Tippling Teens: What British Parents in America Need to Know

Partying with underaged drinkers is not a good idea. (Dreamworks)

It’s not a good idea to party with underage drinkers. (Dreamworks)

As the mother of young adults, I’m afraid I can’t dole out any pearls of wisdom since I’m flying by the seat of my pants. What I can offer, though, are a few warnings about alcohol rules in the U.S.

The Minimum Legal Drinking Age (MLDA) for alcohol consumption and/or possession is 21 in all 50 states. The details vary from state to state, and there are exceptions, so it is important to know your state’s laws. For example, some states allow consumption with parental consent, on private non-alcohol-selling premises. Others, like Connecticut, don’t explicitly prohibit consumption, but do ban possession, and since you can’t consume booze without first possessing it …  

And then we have West Virginia, where the code bans consumption of alcohol by a minor but allows blood relatives or relatives by marriage to furnish minors with alcohol. Loosely translated, you can send your kid for your six-pack, as long as your brother runs the liquor store, but the kid can’t take a sip.

It’s important to know the law because infractions have far-reaching and irreparable consequences. Most schools have a drug and alcohol policy, covering misuse in school or at school-sponsored events. Some weekend/home time misuse can be subject to disciplinary action and many schools ask their athletes to pledge not to smoke, possess/use alcohol and unauthorized drugs at any time. School disciplinaries, if written up, become part of student records, which are seen by colleges during the application process. (Every single college my two teens looked at asked about disciplinary records.)

Incidentally, college students under the age of 21, are also subject to alcohol rules which can be enforced either by campus police or by the “real” police in their town or city. Consequences vary from expulsions to a “slap on the wrist” for the first offense, but although your student will tell you that “everyone does it”, s/he should know the risks. As with high schools, written discipinaries go on the students’ college record, which potential employers may see.

On top of all that, all 50 states have zero tolerance for drivers under 21 who drive with any amount of alcohol in their system. In many states, any infraction (ie. even when not driving) of MLDA rules results in loss of driving privileges. (Referred to as use and lose laws.) Falsifying or tampering with an I.D. in order to obtain alcohol has an even higher price tag and could lead to felony charges. Ironically, kids over 18 will be punished as adults even though their “crime” is not being old enough to drink.

As an adult with or without children, you can also incur the wrath of the law when it comes to teen drinking. As reported in this article, 28 states have “social hosting laws” which impose criminal penalties on the host of a party where underage drinking occurs. Yes, that’s right, you can face the slammer if kids drink at your house, whether you know they’re drinking or not, and despite your best efforts to prevent it. In states like Delaware, not only will you receive a fine and mandatory community service, should an intoxicated minor injure someone else, the victim can now bring a civil action and sue the pants off the “social host”. Some states, like Illinois, have a “safe harbor” exception if you call in the police to help with a situation.  (At this point, parents, you might like to learn how to protect yourselves.)

As Brits, we’re not used to this older drinking age, and many of us might be tempted to flout it or “introduce teens to sensible alcohol use” by allowing them to drink at home or to drink in moderation. Whatever your views on the 21 minimum drinking age, it’s the law.

*This post does not constitute legal advice. Laws regarding underage drinking and “social hosting” are changing all the time and many non-governmental web sites are not up to date. Always do your homework.

Do you have teens in your house? 

See More:
A Brit’s Guide to Understanding American High School Customs
‘Real Americans': Five Widely Held Stereotypes Debunked
8 Situations When Brits Behave Differently From Americans 


Toni Hargis

Toni Summers Hargis is a British author who has lived in the USA since 1990. Toni blogs as Expat Mum and is the author of Rules, Britannia - An Insider's Guide to Life in the United Kingdom and The Stress-Free Guide to Studying in the States; A Step-by-Step Plan for International Students. She has made frequent appearances on radio and TV discussing US/UK matters.
View all posts by Toni Hargis.
  • Jane

    I’m American and I agree that the drinking age should be lowered back to 18 but until that happens it needs to be followed unless you and your child want to suffer some pretty harsh consequences as the author mentioned. The son of a friend was in the very elite Navy Seal training program where only a tiny percentage of recruits successfully make it all the way. This young man, aged 20, was in the last phase and had one more step to go and was certain to pass. He was arrested for underage drinking at a college party and lost his place in the Navy Seal program. No second chances.

    • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Toni Hargis

      Yup. Most kids don’t get caught, but when they do it can be devastating.

  • Karen

    What I find really odd is that kids can drive at 16 and marry even younger in some states (I’m assuming that’s still the case?) but not drink til they’re 21. And what’s the US voting age – 18 like the UK? Beggars belief they can elect a president but not have a glass of wine.

    • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Toni Hargis

      It is heavily supported by groups like MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) who aimed to stop teens getting in cars and killing people (themselves included). However, there is some pretty convincing data out there that shows that although driving fatalities have come down considerably in recent decades, it’s not necessarily due to the 21 drinking law. Driving fatalities have come down over all age groups and in the states that were the last ones to raise the age, the rates were already steeply declining. Improvements in car safety and technology have also vastly improved the statistics.
      And….in my experience, people over 21 get into cars over the limit all the time. There should be way more emphasis and punishment for this.

