ESSAY- At home: You teach your child to drink

Research shows that there are fewer alcohol-related car accidents in countries with a drinking age of 21.

But America's 21-year-old threshold– which no European country emulates– certainly does not guarantee safe drinking. Indeed, in some ways it seems to create more dangers.

Consider the 21st birthday celebration– and death– of Amanda Jax in Mankato, Minnesota. To celebrate her birthday, Jax had two beers at home before consuming a pitcher of Long Island Ice Tea, five shots, two more beers, and a mix of cherry vodka and an energy drink at a bar. Jax passed out and threw up several times in her sleep before friends found her dead in the morning.

The young woman's family recently sued the bar and her friends for causing her death.

When the tragedy occurred last November, Minnesota State University (Mankato) officials rushed into action a plan to combat underage drinking on campus. This is the predictable reaction whenever such a death occurs.

Unfortunately, this plan has several obvious drawbacks that undermine its potential effectiveness– most notably in the case that prompted it. First, Jax was a former, and not a current, student. If we are to learn anything from her death, it might be that a school connection diminishes the worst kind of unrestrained drinking, since students have daily obligations like attending classes and studying.

The recommendation based on this aspect of Jax's case is to encourage young people to maintain goals and to actively pursue them. To the extent that their lives are untethered and purposeless, they leave themselves open to alcoholic and other excesses.

The second problem with the University's plan to combat the extensive underage drinking on campuses around the country is even simpler– Jax was not underage. Indeed, it was to celebrate achieving the age of alcohol maturity that she drank herself to death.

If campuses should be combating anything, it's such dangerous celebrations. (The University is also addressing these rituals.) But, after being exposed to alcohol throughout their lives, what will prevent young people from giddily over-imbibing when they can do so legally? No policy can remove the symbolic importance surrounding such an event and the desire many young people will have to over-imbibe as a result.

What could retire the 21st birthday bash would be, of course, to allow young people to drink carefully before they reach this age. But America, alone among Western countries, has decided to forbid this.

It thus remains for parents to deal with drinking before sending their children off to college. The questions for parents to ask themselves are, "Where and when will my children first drink?" and "Who will teach them to drink?"

If the answers to the first question are at a college party or weekend furlough from the military, and to the second, fellow fraternity or sorority members and other young soldiers away from home for the first time, parents might be alarmed. These are not wine-sipping casual encounters with the substance.

But somehow American youth must mark this rite of passage, since 90 percent will consume alcohol by age 21. To say how it should not take place without specifying a method for it actually to occur is not good parenting. The suit by Jax's parents suggests we leave education about life-and-death issues to bars and to our children's friends. But isn't this the height of parental irresponsibility?

Stanton Peele, a psychologist and an attorney, is the author of Addiction-Proof Your Child (Three Rivers Press, 2007).