How Old Is Old Enough?

John and Mary are 19. This summer they will marry and work part time to pay college tuition. They vote, drive and sign contracts. John, in the National Guard, may go to Afghanistan. But he and Mary cannot share beers with college pals. Mary’s brother Rick has a scholarship. On weekends, his buddies hit fraternity parties, prowl bars with fake ID’s or, before a dry campus event, drink to excess at a private party. His honors thesis mentor will take him to dinner, but no glass of wine. Something is wrong.

Alcohol is a creature. As St. Ignatius Loyola says in the Spiritual Exercises, we should use creatures insofar as they help attain one’s end. In moderation a drink can be a help to fellowship. In the film “Of Gods and Men,” the monks in Algeria who are about to be martyred pass the wine at table. But used irresponsibly, alcohol ruins lives.


In 1984, influenced by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which imposed a penalty of 10 percent of a state’s federal highway appropriation on any state that set the minimum drinking age lower than 21. The states complied, and drunk driving deaths of young people significantly declined. But this decline may also be attributable to stricter drunk-driving laws, seat belt laws and information campaigns against drinking and driving. Prior to 1984 a number of states agreed that since at 18 the young become legally adults, they should be free to drink alcoholic beverages. For those 18 to 21, however, the Minimum Drinking Age Act—aimed at a relatively small percentage of their generation, the drunk drivers—restricted this freedom for all.

Other effects followed the legislation. In reaction to the law or other changes in the culture, drinking began earlier, in suburban high schools, at 14. Drinking by the young went underground, on the youth culture’s private turf, in fraternity houses and off-campus apartments. Vomiting, fights and cutting class on Mondays increased.

Posters in colleges counseled “moderate” drinking; shuttle buses toured bar districts to scoop up tipsy students; drunk students who called for help were given amnesty. Unlike their predecessors, students were binge drinking (five beers at a time, repeated over several days) deliberately to get drunk. Statistics on alcohol-related student deaths vary. Studies conducted between 2000 and 2005 counted the average annual “alcohol-related” deaths among 12 milliion students as between 36 and 1,400. Whatever the true death rate, the ban on alcohol made it a forbidden fruit, a challenge to autonomy. By 1999 a growing number of university professors and administrators decided the law was not working.

In a laudable attempt to reduce drunk driving deaths among the young, have lawmakers created other problems? Do young people drink irresponsibly at least in part because the strict prohibition has also blocked an opportunity to learn from the prudent example of adults the proper role of alcohol? Since so many of the young drink already, are there not ways to encourage responsible drinking without a forced wait until the somewhat arbitrary date of their 21st birthday?

Do drinking laws separate freshmen from seniors who could be positive role models? Do they inhibit teachers’ informal relationships with students? Meanwhile, other research has shown that students in living-learning communities—residence halls organized around academic interests, with quality peer and faculty interaction—drink as often as their peers, but consume significantly less.

In 2008 a group of college presidents led by John McCardell, emeritus president of Middlebury College, formed the Amethyst Initiative (Greek for “not intoxicated”), a statement that the age-21 law is “not working” and that its unintended consequences are increasing the risks for young people. It does not advocate a specific drinking age but calls for creative rethinking of the 24-year-old prohibition. One hundred thirty-six presidents, including 13 from Catholic colleges, of which three are Jesuit, signed.

The dialogue has raged for over a decade in The Chronicle for Higher Education, student newspapers and on “60 Minutes.” Alternative proposals include: plan more living-learning communities; issue a provisional drinking license, after formal instruction and an exam, that allows the holder to drink at limited times and places; lower the minimum age to 19 rather than 18; break the fraternity system, the source of much abuse; raise the minimum driving age to 17; and serve only 3.2 percent beer in college pubs. State legislatures might allow select colleges to experiment with on-campus supervised drinking.

