He was on an emotional rollercoaster, our late night visitor. It was well past bedtime, and yet everyone in the house was wide awake. Our parents had sent us to our rooms while they sat with him, offering coffee while hoping he wouldn’t turn belligerent. Trying to calm him down, talk it out.
It usually took place on a holiday, like Christmas. The men would be gathered around a fire and over a table with gin, beer, and pulutan, some kind of food they eat with their drinks. At first, there is laughter over loud jokes and physical comedy. Then people get past tipsy, and things take a turn toward something else.
He walked into the classroom with a limp. I asked him what was up. He whispered he had survived the last part of a fraternity’s initiation rites. I asked him what they did. He hesitated, then in an even lower voice explained how his future fraternity brothers beat the crap out of him. I was wide-eyed, unable to understand how getting beat up made one a “brother.” Out loud, I asked him how he took it. He grinned, “I was drunk.”
When I was a teenager, I swore off alcohol. [Well, except for tapuey or rice wine. It is ceremonial, a part of my culture.] But straight up gin and the like? Those were the reasons people made bad choices. Hadn’t I seen it happen with my own eyes? I wasn’t falling for it.
So I didn’t drink much at all in college. Actually, there were only two occasions when I did, and they weren’t anything to speak of.
Once, my roommates and I tried wine coolers. For that experience I was dubbed a “bad girl” who caused others “to stumble.” This, despite the fact it wasn’t my idea. Still, the image stuck.
I tried beer my senior year, because someone said it helped with menstrual cramps. I tried to be a big girl about it, but it was too bitter. Yuck.
Just before graduation, a few friends suggested we get drunk together. It was some form of initiation for me, because they knew I had never gotten drunk. I said thanks, but no thanks. I was already considered a bad influence on others, I had no wish to be condemned to hell.
I was in seminary when I took my first sip of wine. Oh, the irony. But I was with good friends, and the tipsy version of me entertained them so thoroughly they must have thought the cost of the wine was more than made up for.
I was married the first time I ever got drunk. My groom and I were hanging out with the same seminary friends, and I took a few more extra sips. Back home, according to the hubby’s sworn truth, I alternated between crying, laughing, and snoring. He was highly entertained as well.
I obviously cannot hold my alcohol.
Soon after getting married, we ended up as youth leaders at my husband’s home church. I didn’t drink alcohol after that. [Weeell, there was that one time when my cousin and I wanted to try this fancy looking drink, so we shared one. Our husbands reported we behaved ourselves quite admirably, and kept the giggling down as much as we could.]
But apart from that time, during the ten years or so we were serving at that church, we didn’t drink. It wasn’t something we wanted to expose our youth to, because we weren’t going to be at home with them wrestling through the issue. Our job then, we believed, was to discourage them from drinking. The intricacies of that should be something they talked about with their own parents at home.
Then my little ones got older.
The seasons of Sesame Street and purple dinosaurs [Thank you, Lord!] and I-don’t-care-if-it’s-hot-I-want-to-go-on-the-slide trips to the playground were over.
Those talks about the birds and the bees have been covered. Or rather, uncovered.
We’ve discussed bullies, and personal space, and stranger danger, and no-it’s-not-okay-to-punch-someone-even-if-they-make-you-turn-into-the-Hulk.
We’re on new territory now. And since we don’t try to shield them from the messy parts of life, they have a lot of springboards for tougher questions.
One springboard happened quite naturally.
When J, our older son, was much younger, he helped serve food to the homeless in DC. It was his first personal encounter with the effects of drinking—some of the people who lined up for a hot meal were behaving differently from what he was used to. It would be years later when we would actually address the problem of alcoholism. Still, it helped start the conversation.
By the time J was ready, I had grown enough to know that being honest about issues such as drinking and alcoholism is the only way to go. In fact, taking that default stand—just telling them drinking alcohol is a sin—will never work.
It didn’t work for some of the boys I grew up with in youth group and summer camps.
It didn’t work for family and friends.
It didn’t work for so many I knew back then.
I have no reason to think it will work with my boys.
Why? I’m no theologian, but I’m pretty convinced drinking isn’t a sin. I don’t care what freestanding verse you want to use to prove me otherwise. Drinking isn’t a sin, and the problem of alcoholism goes way deeper than just a bottle of wine. To be clear, I am not interested in joining the debate. I’m only trying to navigate this parenting job I have been given.
So J and I started talking about addiction, and how anything can become a problem when we abuse it. I told him stories and plodded on, despite that disbelieving look on his face.
I knew what he was thinking.
Just because others have a problem with it doesn’t mean I will too.
So I went there.
Just because you think you’re stronger doesn’t mean you are.
I gave him that talk I knew so well, about the dangers and the pitfalls and the consequences. But then I ended it differently.
I offered him a deal.
If he stayed away from alcohol in high school and college, his dad and I will will buy him a drink on his 21st birthday.
His aunt, my sister-in-law, upped the offer later. She would take him to Nashville and they’d get on one of those pedal bars…
And yet, I’m not done. I’m trying to build on that deal…
I pray my son grows in wisdom. I’m not going for behavior modification. I’m going for character, and part of that is the ability to make choices that benefit himself and others around him as well. Too many parents grieve because some drunk driver has taken away the life of a loved one. Heartbreaking does not cover it.
We try to model responsible drinking. Yes, I, the champion lightweight. Quite a risky move, but hey, I’ll try anything. To be honest, a bottle of wine lasts at least six months in my house, a fact I hope registers in my son’s brain for much longer than that.
I try not to make a big deal of the subject (but take every opportunity to talk about the consequences). When I was growing up, I always thought drinking was attractive because we kept getting told to stay away from it. It’s like that red flag to the proverbial bull. Teenagers will test the boundaries, including this one. So with my son, I decided to lay bare the mystery behind that adult activity one can only take part in once they reach legal age. Look, this is alcohol, and when you drink too much you wake up with a headache the next day. That’s it! Unconventional, sure. But like I said, I’ll try anything.
[Repeat when younger son hits the teenage years. Sigh.]
Jen Hatmaker, in her latest book “For the Love,” had this to say about postmoderns: “What many of us embraced as solid and certain seems condescending and exclusive to them. Values that felt trustworthy to some of us—authority, tradition, reason, logic, absolute truth—read like easily dismantled propaganda to postmoderns. Authority—parents, church leaders, government—has failed the next generation in profound ways. Postmoderns will not swallow ideology just because someone said it tastes good. Cynicism is often their obstacle, but it also protects their hearts from further betrayal. They can sniff a sham a mile away.”
My sons are postmoderns in every way—prepackaged answers to the big matters of life won’t work with them.
It’ll take a lot of grit and honesty when we’re trekking a slippery slope, watching them trying to come to terms with a question that might not have an answer this side of heaven. The husband and I are running scared, but we show up nonetheless. They know we don’t have all the answers. But we’ve gone a few rounds together by now, and they know we’re in it for the long haul.