Undue emphasis should not be placed on the finding in the National Parents' Council survey that only 15 per cent of parents got it right when asked to guess the extent of underage drinking in the country. Most parents of teenagers are too immersed in the drama of family life to have the time or the energy to become statistical experts on social issues, even those concerning teenagers in general. The survey, conducted by Dr Mark Morgan of St Patrick's College for the National Parents' Council-Post Primary and sponsored by the Cider Industry Council, provides a picture of the relationship between parents and children which is, by and large, positive.
When asked, for instance, what could be done to combat underage drinking, parents opted for a non-coercive approach, stressing communication and good example in particular. They suggested that schools could help their children avoid underage drinking by boosting their self esteem. The attitude of today's parents towards their young teenagers appears, from this survey at any rate, to be one in which they see their children as people in their own right with an entitlement to having things discussed with them and that they see the ideal relationship as one of mutual respect. The cynic may assert that the assertiveness of today's teenagers leaves their parents with little option but the cynic rarely sees the full picture.
It appears from the survey that it is not so much the drinking as the inappropriate behaviour it may spark that most concerns parents. Underage drinking in unsupervised places also worries parents for reasons that are obvious to anyone. But only five per cent of parents had concerns about underage drinking which took place in their presence, according to Dr Morgan. Indeed, half the parents surveyed are in favour of this practice. It is safe, one trusts, to assume that parents are referring here to 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds having a glass of wine with a meal and not to 10-year-olds throwing back cans of lager. In other words, there is a culture growing up of civilised drinking and of that being regarded as a good thing.
A culture of civilised drinking is certainly a better thing than the portrayal of drinking as a prerequisite to social success and to achievement, as it is too often portrayed by the drinks industry. Perhaps what is of greatest importance as regards young people and drink is that drinking should never come to be seen by them as a way of solving their problems. Drink, as we know, is often implicated in depression and in many damaged relationships.
Thus, teaching young people effective ways of coping with the many and inevitable difficulties they face is an important part of a strategy to mitigate the harm that can be done by underage drinking; just as it is an important part of the strategy to combat suicide and depression. But so too, as the parents in this survey point out, is the provision of alternative activities and pastimes for young people. Many Irish towns can boast a quite remarkable number of public houses. How many can boast a quite remarkable number of alternative amenities?