For those who listen to the college-age voices, one message is clear. They want to be treated as adults. The challenge is to find legal and cultural solutions that respect student maturity and welfare as well as the aims of higher education.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
C Walter Mattingly
7 years 8 months ago
Having grown up in the "tolerant" city of New Orleans, we were not required to wait until we were 21, or 18 for that matter, to begin using alchohol- irresponsibly, for the most part. The cultural outlook was laissez les bons temps rouler. 
Gene Szarek
7 years 8 months ago
The article is excellent. Another point I have noticed, while traveling in Europe, is that persons under 21 tend to drink much more responsibly than college-age youth in the States. Could it be that they sipped wine with parents, siblings, uncles and aunts, thereby learning from an early age the social values of moderate drinking, rather than using alcohol to get themselves (or others) intoxicated? America's drinking-age laws, it seems to me, tend to have young people drinking anyway, but without the salutary advantages of doing so with responsible adults.
Winifred Holloway
7 years 8 months ago
Three of our children are alums of Middlebury College and I remember the converstations around this topic while they were there.  It was said, that when the drinking age was 18, students would wander from campus on foot, down to the local pub and have a couple of beers and wander back.  My eldest son, I think put it well, when he, a non-drinker, said that if you knew you could have a drink when you felt like it, he thought it less likely that a lost weekend would occur on a friday night drinking binge.  Instead, the drinking age was raised to 21, the small local bars closed for lack of business and the students went elsewhere on weekends (in cars!) to drink.
William Atkinson
7 years 8 months ago
Interesting, same said for military, guys and gals, train, live and die for their country, but are considered common crimminals cause they inbide in a drink or so, such hypocracy, its a wonder that there is no respect for american law, and there is the whole problem of smoking drug induced additives cigaretts in U.S. government supported corporate tobacco industry which kills far more citizens than does alchohol...
7 years 8 months ago
Good piece.  Children learn to be responsible drinkers at home, no other place.  I think the perfect time and place to introduce alcoholic beverages is at a sit down Sunday dinner when every member of the family is present!  The context (setting) is very important here,  it should be a family gathering/celebration of whatever, it could be big feast days, such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, or dad's promotion, etc.  Allowing children to sip some wine at Sunday dinner can I believe demystify alcoholic drinking.  I'm sure many won't even like the taste!   Note: by children, I mean 12-13 years old.
Marie Rehbein
7 years 8 months ago
I never understood how legal adults could be deprived of the right to purchase alcohol.  The reason for this prohibition is to keep alcohol out of the hands of the under-18's because they could look like 18 year olds, and of course, carry fake id's saying they are 18.  Whether teenagers under 18 are consuming less alcohol than they were before the prohibition should be determined.  It should also be determined whether they have substituted recreational drug use for alcohol consumption or if more of them are substance free these days.
Jim Lein
7 years 8 months ago
In 1958 when I was 18 I could legally drink in Wisconsin.  When I went to college in Minnesota I had to doctor my driver's license to drink there. When we moved to North Dakota in 1977, the drinking age was 21, but was 18 on the nearby Air Base.  Then it was changed to 21 in the military.   

I agree responsible drinking, not no drinking until 21, should be the goal.  Most people do some drinking.  They need to learn how to do it responsibly and safely.  Certainly this learning process should start before 21.  Doing all we can to prevent contact with alcohol for 18 to 20 year olds is not only futile but dangerous.  If this prevention is successful, the 21 year old may drink himself or herself to death downing shots on their 21st birthday. 

Age 18, particularly for those in college or the military, seems a good starting point, with earlier drinking opportunities within the family.  In ND, however, I think it is illegal for anyone under 21 to drink, even in their own home or the home of their parents.  I remember the teeny glass of Mogan David each of us kids had at the Thanksgiving meal.  ND police are not raiding family Thanksgiving meals but they could.  How stupid would that be?

One last comment: When my wife's uncle Ted first heard of the group MADD, he said he was forming a new group, DAMM, or Drunks Against Mad Mothers. 

Jim Lein
7 years 8 months ago
I think it must be unconstitutional to prevent, based solely on their age, a group of adults from doing what all other adults can legally do.  Not only does current law forbid 18-20 year old adults from drinking, it bars them from working as bartenders or wait persons who serve drinks.  We changed the voting age from 21 to 18, and in many states changed the drinking age from 18 to 21.  What were we thinking?  Or smoking?   
David Smith
7 years 8 months ago
"For those who listen to the college-age voices, one message is clear. They want to be treated as adults."

This is a country that defines pornography as "adult".  The owners of these college-age voices don't want to be treated as adults, they want to be indulged, to be legally allowed to be obnoxious in public and destroy their livers.  To them, that's "adult" behavior.  Americans remain children at least until they're in their thirties.  And children will behave foolishly.  You can pass laws outlawing foolishness, but they'll just lead you to prisons full of superannuated children.
Cathy Stamper
7 years 8 months ago
I agree with this article. My eighteen year old son and his friends will go to college this fall and I am sure they will drink there, yet I could be arrested if any of these young men had a glass of wine with dinner at my home, or drank a few beers while eating crabs on my deck this summer. This would be such a great time for them to learn to drink like adults. Instead they will probably do what I did (we were the first class to graduate under the new law of "21" in my state). We drank as much as we possibly could when we could get our hands on alcohol! I would rather my children learn moderation at home than bingeing on campus. 
7 years 7 months ago

Perhaps America editors could become better acquainted with relevant scientific conclusions, i.e., "...the preponderance of research indicates that the legal drinking age of 21 has had positive effects on health and safety." (

Please see this summary: Minimum Legal Drinking Age -

jerry januszewski
7 years 7 months ago
The writer of this piece asserts that legislation raising the drinking age to 21 was followed by a significant increase in "underground" drinking, earlier onset of age beginning drinking, and a sharp increase in binge drinking.  I would like to know what data these assertions are based on.  

