I’d like to start by thanking the Wisconsin Department of Health Services for partnering with me on this important sponsored campaign around underage drinking. I’m participating in the Small Talks campaign because both as a teacher and as a parent, I know firsthand how important it is to have these hard conversations with our kids.
If you’ve been following along here at Wisconsin Mommy for any length of time, you probably know that I grew up in New England. Unless you’ve lived there, you probably don’t know how different their attitude toward alcohol is than the attitude here. Just to give you a glimpse, I’ll share that where I grew up in Connecticut, any alcohol you purchased had to be covered by a bag. Grabbing a six-pack of beer for the Patriots game? Yep, had to be in a bag. Bottle of wine for dinner? Yep – into a bag it went.
Then I moved to New Hampshire where you can only buy liquor at a state-owned liquor store. The prices were pretty good (at least compared to Massachusetts) but they were closed on Sundays. Need a bottle of something for some friends coming over to watch the Patriots game? (Yes, all the states share the same football team. I know, right???) Hopefully, you planned ahead because you weren’t buying it on a Sunday! (I’ve been told they are now open limited hours on Sundays.)
The laws were pretty strict if you were caught driving under the influence as well. As a kid, I knew adults who had lost their licenses due to drunk driving after their first offense. Under 21 and get caught with a blood-alcohol level of .02 or higher? You weren’t going to be driving anymore for quite a while.
When I first moved to Wisconsin, the difference in the attitude toward alcohol was obvious. The first time I bought a bottle of wine, I waited for the cashier to put it in a bag and she looked at me like I was crazy. Seeing people walking around the Milwaukee Zoo drinking out of beer cans felt really strange to me. Hearing stories of drunk drivers causing accidents and then hearing it was their third, fourth or even FIFTH offense and they still had their licenses absolutely blew my mind. As an elementary school teacher, I was very aware of how these attitudes were affecting my students. I once had a fourth-grader tell me he had drunk some of his father’s beer at a restaurant because “it is legal for minors to drink in public in Wisconsin if their parents are with them”. I was sure this child was wrong but a quick search proved he was absolutely right.
Once I became a mom, I was even more worried about what kinds of messages were being sent to kids about the use of alcohol. Listen, I’m not necessarily saying that the Puritanical approach I grew up with is the solution. I knew plenty of kids who abused alcohol when I was growing up and some even developed lifelong battles with it. Sometimes the more forbidden and “off-limits” something is, the more attractive it is. And we all know how kids tune out when parents sit them down to have “THE TALK”. They see adults doing one thing and then get lectured and told not to do what they see adults doing all the time. We need to come up with a different solution.
This is why the Small Talks campaign resonated with me.
The Small Talks campaign puts forth the idea that, rather than sitting down for one big talk when kids become teens, we should be having lots of little talks with them starting before they are exposed to alcohol – as young as 8 years old. And the conversations need to go beyond “just say no” or “because it’s against the law”. We should be talking about how alcohol can impact brain development in kids and teens. Children can totally comprehend that this fact is part of the reason adults can drink, but kids shouldn’t.
Small Talks can occur any time and hopefully often. During the commercial break of a TV show, while preparing dinner or (my favorite) while in the car are all good times to have these talks. Everyone is feeling casual and comfortable and there isn’t the dreaded I’m-getting-lectured feel that can sometimes turn kids off. Plus, we all know that we need to repeat things many times to truly get through to our kids! They’ve got a lot going on and need to hear our message several times at least.
Having watched several of my own 5th grade classes – as well as my own son – go through DARE education, I think it’s a great program but misses a few key elements. (These may have been added in now – it’s been a few years.) We always spent a lot of time talking about recreational drinking, assuming kids would be with friends or at a party and would be facing peer pressure to drink. What wasn’t addressed was the number of kids experimenting with alcohol to try and navigate untreated mental health issues. Kids suffering from anxiety and depression sometimes reach for alcohol in an effort to get some relief. With the isolation of quarantine, this is even more of an issue now. It’s important to address ALL the reasons a child or teen might reach for alcohol in our talks with them.
If you’d like some help with collecting underage drinking facts, tips for your small talks and more, check out SmallTalksWI.org for support and information! Also be sure to download and print out the resources I’ve included throughout the post.