feather boas came out, I decided it was time for me to go home.

But the night did explain one thing. After watching adults, I can see where teenage binge drinking comes from. We're just following our parents' example.

When the Alcohol Reform Bill goes back to Parliament this month, New Zealand will vote on whether we should raise the drinking age. But, even if it does become 20, it's not going to stop teenage binge drinking.

Even my most moralistic mates think raising the age is pointless.

The present legal age is just ignored. According to the New Zealand parliamentary library, in 2003 the average age to start drinking in New Zealand was 13.6.

That's a whopping 4.4 years under the present age limit. Teenagers pay as much attention to the legal age as they do to a fabric sale at Spotlight. So it's optimistic to expect increasing it will deter a population determined to drink.

In any case, fake IDs are easy to come by. In 2009, just one Auckland teenager sold hundreds of fake identifications to pupils from more than 15 Auckland schools. If I had wanted to get a fake ID I could; they are as normal to us as iPods. So if the drinking age is raised, more teenagers will just buy more fake IDs. We haven't tackled the motivations behind drinking, so the problem is going to continue.

Besides, does the Government's stance on issues have that much effect?

Look at cannabis: it's illegal but New Zealand is the world's ninth-highest cannabis consumer.

What we know about people is they learn from others. In psychology, the social learning theory states that children learn from observing behaviour of others. The likelihood of replicating the behaviour is increased if the child likes the person. We pick up habits from people we admire, such as parents or friends.

When we're growing up, our parents are the people who set out right and wrong. So if, like in my experience above, parents spend nights in conga lines then this normalises the behaviour for kids.

It also means parents' banning drinking won't work. Not with that stench of hypocrisy.

What about society?

We have a drinking culture. Remember (or rather don't remember) New Year's Eve?

You're supposed to have been so drunk that you can't remember whether you hooked up with a person or a tree. And sports games?

Winning, losing, drawing, throwing, or anything to do with sports equals a booze-up. Our society says to be drunk is to have fun. It's a little naive to expect teenagers will interpret BYO as bring your orange juice.

If we actually want to reduce teenage binge drinking, we need to change what society demands. We need to show that drinking responsibly is the way to go. After all, drinking is going to happen.

Moderating it is the challenge.

According to Italy's Permanent Observatory on Alcohol and Youth, Italian teens advocate drinking responsibly. They look down upon teens who binge drink. Where is the difference between New Zealand and Italy apart from the sexy accent?

Italian families teach their teenagers to drink responsibly. Alcohol is also a neutral substance. But in New Zealand it's a ticket to confidence and social charisma. What insecure teen can resist that mystique?

Teenagers can be rash, insecure and excited by growing up. Parents need to recognise this; they can't just whip out the booze and say "she'll be right".

We definitely can't ban teens from drinking and rely on the Sober Fairy to keep the RTDs away. Both ways will find us peeling people off the pavement.

Adults need to help teach teens. Set a good example at home. Be a mentor. Otherwise teens might not make it to adulthood.

Verity Johnson (17) is from Coatesville, Auckland.

 

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