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