    • gn

      Both the voting age and the drinking age are set independently by each state. However, the 26th Amendment prevents any state from setting the voting age higher than 18, and in practice it’s 18 everywhere, at least for federal elections.

      The drinking age was raised to 21 as the result of a Reagan-era campaign to withhold road funding to states that permitted under-21s to drink legally.

      • Sally

        Yes, and from my understanding this was largely due to drink driving by young people who crossed state lines to obtain alcohol. For instance, NH had a higher drinking age than VT, so students at a place like Dartmouth in Hanover, NH frequently drove over the state line to purchase alcohol legally, then drove home. It would be too Federalist to mandate a state-wide drinking age, so this was the alternative to bring the states in line with each other.

        • gn

          I don’t really think so. The better solution to that problem would have been for Congress to pass nationwide legislation governing interstate transport of alcohol, while leaving the states to set their own internal drinking ages.

    • HowManyNamesDoINeed

      I turned 18 during the Vietnam military draft era, when a popular campaign got Congress to bring all of the age limits – voting, drinking – down to the same 18 as the draft and legal-contract age. Yes, the marriage age is 16 (with parental consent) in most states, and the learner’s permit (and farm equipment) age is also 16. There is no federal law specifically forcing a drinking age of 21, but any state that stayed down at 18 was cut off from federal highway funds – the power of the purse. The military draft age consistently remained 18, and I’m betting if there were ever a draft activated again the age laws would be a hot grounds of contention very quickly.

      • msupp

        The learner’s permit age is 15 in most states, with licensing at 16 (albeit with various conditions, such as curfew and in some states, limits to the number of passengers)

  • gn

    Many states also have “open container” laws, where it’s illegal to have an unsealed container of alcohol accessible in the car, even if no one is drinking from it. You have to put it in the trunk (boot).

    • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Toni Hargis

      And, in Illinois, if you order a bottle of wine and don’t finish it, they have to put it in a special sealed bag before they can give it to you to take home. Ingenious. (If you’re driving, that is.)

  • gn

    It’s a minefield. Under California law I can’t “give” or “furnish” alcohol to my kids. If the kids have their own alcohol (without purchasing it) and consume it in our home, we would seem to be OK as long as they don’t have a blood alcohol concentration of over 0.05% or drive a car.

    Would it be OK for them to get a bottle of wine from the kitchen and pour it themselves, right in front of me? It appears so, but who knows.

    • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Toni Hargis

      I think they leave it deliberately vague so that they can come down on you if they want to. Similarly, if your drunk child then causes damage, it leaves it possible to sue you for any costs. It’s the same as the laws about leaving a child alone. I tried to find out the age in Illinois many years ago, and even a friend who is a family lawyer couldn’t find a definitive statement. It all basically said “It depends…”.

      I would say (as a British law degree holder) your answer is no – You (or any adult) can’t give alcohol to them, (and having it in the kitchen is “furnishing”) and for them to buy it, someone must have “furnished” it, so it’s not possible. However, if they have their own brewing kit……

  • Kelsey

    I’m a college student at one of the biggest party schools in the US (West Virginia University). I’m also only 19. Underage drinking is certainly socially acceptable (especially here, ha. gotta love those football games), but not so much legally. Generally, when teens/underage people drink in the US, its way more extreme. A lot of the time, most people go out and binge drink, or “drinking for the purpose of getting drunk.” I think the drinking culture is a lot more relaxed in the UK, and when we (underage) drink over here, we get way too excited lol. I don’t know if its because most of our ancestors were Irish (I’m teasing, :p) or what, but a lot of people do tend to go overboard. I’m not sure if that’s the case in the UK?

    • HowManyNamesDoINeed

      I firmly believe that the underage drinking laws *encourage* binge drinking. “Can’t do it openly, gotta get it all when I can.” American laws tend to be absolutist in the interest of simplicity, which also encourages disrespect for the law; as well to be hung for a sheep as a lamb, though a single glass of beer or wine with dinner is very different from downing a bottle.

    • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Toni Hargis

      To be honest, the “sensible drinking” thing doesn’t hold up in the UK. The binge drinking in many big cities is atrocious. There was a TV show (can’t remember the channel) about 24 hours in a London emergency room, and they staff and budget for drink-related injuries on Friday and Sat nights.
      People in other European countries seem to have a healthier relationship with alcohol, but many British kids go out and get absolutely bladdered. Now that pubs can serve later, many kids drink at home and don’t go out till 11pm.
      It might have something to do with the many years of limited access, where pubs closed at 10.30pm, and were only open at lunch time and then again at 5.30 or 6pm. It became the forbidden fruit.
      The minimum age in the USA might be ridiculous, but the drinking habits aren’t any worse.

  • Cat

    Oh dang, there is such a heavy cultural difference between the True English countries and America. Wow, I didn’t know that they could have alcohol earlier. Americans must really look like Idiots to the Brits.