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Column: It takes a village to say no to underage drinking

by Maggie Anderson
| May 28, 2009 12:00 AM

I love the phrase “it takes a village to raise a child,” and recent data confirms the value of a child’s village from their own perspective.

According to Steve Seninger, University of Montana evaluator, analysis of 2006 Prevention Needs Assessment data involving 19,643 Montana teens grades 8-12 reveals eighth-graders named parents as the most important influence in choosing not to use alcohol.

Adults in the community ranked second. Twelfth-graders rank parents second, while cultural norms such as the drinking behaviors of adults in the community topped the list for seniors.

At a time when parents of teenagers often feel their voice falls on deaf ears or that what they think, feel or hope for doesn’t matter to their child – nothing could be further from the truth. Children of all ages look to the adults in their life to help guide them in making healthy choices. 

Many are now aware that Lincoln County leads the nation in youth binge drinking. As spring ushers in a flurry of sponsored activities, in addition to athletic events, music festivals and final exams – many Lincoln County youth are also planning to attend senior kegs and graduation parties.

According to 2008 PNA data, 102 of the 227 12th-graders in Lincoln County are likely to binge drink in a typical two-week period.

If statistics hold true this summer, every couple of weeks, nearly half of the countywide senior class will ride with someone who has been drinking, 26 teenage drivers will get behind the wheel of a car and drive drunk, and two or three friends will join each of them as passengers.

Alcohol-related crashes continue to be the No. 1 killer of American youth.

But backwoods parties are not the only source of alcohol for youth this time of year. Graduation weekend is fast approaching for all three schools in Lincoln County and friends and relatives will travel miles to celebrate the accomplishments of our graduates.

Families will celebrate in their home or backyard and many will include alcohol as part of the celebration. Parents struggle with the thought of their child and their child’s friends helping themselves to a cold one during a party they are hosting. 

In fact, many are concerned that when their child attends a party hosted by another family, access to alcohol might be an issue. If you feel alone in that struggle – don’t. According to a regional study conducted by the Harstad Group, 87 percent of area residents believe it is wrong for minors to drink alcohol and 90 percent of area residents believe it is wrong for adults to provide alcohol to minors.

Remember, providing alcohol to minors is against the law and carries with it a stiff penalty.

When my own children were growing up I often told them to use us as an excuse not to drink.

“My parents will kill me!” works for many kids before they are strong enough to stand on their own beliefs.  In a community where long-standing community norms send the message that underage drinking is a rite of passage and just part of growing up – it may seem difficult for parents to say no when faced with the question “Can I have one?”

But community norms are changing and awareness of the physical and emotional consequences of underage drinking is growing. If saying no to your 18-year-old feels awkward – know that you are supported by the majority of community members in Lincoln County. And besides, what better excuse to offer up than, “Are you kidding?  It’s against the law and I could get into big trouble!”

I am fortunate to be a part of this particular village and look forward to the time when Lincoln County youth no longer hold the No. 1 spot for binge drinking and when community members shake their heads as they look back at numbers and percentages so far out of the norm.

For now, there is much to do. I am proud of the creative ways families, community leaders, law-enforcement officials and parent groups across Lincoln County have committed to acknowledging the difficulties today’s youth face as they make their way to adulthood. 

I am encouraged by the willingness of so many adults to engage the issue and continue to both enforce the rules that have been set and offer up alternative activities that are entertaining and alcohol free.

Lincoln County seniors are about to cross the stage, turn their tassels and head into to the world armed with lessons learned from growing up in small-town America. There are many more to follow.

It is hopeful to know that our collective voices matter and important to remember the value of our input as youth continue to make their way.

This spring season – no matter what the occasion – say yes to enforcing rules already in place and no to serving alcohol to minors. And please consider standing firm in a message that expects our community’s youth to stay alcohol free.

(Maggie Anderson is a local resident involved with the Montana Community Change Project, which uses an environmental approach to address the alcohol-related focus areas, including underage binge drinking and underage drinking and driving).