The research I have seen suggests the opposite: the more barriers to access to alcohol, the less alcohol is consumed.  Same for the tired "forbidden fruit" argument which, if it has any influence on the initial choice to drink, has no logical or necessary connection to sustained binge drinking patterns.  To suggest that binge drinking wasn't rampant, even epidemic, on college campuses when the drinking age was 18 is ludicrous.
Vanessa Landry
7 years 7 months ago
When I was very young, my family used to give me a sip of wine in a small crystal glass every year on my birthday.  While technically illegal (though less illegal than it is today) This went on until around age 12, when I asked for this to STOP.  I did not like the taste of alcohol, and therefore, it became a burden in my mind. SO right around the time other kids were starting to talk about drinking... I was sick of it.

Just one little sip a year!  That's it!

During high school, I did not feel tempted to go on the secret drinking binges that many of my peers partook in. I thought the price of admission (the taste) was too terrible to comtemplate, and besides, I'd seen drunken relatives at distant family gatherings. Who needed that?  I did not even think of drinking until my 21st birthday, which I (For complex reasons) spent in a hospital  with family,instead.
So, it started even later than that. By then, I was opertating as my friend's reminder to be moderate
and the party's designated driver. To this day, I am not fond of bars or anything involving drunkenness.

I will grant that I was not a typical child, but my experiences do support what is here.  I argue, that, while there may be fewer teen deaths, if you look at the corrisponding deaths of, say 21 year olds, you will find the numbers roughly equivalent. People now just mature more slowly, because they don't have the opportunity to take responsability for their own actions.  If we lowered the drinking age, (if I were a betting woman) I'd invest money on the idea that the unspoken age that one can rent a car (that would be *25*) would also go down corrispondingly. Why? Because the relative maturity of the drivers would go up earlier in life overall.

However, I also think that this is but a symptom of a disease in American culture. This would be the attempt to reclaim Eden by denying adulthood for as long as possible. I believe that teens would behave far more maturely and rationally if we considered them what they are... adults.  IF they had to take responsability for their own actions, then they would start becoming more dependible and sane generally.

For starters, I think teenagers should start getting more responsabilities by the time they are 16. IF we (Fed Gov) are going to let them choose whether or not to tell their parents about decisions that could affect the rest of their lives,  why not let them go to prison as adults for crimes they commit, as well? If they want that adult responsability to become parents themselves, why not earn it?  Perhaps then abstinince of any number of agrivating behaviors would be a more popular option!

As it is, they know that they are technically adults, but they still have the experience of children. Treating them as children will not help them grow up any faster, and they know that. So that, I believe, is where all this rebellion and rage is coming from.

Changing the drinking age does not mean that alcoholism will go away.  As long as there is booze and humans, there will be drunks.  All we can do is hope to minimize the instances, give people the opportunity to be responsable (using subsidiarity logic, that would be parents and worked on a community level), and provide good role models to responsable behavior. We've seen what banning risky substances brings.  Passing laws doesn't make something true, nor make illicit behavior cease, and it  never will.


The latest from america

The church is my home because my home was a domestic church.
Katie Prejean McGradyJanuary 22, 2019
Teachers and supporters hold signs in the rain during a rally on Jan. 14 in Los Angeles. Thousands of Los Angeles teachers went on strike for the first time in three decades after contract negotiations failed in the nation's second-largest school district. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
Strikes have likewise been prominent in Canada’s southern neighbor over the last year. Teachers in West Virginia made national headlines when strikes across the state won higher wages from a Republican governor and legislature
Dean DettloffJanuary 22, 2019
This year’s W.Y.D takes place less than three months after the conclusion of the Synod for Young People that was held in the Vatican last October.
Gerard O’ConnellJanuary 21, 2019
On Jan. 18, a teenager wearing a "Make America Great Again" hat, center left, stands in front of an elderly Native American singing and playing a drum in Washington. (Survival Media Agency via AP)

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- An exchange between Catholic high school students and a Native American tribal leader in Washington Jan.